Boerum Hill

After rough demolition of Brooklyn’s old jail, city promises to do better on building new one

March 28, 2024 Mary Frost
The demolition of the former Brooklyn jail at 275 Atlantic Ave. is nearly complete.
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BOERUM HILL — It was a tough crowd at Tuesday night’s virtual community meeting with the city and Tutor Perini, the contractor who will be building the new 15-story borough-based jail at 275 Atlantic Ave. in Boerum Hill.  

Residents’ nerves were already frazzled by the six-month demolition carried out by NorthStar Contracting Group — which brought building-jarring vibrations, worrisome dust and traffic congestion.

Roughly 140 people attended the meeting. Adding to the mix were dozens of disrupters who were against the idea of building the jail at all, labeling it an expansion of the the city’s intrinsically racist jail system. The “chat” section was filled with pleas to stop the project and invective against the city and its various representatives, including meeting cohost Lauren Micir, an Associate in Urbanism and Planning at AECOM New York, and Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who has made clear his support for the borough-based jail plan and the closure of Rikers.

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The Brooklyn Detention Complex located on Atlantic Avenue prior to demolition. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

Micir said she wanted to hear from local community members with questions and comments about the construction of the jail. “I’m aware that some people are trying to disrupt this process. We’re not here tonight to have that debate.” 

The new facility is one of four new borough-based jails set to replace Rikers. (The others will be located in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.) The new jail will have 1,040 beds, up from 886 beds as originally planned. It is running two years behind schedule — while Rikers was originally slated to close in 2027, the Brooklyn jail will not be completed until at least 2029.

 “While I am supportive of the borough-based jail plan, and the closure of Rikers, the construction process has gotten off to a bumpy start at 275 Atlantic Ave.,” Restler said. “I am disappointed by how the city and contractors handled the demolition process and have made abundantly clear to them that they have to do better moving forward, and need to improve the noise and vibration, mitigation and coordination with the community.” 

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

Promise to do better with construction 

“We have heard the concerns from the community,” Domenico Tornatore, project manager at Tutor Perini told online participants. He acknowledged that the process of demolishing the old jail has been “rocky,” and promised residents to put in place numerous mitigation measures during Phase 1of the construction, which starts in April. “We hope to start a new leaf,” Tornatore said.

Phase 1 includes preparing the site, installing monitoring devices, geotechnical investigations and support of excavation (SOE) in order to minimize impact on the surrounding buildings, utilities and streets. 

Tornatore played videos demonstrating the difference between the very loud racket resulting from pile driving vs. the reduced noise from the equipment the contractors plan to use for the excavation. “It’s not pile driving,” he emphasized.

Tasos Papathanasiou, a principal at the project management subcontractor Langan, said the project monitoring plan goes beyond the standard 90-foot requirement. Monitors will measure noise and air quality, along with building movement, vibrations and cracks. Dust will be suppressed with water, additives and barriers.

Results will be published on the Borough-Based Jail website once a month, and work will be stopped and corrected if standards are exceeded, Papathanasiou promised.

Justin Pollock pointed out that the plan to reduce Smith Street (a truck route) to a single lane plus bus lane during jail construction will be problematic. “We’ve already had incidents with trucks having a reduced turning radius going into the Atlantic intersection and taking out scaffolding and pedestrian crossing signaling,” he noted. Pollock provided this photo of one such incident to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Traffic worries a major concern

Tornatore said the plan includes taking over several traffic and bike lanes on streets surrounding the construction site.

– On Boerum Place, these include the parking lane, bike lane and courthouse parking. The pedestrian walkway will be moved into the street.

– The right lane on State street and the parking lane on Smith Street will be taken over as well.

 – The sidewalk on Atlantic Avenue will be reduced in width from 15 feet to 5 feet, and the bus stops will be relocated.

 But Justin Pollock, a member of Brooklyn’s Borough-Based Jail Neighborhood Advisory Committee, pointed out that Smith Street is a truck route, with trucks turning off from Atlantic onto Smith. “So you are reducing it to a single lane and the bus lane. We’ve already had incidents with trucks having a reduced turning radius going into the Atlantic intersection and taking out scaffolding and pedestrian crossing signaling and such.”

 Tornatore said the truck route had already been evaluated. “But point well taken, and we will just get back and confirm that.”

 Pollock also expressed concern about where the construction workers on the project would park. Tornatore said the company would encourage craft workers to take mass transit, and look into renting nearby parking garages.

 Residents and architects Jill and John Bouratoglou also brought up the traffic issue, describing a bottleneck at Smith Street and Atlantic Avenue. “There are already gridlocks,” Jill said, adding that a six-story building would soon be going up on Boerum Place between Dean and Pacific streets. “How is traffic going to come off the Bridge?”

Boerum Hill resident Sean Robertson pointed out that Smith Street is a major bike route, but construction debris on the street makes the route hazardous. “Crud in the street physically endangers bikers. It’s a fundamental safety issue,” he said.

Lucas Hulleberg wants the contractor to install vibration sensors on his Pacific Street building before constructing the new jail at 275 Atlantic Ave. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Extended hours concerns

“The extended work hours have been extremely disruptive to our students,” said Colette Rogers, VP of Operations at Brooklyn Law School. “This is their future and they need a quiet place to study. Are there opportunities to stop work or reduce work hours a week before the bar exam?”

Micir responded that the contractor would provide advance notice of extended hours, but “… as much as we would like to accommodate the students … I don’t want to overpromise.”

Pollock also weighed in on after-hours work. “Because the demolition crew had to hit their schedule, we lost three weekends,” he said, noting that the city’s PowerPoint presentation said that after-hours variances could be based on productivity management, scheduling constraints or making up time. “That’s kind of like, we can do whatever we want,” he said. “Can we get a guarantee that it is more for things like extended-concrete pours, or something like you have to have something delivered over the weekend?”

City Councilmember Lincoln Restler.
City Councilmember Lincoln Restler. Photo: Beth Eisgrau-Heller/Brooklyn Eagle

“You know we have a schedule to meet. We are trying to be conscious of trying to build this project on time,” Tornatore replied. “Now there are going to be times we are going to have to contend with weather. We may have a week’s worth of time when operations have to shut down.”

“We can’t give guarantees tonight,” Micir added. “We’re very well aware of the community’s frustration. Let’s give TBC a chance to get started on this work, see how it’s going.”

Restler said he was intent on working with neighbors to limit after-hours and weekend work as much as possible. Current work hours during the ongoing demolition are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday – Friday, and 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturdays. 

This graphic shows that environmental monitoring will extend beyond the required 90-foot mark, according to jail contractor Tutor Perini. Graphic: NYC Dept. of Design and Construction

‘We’ve been stonewalled’

Sandy Balboza, of the advocacy group Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, said she had worries about the potentially hazardous dust from the demolition. “It’s demolition material — crushed brick, glass — that we shouldn’t be breathing” she said.

She also felt the city wasn’t playing straight with residents. “We’ve been stonewalled the whole time,” she said. “When you give advance notice that you’re going to violently shake a whole building, that’s not what we are looking for.”

She added that construction workers illegally parked their cars on Atlantic Avenue, hurting small businesses, and don’t feed the meters.

 “This building will cost $3 billion,” wrote Boerum Hill Association President Howard Kolins in the chat section. “How much new funding will the city be spending on new programs for education, diversion, mental health, supportive housing and an expanded court system over the next five years … the next 10 years? This question should be answered before a shovel goes into the ground.”

A summary of Phase 1 work planned for the new Brooklyn Detention Center. Graphic: NYC Dept. of Design and Construction

‘More questions than answers’

 Lori Richmond, who lives across the street from the construction site, told the Eagle following the meeting that she appreciated Tutor Perini’s willingness to meet with the community, but hopes the construction goes better than the demolition did. 

“DDC’s performative non-responses left me with more questions than answers. It is crystal clear they do not have a realistic plan for the significant traffic impacts and traffic safety issues that will result in the surrounding area,” Richmond said.

“They completely skirted the issue of the after-hours variances,” Richmond added. “The city legally must close Rikers by 2027 and their construction plan is already pushed back to 2029 … We can all do the math on where the extra time will come from.”

 

Put sensors on Pacific

 Lucas Hulleberg is on the co-op board of his Pacific Street building, a short block away from the construction site. He said he wants the contractor to install sensors on his building even though it is not directly next to the jail site.

 “I remember coming home one day and there was a very violent shaking of the entire building,” he told the Eagle on Tuesday. “That was five or six months ago, and that has continued throughout. I would love for them to put more sensors outside of the immediate one single block area that they are looking at.”

He added, “At this point, I just want there to be better communication to the community in terms of what’s going to be done. It’s been really difficult to get information, answers and access to the data, or to place a request for additional sensors to be put through. The lack of communication has been frustrating for a lot of community members.”

Rikers Island complex
A recent snapshot of the jail complex at Rikers Island. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

‘Moral imperative’ to close Rikers

 Restler told the Eagle following the meeting that he was deeply concerned about the changes made to the original jail plan.

 “There has been a 17% expansion in the number of beds and a slashing of the therapeutic beds by half, a 2/3 reduction in parking spaces, and modifications of the planned sally port and tunnel. These changes are deeply concerning and undermine the core goals of the original plan and the commitments made to the community,” he said.

“Despite all that, there is a moral imperative to close Rikers, which has been a humanitarian disaster. Just this week 700 women filed a complaint against correction officers charging them with sexual abuse,” Restler said. “Rikers is a stain on our city’s conscience. About 30 people have died in Department of Corrections custody on Rikers during the Adams administration.

“The borough-based jail plan is not perfect, and there are changes I hope the mayor makes to improve it, but my resolve to see Rikers closed as soon as possible is firm,” he said.


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