Slow the jail-building rush: Manhattan’s contribution to Rikers’ replacement project deserves more public input
The City Council is considering a new municipal jail to be built on the border of Chinatown and Tribeca as part of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island. What we know, based on the plan, is that the high-rise jail will be 45 stories and incorporate more than 1 million square feet.
Before the City Council votes on this plan, New Yorkers deserve to know the true cost and the potential impact the jail will have on the people who live and work nearby. A project of this magnitude requires intense scrutiny, not just the City Council’s rubber stamp.
When private developers want to build a project requiring a zoning change, their plans go through an exhaustive public vetting process, formally known as a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). For something as simple as a residential building, ULURP forces the development team to share every detail of the project. The goal is to ensure responsible development.
A new high-rise jail should require the same level of vetting and community input.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, downtown Manhattan has experienced a dramatic recovery: In 2018 alone, 14.6 million tourists visited the area — a 7% increase over the previous year. Lower Manhattan has gone from being a 9-to-5 business district to a 24-hour live and work community.
Mayor de Blasio’s jail proposal is technically making its way through the land-use review process — with all four of the city’s proposed borough-based jails being considered in a single massive ULURP — but this is happening in name only. Local community questions and opposition have been vigorous but unable to influence the plan. Manhattan’s Community Board 1 voted against the jail, asking the city to “start from scratch with its review process,” while Assembly members are “enraged” that the mayor continues to ignore the voices of the Chinatown community.
The community has good reason to be worried. The jail is projected to cost $1 billion, but that seems more like a best guess than a precise estimate. The proposed site is a densely populated area with nearly 160,000 residents and 70,000 workers — adding to the challenge of building along the narrow, busy streets of lower Manhattan. An itemized accounting of what would be required to complete this 1.27-million-square-foot tower is essential.
The potential impact of this new Manhattan jail on the health of local residents also requires systematic attention. According to testimony submitted by the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health, the air and noise pollution caused by the project would pose significant risks for older adults in Chinatown.
Despite these serious concerns, the administration has yet to provide local residents and leaders with pertinent information, such as floorplans, exterior design and the environmental impact of constructing the jail, among others.
To be clear, these concerns have little to do with the laudable goal of closing Rikers Island, which gave rise to the mayor’s borough-based jails plan. This is about the way the de Blasio administration is implementing this specific project.
Many development projects benefit from thoughtful modifications and a second chance to reconsider the initial plans. For example, the first proposals for the Coliseum at Columbus Circle and the revitalization of Times Square did not win broad-based support and were sent back to the drawing board. This led to stronger, more intelligent plans that have enhanced the overall quality of life in the surrounding communities and the city as a whole.
No private developer would be allowed to advance a project in as rushed a manner as the city is trying to do with this new jail. A recent New York State Supreme Court ruling opposing the development of waterfront skyscrapers on the Lower East Side, in fact, demonstrates how much the courts believe in community and city council input.
The city’s plan for this new jail has the potential to change the Manhattan skyline for the next 100 years. It is better to do it right than to do it too fast.
Moss is a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU Wagner School of Public Service.