Boerum Hill

Community: Broken commitments at supersized Atlantic Ave. jail in Brooklyn

More inmates, less parking, fewer mental health beds

October 23, 2023 Mary Frost
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The design of the planned $3 billion Brooklyn Detention Center, at the site of the 70-year-old now-shuttered facility at 275 Atlantic Ave., has changed since an agreement was hammered out between the de Blasio administration and the community in 2019 — to the detriment of both the community and the inmates, residents and officials say.

Over the course of two public workshops and a presentation at Brooklyn’s Community Board 2, a number of changes have become apparent. 

These include: 

– Increased height from a max of 295 feet plus mechanicals to 337 feet plus mechanicals.

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– Increased number of beds from 886 bed to 1,040.

– Number of therapeutic, mental health beds has been reduced from 40% to 20%.

– Parking spaces cut from 292 to 100. 

– Reduced tunnels connecting to the courts from two to one.

– With an increase in arrests and incarceration, the city doesn’t seem to have a coherent plan to address underlying causes. 

– $3 billion cost — possibly the most expensive building in the U.S.

Architect’s rendering of the proposed new Brooklyn Detention Center, as seen from the Atlantic Avenue side. Rendering: DOC

‘Putting the cart before the horse’

Residents told the Brooklyn Eagle that they support the idea of a “new and humane jail” to replace the old one, but the scale and density of the proposed complex — at 712,150-square-feet —  is out of context with the low-rise surrounding brownstone neighborhood.

“The city says it’s in Downtown Brooklyn, but it’s not, it’s in Boerum Hill,” said Sandy Balboza, of the advocacy group Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association. “Someone said that it’s going to be 15 stories tall. I don’t know how they got that. It’s up to 337 feet, plus mechanicals on top of that.” The jail’s height and density will overwhelm the community, and issues of traffic and logistics haven’t been addressed, she said.

More importantly, “working on the architectural details of an oversized building” that doesn’t solve the city’s massively dysfunctional criminal justice system is “putting the cart before the horse,” Balboza said.

“The reforms to the dysfunctional Department of Corrections (DOC) should have been done first, along with focusing on putting resources directly in the communities,” she said. “Half of the current jail population have varied degrees of mental health issues, and many require treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. They should not be in a jail environment.”  

Rendering of the southwest view of the proposed new jail on Atlantic Avenue. Rendering: DOC

City’s ‘Commitment Tracker’ still has original commitments 

The city broke its negotiated promises — and possibly the ULURP, said Justin Pollock, a member of Brooklyn’s Borough-Based Jail Neighborhood Advisory Committee (BBJ NAC).  “We’ve been working on these issues since 2018 when the Borough-Based Jail plan was announced,” he said.

“The city and the ULURP call for a building that is 295-feet maximum with an additional 40 feet of mechanicals,” he said. The latest presentation, however, showed a jail that was 14% taller than the city committed to. “In the CB2 presentation, they are claiming that the maximum height is 337 feet plus 40 feet of mechanicals.  This contradicts the city’s own commitments documented on their website.” 

Pollock said the city also reneged on its firm commitment for 292 parking spaces — reducing the number to 100 — and eliminated what he considers a crucial second tunnel to the courts.

The scale of the brownstone neighborhood next to the proposed Brooklyn Detention Center. Diagram: DOC

The parking spaces are necessary to combat the “rampant illegal parking around the neighborhood by DOC and court officers,” Pollock said. 

Two tunnels to the courts are needed “to remove street level NYPD detainee transfers from State Street,” he said. “In the past, we have had a number of incidents of detainees escaping custody.  One even required the lockdown of all neighborhood schools.”

Since DOC detainees and NYPD detainees can’t commingle, the de Blasio administration and City Council added a second tunnel under State street to the plan, and included NYPD parking within the jail, Pollock said.

Rendering of the southeast view of the proposed new jail on Atlantic Avenue. Rendering: DOC

The city’s Commitment Tracker website states, among other promises, “POA Commitment: The final approved maximum building height is 295 feet and the maximum density is a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 11.9.” It also commits to “292 accessory parking spaces for DOC staff and authorized service providers.”

Pollock rejected the city’s claim, made at last week’s CB2 meeting, that the cutbacks were made because of costs.

At more than $3 billion, “The new Brooklyn jail is the most expensive building being built in the United States and possibly the world,” he said.  “It is disingenuous for them to say that budget cuts caused them to break the promises to the people of Brooklyn and New York.”

The former Brooklyn Detention Center at 275 Atlantic Ave. in Boerum Hill is being demolished to make room for a controversial, $3 billion replacement. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Restler: City needs to address criminal justice system problems first

“In 2019, our community supported and negotiated an agreement with the City Council and the Mayor’s office to close Rikers and build borough-based jails. Already, however, we are seeing significant changes from what was agreed upon just a few years ago,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler told the Eagle. 

Restler said he appreciates that the NYC Department of Design and Construction “is actively engaging with the public on designing features such as public plazas, dynamic ground-floor uses and bright and light exteriors. We’ve had an ugly jail building there my whole life. We need a design that is more in sync with the Boerum Hill community. But it’s not just about the design. I care deeply about the humanity of the people inside. Fifty-four percent of Rikers inmates today have mental health designations. At least 40% of this jail was supposed to be designed to meet the needs of people with mental illness, but now it’s just 20%. The Adams administration slashed the number of therapeutic beds in half while increasing the jail’s population by 17%.” 

The original agreement “was reasonable to me,” Restler said. “Rikers is such a stain on our city; 28 people have died there since the beginning of the Adams administration. But the plan that was painstakingly negotiated has been changed. The new administration has different priorities. Under Mayor Adams, there has been a substantial increase in summonses, arrests, and adults incarcerated, and there are two times as many kids in jail over just two years. But the Mayor’s office has not sought our community’s input on criminal justice policy changes relating to this jail. And we have much work to do to get them to listen to us.” 

The secure sally port on the State Street side of the former Brooklyn Detention Center is partially demolished. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Lippman Commission 2.0

The Borough-Based Jail Plan was devised by the Lippman Commission (led by NYS former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman) in 2017. The plan was to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with four smaller jails, in every borough except Staten Island. 

There are currently more than 6,000 people in DOC custody, but the planned capacity of the four borough-based jails is only 3,300, according to Comptroller Brad Lander. And the Brooklyn jail is at least two years behind schedule (to be completed by 2029 at the earliest).

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced last week that she would be bringing back the Commission.

Demolition can be seen at the rear of the former Brooklyn Detention Center, 275 Atlantic Ave. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

“I’m proud to reappoint a renewed Independent Rikers Commission that will bring stakeholders together towards getting the plan to close Rikers back on course and helping ensure it finally closes,” Speaker Adams said in a statement. “It is clear that Rikers is not serving New Yorkers and continues to undermine public safety in our city.” 

“I am appreciative that Speaker Adams is planning to reconvene the Lippman commission to get the plan to close Rikers back on track,” Restler said.

“The whole concept of massive urban jail towers is obsolete,” Balboza said. She hopes the city takes this opportunity to look at rebuilding Rikers as a modern “campus” jail, connected to the city by the ferry system. 

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