Mayor Bill de Blasio came to Chinatown this morning to discuss controversial plans for a high-rise jail with local elected officials and about a dozen local stakeholders. But some of those who weren’t invited, like Chinatown resident Karlin Chan, were left out in the cold.
The proposed jail is one of four across the city meant to replace Rikers. The City originally proposed 125 White Street as its location in February, before moving it to 80 Centre Street, citing space concerns. Today’s meeting sought community input on the project’s return to the 125 White proposal after public outcry over the Centre Street location. Officials have also said the Centre Street site would cost more than they previously realized.
The White Street jail would be 500 feet or 50 stories tall, up from the 400-foot height planned for the Centre Street site. The jail would require 125 new parking spaces and draw an estimated 350 visitors per day.
On Twitter, Chan criticized officials for holding a closed-door meeting and inviting select non-profit organizations, calling it “sham community engagement.” The heads of major local community organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Lin Sing Association weren’t able to attend because of the late notice, Chan said.
The president of the Chinatown Senior Citizens Center, adjacent the site, attended the meeting, along with representatives from the Museum of Chinese in America, Community Board 1, and Hamilton-Madison House, a community organization. Elected officials like City Council member Margaret Chin and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez were also on hand.
Nancy Kong, co-op president of the nearby Chatham Towers and member of Neighbors United Below Canal, called for an entirely new Environmental Impact Statement and scoping process for the site, since prior calculations were based on the Centre Street site.
At the meeting, de Blasio characterized the new jail as a benefit for the city as a whole. “Every community geographically takes on elements that we need for everyone,” de Blasio said, adding that the city should also ensure that such communities have their specific needs met.
Locals opposing the new jail have said that Chinatown shoulders an unfair burden of undesirable city infrastructure without receiving adequate social services like affordable housing and education. The neighborhood has one of the highest air pollution levels in Manhattan, partly due to its proximity to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, and residents
say the City is opening Chinatown property to developers without proper community input or benefit, spurring gentrification that drives out residents. Compared to the city average, the neighborhood has double the rates of limited English proficiency and education below a high school diploma.
“We currently have three jails in Chinatown, and now you want one of our jails to triple in size. That’s more than bearing the fair share,” Kong said. “It’s fairly easy to push through a jail in a densely populated, immigrant neighborhood.”
In addition to the Manhattan Detention Complex, the street Park Row has been inaccessible to civilians since 9/11, cutting off part of Chinatown from the rest of Lower Manhattan.
“We currently live and conduct business within the city’s largest penal system consisting of City and Federal courts; consisting of city and federal jails and let us not forget, after 9/11, consisting of extraordinarily enhanced city and federal security. We live with armed guards, with bomb-sniffing dogs, with cameras and with checkpoints at every other corner,” Kong said in a statement at the meeting.
Other persistent problems include waste removal and traffic congestion, which the new jail is expected to exacerbate. During today’s meeting, at an intersection right outside, a pedestrian was struck and critically injured by a private waste hauling truck; members of the mayor’s security detail were among the first on the scene.
“We take the public transportation,” Kong said. “We need emergency services, those are delayed. We can’t park because the city has taken up all of the street parking.”
“We have no say, there’s no input. They’ve always done this to Chinatown,” said Victor, a local resident who stood outside the meeting with Chan and a few other residents holding signs in protest.
Victor pointed out that when the Manhattan Detention Complex, which would be demolished to make way for the new jail, was expanded in the 1980s, about 12,000 people took to the streets in protest, arguing that the area already had more than its fair share of such buildings. The 1980s expansion was meant to house prisoners from a section of Rikers that a court had ordered the city to close.
“We are here today but you have already decided on the sites, the number of detainees, the programming. We get to have input on the color? The entryway? That is not good enough,” Kong said.
At the meeting, de Blasio indicated his faith that the coming Uniform Land Use Review Procedure would adequately incorporate the community’s concerns and requests. The process will allow the community board, borough president, and the City Planning Commission to weigh in on the application before it goes to the mayor for approval.
Chan is also concerned that the pollution and noise of demolition and construction will harm residents of the Chinatown Senior Citizens Center a block from the new site. Construction vehicles are partly to blame for the already-high rates of certain harmful emissions in Chinatown’s air. It remains unclear whether the senior center will be accounted for in the City’s assessment, given that it was not included in the Environmental Impact Statement issued for the project when it was still slated for the Centre Street location.
Kong said she’s disappointed the mayor didn’t show interest in issuing a new Environmental Impact Statement, or in considering a fifth location in Staten Island to ease the burden on the other four jail sites. Senator Brian Kavanagh mentioned at the meeting that the commission convened to study the Rikers situation suggested a fifth site, but the mayor indicated they would continue to move forward with just four.
Still, Kong said she remains hopeful. “I really believe the mayor will do the right thing and make changes if he can really understand why we are concerned,” she said.
“I don’t believe that prisons and communities go together,” Chan said. He referenced the recent violence at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx after youth were moved there from Rikers, which injured 21 guards and an unknown number of prisoners.
Chan said policy reform, not prisoner transfers, would be the best path forward. “Why don’t we have free buses go to Rikers?” Chan said. “I am all for policy reform, but we can do it without closing Rikers. We need policy change.”
In a statement released before the meeting, Neighbors United Below Canal called for “serious dialogue about the costs of incarceration versus less costly alternatives, such as prevention, mental health programs, education, community efforts, and drug treatment.”
“A 50-story structure in the heart of an already densely populated, unique, diverse and historic neighborhood, with a failing transit, water and sewage system,” the statement read, “is not the answer.”