Chelsea ‘Women’s Building’ backers break out of prison conversion

The former Bayview Correctional Facility at 550 W. 20th St. was supposed to become a hub for nonprofits working on women’s issues. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

This story was originally published on OCT. 14 by THE CITY.

 BY RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH, THE CITY | A much-celebrated, years-long effort to convert a former all-female prison on Manhattan’s West Side to a hub for women is over, its backers announced.

In an abrupt move, the NoVo Foundation — the philanthropy group founded by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett — said it will no longer proceed with developing The Women’s Building.

The project, touted by Gloria Steinem and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would have transformed a hulking Chelsea property that once served as the Bayview Correctional Facility, a state prison for women. Its founders envisioned a hub for services and community organizing for formerly incarcerated women and others.

NoVo Foundation told supporters in a letter Friday that it made the “agonizing” decision after realizing the “hundreds of millions of dollars” needed to repurpose the former lockup would be better spent funding organizations that can more quickly and directly help marginalized communities.

“Timelines and budgets for this project have far exceeded original estimates,” the letter read. “Put simply, every dollar that goes to the future of this project could instead go directly to immediate work on the ground.”

In the letter, NoVo also pledged $50 million “to continue the work already underway by this remarkable community” — and said it would begin a process soon to determine how that money is spent.

‘Everybody was Excited’

The move marked an about-face for NoVo on a highly lauded effort backed by many New York politicians, criminal justice reform advocates and feminist leaders. In a prologue to the planned reincarnation of the former prison, photographer Annie Leibovitz staged a much-promoted 2016 exhibit of women’s photographs in its gymnasium.

Steinem attended the announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo when the design for The Women’s Building was unveiled four years ago. As recently as March, she promoted the project on WNYC radio, along with NoVo’s executive director, Pamela Shifman, and an advocate for incarcerated women.

A 2015 rendering of the concept for The Women’s Building in Manhattan’s former Bayview Correctional Facility. (Courtesy of Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo)

Burt Lazarin, chair of the local Community Board 4 in Manhattan, said the board was “very surprised and disappointed” when it got a call on Friday from NoVo and the state’s Empire State Development Corp., the agency that first sought proposals in 2014 to overhaul the state-owned former correctional facility.

Lazarin said as recently as this summer, the community board had met with designers and engineers on the project — and everything appeared full steam ahead.

“It was all an ongoing conversation,” he said. “Everybody was engaged and excited.”

Yet cracks already had begun to show this year in the project’s foundation. In a February letter to Empire State Development’s leadership, Lazarin and two other community board leaders said NoVo had revealed its original plan was “not economically feasible and that an entirely new building proposal was being developed.”

Upon seeing a new plan for the building that involved demolishing large chunks of the structure, CB4 made its concerns known.

“We object strongly to this proposal, even in its most preliminary form,” the letter read.

Project Took Root Post-Sandy
The facility once known as Bayview had been shuttered by the state Department of Corrections in late 2012 after moving out women held there ahead of Superstorm Sandy, which damaged the building. Less than two years later, the Cuomo administration sought proposals for Bayview’s reuse.

As part of its winning proposal to Empire State Development, NoVo was granted a 99-year lease on the empty building to create office space for people working to promote equality for women.

With an advisory board filled with experts in social justice — including formerly incarcerated women and many who work with them — the foundation and its design team at Deborah Burke Partners and Lela Goren Group began mapping out what The Women’s Building would look like.

Now it’s unclear what will happen to the empty facility, which remains under state control, according to ESD. In a statement, ESD spokesperson Jack Sterne said the state will work “with Chelsea community leaders … to determine the future of this site.”

“We are proud to have partnered with the NoVo Foundation on this project and continue to support their mission of backing organizations that unleash the power of women and girls,” he added. “While we are disappointed with this outcome, we understand and respect NoVo’s decision to refocus their resources on more immediate needs.”

NoVo did not answer questions about how or when the foundation made its decision, referring THE CITY to its letter.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.