By David Brand and Noah Goldberg
The city has proposed four sky-scraping jails as part of its plan to close Rikers Island, but the detention towers will likely undergo significant height and bulk reductions as councilmembers from affected districts weigh in ahead of a final binding vote.
The plan, which passed the City Planning Commission on Tuesday, currently calls for building four new jails with capacity for 1,150 detainees each by 2026. A jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown would be the tallest at 450 feet. A jail in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn would rise to 395 feet. And a jail that would be constructed on the site of the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens would reach 270 feet.
But the actual buildings are unlikely to reach those heights, said a spokesperson for Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, who represents Kew Gardens.
“The councilmember is not going to submit any comments, statements or suggestions to the City Planning Commission. However, when it's transmitted over to the City Council she will address the height issue at council," the spokesperson told the Eagle last week before the CPC vote.
Koslowitz has a height in mind, the spokesperson said, but declined to share specifics.
“To be honest with you, I do [know the height recommendation], but I don't want to give up the negotiating position,” he said, adding that Koslowitz is mainly concerned with ensuring that a new parking lot is completed before construction on the actual jail begins. The site would include a 676-space municipal parking lot stretching across 82nd Ave., which would be demapped as part of the land use application.
Another Queens councilmember, who agreed to speak only on background, said height modifications “are definitely going to happen.” A council staffer said the final plan will feature significantly smaller jails based on a revised population estimate.
The City Council will hold its only public hearing on the plan Thursday. All four community boards representing the affected districts voted to oppose the city’s plan earlier this year. Each of the four borough presidents supports closing Rikers, but three say they have issues with the current plan. Community boards and borough presidents have merely advisory roles in the land use process, however.
The plan has encountered opposition from both No New Jails coalition members who say opening four large facilities would only replicate the issues, like violence and mental health problems, that exist on Rikers Island. They want the city to invest jail funding into social services, employment and education.
More conservative leaders and everyday New Yorkers say the city should continue detaining defendants at Rikers Island, though many acknowledge that the jails could be improved. Local residents, meanwhile, say they simply do not want a jail in their community.
Reducing the size of the jails could appease opponents while making the jail plan less politically detrimental to councilmembers, especially those representing the affected areas. The City Council has traditionally deferred to local councilmembers on land-use decisions, but there is no precedent for a land use proposal that links four different boroughs.
In May, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said the city jail population would decrease to about 4,000 detainees by 2026 based on recent state and city criminal justice reforms. The city had previously estimated that the jail population would dip to 5,000 from a 2018 daily average of about 8,400 detainees.
“We’re trying to make these facilities as small as we can given the changing environment,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “We’re going to get to that 4,000 level and, therefore, we’re going to make the jails smaller.”
Koslowitz isn’t the only councilmember who wants to make that commitment a reality.
In a July interview with the Eagle Councilmember Stephen Levin said he wouldn’t “predetermine” a specific size of a facility, but said he expects reductions citywide.
“I think if they left everything at the current size I think the applications would have problems across the city,” he said. “I fully expect that we’re going to be working towards seeing reductions in the size for all the facilities.”
Still, Levin said he anticipates the new facility will be at least twice the size of the current 11-story Brooklyn Detention Complex.
Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin wants to reduce the height and bulk of the proposed facility in her district, a spokesperson said. The jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown would be located at the site of the Manhattan Detention Complex, more commonly known as the Tombs.
A staff member for Bronx Councilmember Diana Ayala said height has not been the biggest issue for constituents more concerned with ensuring affordable housing is part of the project. The proposed site on an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven was initially slated for an affordable housing development.
Nevertheless, the staffer said Ayala would support reducing the height of the jail, which would reach 245 feet under the plan.
Ayala said she would take testimony from Thursday’s public hearing into account before making her final decision on height.
“Their feedback will inform possible changes to the plan, such as height reduction, which I am open to assessing for the proposed facility in my district,” Ayala said in a statement.