By David Brand and Noah Goldberg
Advocates and opponents of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island and build four new jails will pack City Hall for the council’s public hearing on the proposal Sept. 5. That’s also the first day of public school for hundreds of thousands of New York City students, and stakeholders say the hearing date could pose a big obstacle to community engagement.
The hearing will take place during a scheduled meeting of the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses. A City Council spokesperson told the Eagle that it is expected to be the only hearing on the topic.
“Since the issue of closing Rikers and opening ‘borough-based’ jails is one of the most controversial issues of our time, I’m expecting a very crowded hearing, a very passionate hearing,” said Councilmember Adrienne Adams, the subcommittee’s chair.
“Most importantly, the people who are impacted one way or the other by the city’s jails need to be heard,” Adams continued. “I still believe the communities should have a voice in the decision.”
Some community members and activists say setting the hearing for the first day of school is the latest maneuver to reduce community input in a process that opponents have criticized for lacking transparency.
“Why would you push the calendar for that week with that schedule?” said Justin Pollock, a resident of Boerum Hill who lives near the site of the proposed 395-foot facility in Brooklyn. “It adds to the disrespect that this process has had for the general public.”
No New Jails organizer Kei Williams, a jail plan opponent, said the “monumental decision” before the council necessitates multiple public hearings on dates that are more convenient than the hectic first day of school.
The council hearing will also take place just two days after the City Planning Commission casts its binding vote on the plan Sept. 3, the deadline established by the city’s Universal Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. If the CPC votes against the land-use application, it would not proceed to the council, but that is considered unlikely.
The city’s plan calls for building a new 1,150-bed jail in every borough except Staten Island by 2026, and depends on the city’s ability to reduce the jail population to 4,000 detainees from a current total of roughly 6,500.
The CPC can make modifications to the plan, such as permitting smaller facilities with fewer beds. That means the version that reaches the council could differ from the plan put forth by the city. But the final decisions rest with the council, meaning any changes made to the proposal by CPC could be reversed in the final stage of the land use process.
Williams said the tight time frame could make it difficult to evaluate the impact of any new changes.
“The one public hearing is scheduled … before the public will have had a chance to digest the Planning Commission's vote or comment on further changes to this ever-evolving plan that the City Council will not vote on until October,” Williams said.
Supporters of the city jail plan say community members will find a way to have their voices heard, even if the hearing date seems inconvenient.
“People with records do not always have traditional schedules and hearings in both the mornings and evenings have posed a challenge in the past, but #CLOSErikers leaders are determined to be heard,” said JustLeadershipUSA NYC Campaign Coordinator Brandon J. Holmes.
For her part, Adams, the subcommittee chair, said she had no say in scheduling the hearing.
“I’m told what the date is. I have no decision-making where the dates are concerned, much less this one,” she said.
Council officials said senior staff set the meeting dates and decided to schedule the Sept. 5 hearing after learning about the CPC’s plan to vote Sept. 3. Under land-use law, the council has 50 days to vote following the CPC decision.
“This is a complex proposal, so we scheduled the hearing to maximize the amount of time councilmembers have to negotiate the best deal possible for their communities,” said City Council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino. “In addition, scheduling the hearings early in the review process gives us enough time to fully consider public feedback before we vote on a project.”
Fermino said the council encourages people who cannot attend the Sept. 5 hearing to submit written testimony.
Though there are just two days between the CPC vote and the council’s public hearing, City Planning Commissioner Joseph Douek said New Yorkers are well aware of the plan, even if it does undergo some adjustments.
“The item has been in the public for many months,” he said, adding that he expects the CPC to vote in favor of the plan with some modifications on Sept. 3.
Douek, who was appointed to the CPC by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, has proposed reducing the number of beds to 900, in line with a recommendation made by Adams.
All four community boards representing the affected districts voted to oppose the city’s plan earlier this year. Each of the borough presidents supports closing Rikers, but three say they have issues with the current plan.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz rejected the plan for insufficiently engaging the community and said criminal justice reforms could render a new jail unnecessary. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams suggested modifications to reduce the size and capacity of the building. Bronx Borough President Rubén Diaz Jr. disputes the city’s decision to locate the jail at an NYPD tow pound that was slated for affordable housing development. The borough presidents’ votes are advisory.
Nevertheless, three of the councilmembers who represent the affected districts say they are still on board with the plan. The fourth, Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin, told the Eagle last month that she would not commit to the proposal, despite her previous support.
The City Council has traditionally voted in lockstep with the local councilmember on land-use decisions, but there is no precedent for a proposal that links four different boroughs.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said the office looks forward to the continuation of the process.
“We have been engaging productively with the CPC since the July hearing, responding to commissioners’ questions regarding the project during their public review sessions,” the spokesperson said.