Jail proposal in lower Manhattan needs to start over with community input, coalition says

Several businesses, homeowner associations and community organizations have banded together in an effort to push back against the de Blasio administration’s proposal to build a new jail in lower Manhattan.

In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled more details about four borough-based jails that are expected to replace scandal- and corruption-plagued Rikers Island within 10 years. The jails, one proposed in each borough except Staten Island, would hold approximately 1,510 inmates each and offer the surrounding communities amenities like retail space or a youth center on the ground floor.

But the de Blasio administration’s plan contains a “fundamental flaw,” according to Nick Stabile, coalition organizer and board member of the Chatham Green Cooperative in Chinatown, that he argues is cause for scrapping the entire proposal and starting fresh.

“It focuses on only half the equation: the people inside of the jail. And it ignores the other half of the equation: the people in the surrounding communities,” he said.

In February, the de Blasio administration had floated a proposed jail site at 125 White St. However, in August the location was changed to 80 Centre St., blindsiding nearby community members who had no knowledge of or input on the mayor’s plans, Stabile said.

“The community was scrambling to organize to have our voices heard,” he said of how the coalition came about.

Among the growing list of coalition members are representatives of Chatham Towers, a co-op with about 600 residents; Chatham Green, a co-op with about 900 residents; The Park Row Alliance; The Chinatown Core Block Association; and Wing on WO & Co. owner Mei Lum, according to Stabile. Many of them planned to attend a public hearing about the Manhattan jail proposal Thursday night at the Manhattan Municipal Building on Centre Street in order to voice their opposition, he added.

“In creating the plan, issuing the draft scope and beginning the [Environmental Impact Study] process in less than basically a two-month period, the mayor made two fundamental decisions without community input,” Stabile said. “First, whether to build a new jail in lower Manhattan and second, where to build it, namely 80 Centre St.”

Unhappy with the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, the coalition argues the mayor’s failure to include community input in selecting the neighborhood and address of the jail is grounds for starting over.

Stabile said he couldn’t offer another proposed location for a jail site, because the community was never told what the viable alternatives were or what factors were considered in selecting the sites.

“Without that information, it’s extremely difficult for me to make a decision for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” he said, adding that the coalition is in favor of closing Rikers Island but is also concerned that the culture of violence at the jail complex will be transferred to their community if the proposal moves forward.

All four proposed jail sites are located near existing criminal justice infrastructure in their respective boroughs. City officials and several criminal justice advocacy groups believe the borough-based jail model, with inmates sheltered in facilities closer to their homes and courts, would reduce the rate of recidivism – among other benefits.

The de Blasio administration, which did not immediately return a request for comment regarding the coalition’s opposition, is currently in the midst of conducting an Environmental Impact Study for all four proposed jail sites. In addition to the Manhattan hearing, public meetings were also held in Brooklyn and Queens earlier in September. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3 in the Bronx to discuss the borough’s jail proposal.

After the hearings and environmental reviews are complete, the city is expected to submit plans for all four jails on one land use application to be considered by the City Council next summer.