Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou on Borough Based Jail Plans and Closure of Rikers’ Island

Introduction and Site Change

The horrific deaths of Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco exemplify the disturbing treatment of pre-trial detainees and failure to maintain our criminal justice system. Rikers Island is unequivocally an inhumane and decaying institution that must be shut down. We believe that this can be achieved in a different manner than the current process. Even for simply choosing a site, the community feels that the Mayor and his administration have disrespected and ignored our community. During the initial Rikers Island Closure Task Force meetings, the Mayor’s administration planned to expand and refit 125 White Street, the current detention complex in our community, to build it into the Manhattan Borough Based Detention Center. Based on the 125 White Street site, major stakeholders, elected officials, and community boards held planning sessions and engaged our community on what they wanted to see in regards to the center such as senior housing, affordable housing, community centers, or healthcare facilities. We held multiple conversations with our community and conveyed their thoughts to the Mayor’s office throughout this process and received little information besides a soft date for the release of the draft scoping documents.

The administration changed the site from 125 White Street to 80 Centre Street with no notice or transparency, not even ten days before dropping the draft scoping documents. My office received notice of the meeting where they announced the site change in the late evening before. Elected officials were denied meetings with all of the stakeholders present throughout the entire process. 80 Centre Street was not even discussed during the task force meetings. Our preparations for the draft scoping and discussions with our community on what was feasible and appropriate to meet our needs for the draft scoping focused on the White Street site. Yet, we were given no time to reassess and reevaluate our priorities with the new site in mind. In fact, our community boards happened to be on their only month off, further depriving our community board of what should be a transparent and community-focused process.

Many community members fought against this site change and stated that this location would not work as a site for this project. The Mayor and the City responded by beginning the ULURP process and producing draft scope of work documents for 80 Centre. The City then claimed that the 80 Centre Street location could not be the site for the plan, citing unexpected costs and complications. The City then again changed the site location to 125 White Street overnight. Our community members fought again, but the plans proceeded without change. Even with two site changes, the Mayor and his administration did not restart the ULURP process, produce a draft scope of work for 80 Centre Street, or give our community the opportunity to have a public scoping meeting after the second site change. This is not standard protocol; other applications would not have been permitted to proceed with significant changes such as a site change.

Transparency and Engagement

Some history, during anti-Chinese riots and the Chinese Exclusion Act, New York’s Chinatown became a safe space for individuals under odious discrimination. Discriminatory policies and decision making is a mistake, but our community pays the price. Even the first Manhattan Detention Center was forced upon on our community after then-Mayor Ed Koch said to our community, “You don’t vote, you don’t count”. We were able to build and improve Chinatown to make it what it is today: full of history and rich culture. But, major changes like the detention center leave a huge imprint on our community. We should aim for a path that respects the culture and history in our streets.

Understanding this, community engagement and transparency in the process are obviously both important and necessary. Neither has happened. A transparent process cannot occur without engaging our community adequately first. Our community feels that the Mayor and the City have failed to engage us in a productive, transparent manner time and time again. They have historically erased our community from the conversation and have shown a blatant disregard for community-based decision making and transparency. The City and Mayor’s disregard for our community is further apparent in their decisions to lift two historic deed restrictions at Rivington House and in their decisions regarding Elizabeth Street Garden, the Extell Towers, the Two Bridges developments, and now the borough based jails. The double site changes left our community scrambling to understand draft scoping materials because they were not language accessible. Providing information regarding the Mayor’s plans is his administration's responsibility. Throughout this entire process, he has failed to inform our community of critical information, much less with language accessibility in a timely matter. We requested extra time so we can address this problem and provide our community the respect and transparency we deserve, but again, the Mayor’s office refused to even give our community that.

Keeping our community out of the conversation has also raised questions about the results of the environmental studies and how thorough the studies even were. Because our community was not involved in a substantial capacity and information was not given forthright, there is little confidence from our community that the findings are accurate or detailed.

The Mayor and the City keep citing how four boroughs are having the same conversations. This is partially true as every community board in each of the boroughs has voted against the proposed plans. However, we are the only borough to have the site completely changed, not once, but twice. So far, we have little factual information of substance on any of their proposals and can only see their obvious preference for the voices of big developers over the voices of our community. Estimates for this plan range from $8 billion to $30 billion dollars, an enormous amount of money that could be used in other vital areas such as public housing or mental health assistance. We again ask that the City reconsider their decision and work with us to make sure our community has the fair and transparent engagement process that we deserve. Any future process for whatever decision this body makes today should include being transparent on all aspects of the future plans for the borough based detention center system.

When I last testified, I said the same thing and emphasized the importance of community input and feedback. The City and the Mayor has maintained that they would do better to listen to our community voice. The majority of advisory recommendations have been to deny the application. Since the administration has held that community engagement is an important part of the development process, these advisory decisions should hold major weight during further considerations on this project. Community engagement cannot be considered as community engagement if the City does not listen to anything that our community has to say.

Areas of Study, Deficiencies, and Future Plans

The Mayor’s administration (Mayor and the City) must examine the increase in traffic congestion in a much wider area around the potential site of the detention center and address why the study area was limited to such a small scope. The City has stated they hope the Borough Based Detention Center system will be more accessible to visitors. However, this may not be realistic with our severe traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is an ongoing problem in lower Manhattan that severely affects our quality of life. An increase in traffic can come from all directions as the detention center will have detainees from all over the borough. Visitors of detainees may not live in Manhattan either, adding further congestion from other borough traffic. In addition, the outgoing traffic from the facility will add to the current congestion problems in lower Manhattan. The Mayor and the City’s administration must create a multi-agency plan to mitigate the increased traffic lower Manhattan will experience.

Car traffic patterns are not the only concern — foot traffic, from people visiting detainees or going to work in the jail is going to make an already very busy community all the busier. This also includes the use of the subway system. Residents have noted that the Spring Street and Canal Street subway stations are already overcrowded and very inaccessible as it is. More foot traffic to the area will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

Many important community resources are also located near the current site. Locations like senior centers, daycares, and schools are utilized by some of our most vulnerable community members such as seniors and children. During the construction of the detention center, our community members will be at risk of exposure to particulates and dangerous materials like asbestos or lead, often present in older building materials. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) acknowledged that hazardous materials were found at the current site, but the Mayor and the City has not done further testing or provided a mitigation plan to address how they intend on protecting our community. The administration must consider the higher potential risk of exposure for our community members who frequent the area’s resources like senior centers or schools. The administration must be transparent with the risk of exposure throughout the entire process, including plans for potential closure of important resources and containment plans during possible failure and neglect. Furthermore, the plans fail to consider the full impact of quality of life in our community such as noise, sanitation, or air quality. Construction generates constant noise and sanitation issues like trash and particulates which heavily damages the quality of life for residents. The Mayor and the City failed to address these concerns in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The administration must create a plan to minimize the harm to the quality of life of our community, ensure our safety, engage our community and implement our input to address any lacking elements of their plan. We have not seen or heard any such plans or thoughts from the administration.

Small business owners and residents have cited concerns about the potential economic damage that the detention center could bring. Chinatown — located close to the financial district — dealt with barricaded streets, closed sidewalks, and construction that impacted the health and safety of residents following 9/11. The closure of Park Row has for many years damaged our community’s economic opportunities. But the community, which understands safety concerns, waited patiently. Business owners are concerned that the construction area will make it difficult to attract and retain customers in addition to the potential harm that the presence of the detention center can have on business. There are also concerns about increases in operating problems. Heavier street congestion and increased security make it difficult for trucks with essential food or supplies to park and unload. The administration must seriously consider the concerns of the local small business and property owners and truthfully determine the potential economic damage done to our community. Many of the businesses in Chinatown are multi-generational, long-standing family owned businesses. These businesses do not only serve as centers of commerce, but contain decades of culture and history. As a result, the Mayor and the City benefit tremendously from tourism due to Chinatown. Travel brochures, sightseeing tours, taxi commercials, and tourism websites feature important historical landmarks and highly-acclaimed restaurants in Chinatown. Tourists make it a priority to visit Chinatown and see all that our community has to offer. Yet, the administration fails to support our local businesses or respect our culture and history. In fact, the administration often targets our community and repeatedly shuts us out or leaves us out from discussions on major decisions in regards to issues that affect us. The administration should provide these businesses and their owners with the respect and engagement they deserve. A plan to ease operating problems and potential economic damage as a result of the detention center with a focus on engaging small business in a language accessible process should be a top priority for the administration.

The North Tower of the current Manhattan Detention Complex is slated to close. To this date, no plans have been made for the North Tower of the Manhattan Detention Complex for the future. Plans for Rikers Island following its closure are also missing. As our community has experienced during this process, the Mayor’s administration has done poorly in adequately engaging our communities on both local neighborhood and city-wide issues. The Mayor’s administration should engage our community in a sincere process and include us to create plans that benefit our community for the closed Rikers Island and North Tower.

Policy and Reform

There is no doubt that New York needs real criminal justice reform. Recognizing that need, I worked with my colleagues in the State legislature to create comprehensive reforms to our criminal justice system. This year, our legislature eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors, ensured the right to a speedy trial, and passed additional criminal justice reform legislation that is crucial to reducing our detainee population and creating a fairer justice system for all. The previous year, we also raised the age of criminal responsibility. These reforms are expected to significantly reduce the population of pretrial detainees. The Mayor and the City originally claimed that the Borough Based system requires halving the detainee population at Rikers Island from 10,000 to 5,000 with 5,748 beds on site without state-level criminal justice reforms. However, the Mayor and his administration still hold that these state level reforms were insufficient as the size and scale of the proposed borough based jails remain largely unchanged. The Mayor and the City seek a floor area ratio (FAR) 31% over current zoning restrictions and an additional 466,000 square feet. The height of this building will make it the tallest facility of its kind in the world. The Mayor and the City continue to utilize broad keywords and focus on singular items that, alone, cannot achieve the goal of proper criminal justice reform. The administration has the authority to make major policy decisions and should be held accountable for presenting a transparent plan in achieving their goals of criminal justice reform to our community and show a good faith effort to reduce the size and scale of these institutions in response to community concerns.

Our community continues to have serious concerns about whether the Mayor and his administration will achieve reducing the number of detainees and what their plans are if they fail to meet this goal. Adding more beds in jails does nothing to benefit our community — it only works to give privatized jails more money. Benefitting private jail owners should never be the priority over the needs and wellbeing of New Yorkers. The priority should be reducing the overall jail population in New York City and that is not accomplished by building four new mini Rikers. Our community also voiced concerns about the treatment of detainees in these facilities. Yet, there are no sure plans for an overhaul of the guard education system and security policy reformation. Moving the site only goes so far in promoting reform, and the horrible conditions of Rikers Island are largely because of inhumane treatment of pre-trial detainees by guards. Real reform requires change within the prisons and to create policies that push to treat others with the respect and humanity they deserve. The administration's current plans do not fully detail vital rehabilitation programs like job placement or links to educational opportunities within their justice reform plans. The plans also lack important details on crucial supportive services for detainees such as mental health and wellness services or improved legal aid resources. If the Mayor and his administration intend to spend billions of dollars to create real criminal justice reform, there should be special attention to funding a holistic approach which is not apparent in the plans to date. Without a clear, detailed, and transparent plan for criminal justice reform, how can the administration possibly assure our community that the same result will not happen again and create four smaller Rikers, all equally as inhumane as the original?

Parking placard abuse by city employees is a longstanding, very common practice in lower Manhattan. Parking placard abuse is especially common in Chinatown and the Civic Center. Misuse of placard parking has taken away valuable parking spaces from our community and impacted our community in various ways. Small businesses are unable to receive their deliveries efficiently, negatively impacting their operations. The quality of life for residents has been impacted because of higher traffic congestion and overloaded public transportation. The administration has proposed a 125 car accessory garage beneath the detention complex and stated that there would be a doubling of staff for operation of the detention center. There is no transparency in how the administration found that the 125 space garage would be sufficient to resolve parking placard abuse which continues to plague our community. In addition, the administration has not answered how many parking spaces will be given back to our community after construction of the garage. The administration has not thoroughly responded to our community on this issue and has also not provided any policy changes that would change the current placard system.

Multiple concerns about the treatment of neighboring businesses and residents by the current detention complex have been raised. Residents have complained for years about the huge piles of trash collected around the facility daily. Water from hoses at the facility freeze over the street roads and sidewalks in the winter. Small businesses are responsible for shoveling and breaking the ice down on their storefronts because they are liable for any injuries on their property. In essence, the Manhattan Detention Center is a larger operation of the current White Street detention complex. Our community has voiced frustration with the current operating policies, yet no changes have been made. Without comprehensive engagement and policy changes, poor treatment of our community will only increase. The Mayor should engage our community to understand the many ways the current complex continues to have a negative presence in our community and create a plan to address both the current operations and future operations.

Community Benefits

With the multiple site changes, our community must reassess many of the proposals we initially worked on. Our community has not had the time necessary to make our considerations. The Mayor and his administration continue to emphasize the benefits our community can receive. However, this process does not allow for us to plan out and formulate community-based benefits that meet our needs. Our local non-profits have been truly committed to our community and provided much support in areas where the Mayor’s administration has failed such as language accessible, culturally sensitive services. Our community believes that our voice, along with the our non-profits, have been generally ignored and that is unacceptable.

Our local community boards have also been largely shunned in offering ideas for community benefits due to the lack of a transparent and engaged process. The current engagement process does not allow our community boards to explore possibilities and provide ample consideration for community needs. With the unprecedented bundled ULURP process, neighboring community boards like Community Board 3 were unable to formally go on record with recommendations. The bundled ULURP process is an arbitrary, unilateral process that the administration has used to rush our community engagement process, the most important part of any land use decision. The City and the Mayor must unbundle the process to engage our community and other communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens in a meaningful way instead of the empty, brute force process we have experienced so far.

The current plan proposes the detention center to be as tall as forty stories. Yet, the administration has set only 20,000 gross square feet of community facility space. The administration has not yet provided the explanation on how this size of this space was calculated, why this space could not be larger in addition to the fact that many important uses like senior housing or affordable housing were not included. If the Mayor intends to push possible community benefits as positive change for our community, it should reconsider its decisions regarding the engagement process and partake in actual impactful engagement to fully understand what our community needs.

Conclusion

The Mayor and the City must reconsider their actions and turn back the clock by starting this process from the very beginning and engaging our community from jump. The Mayor and his administration should not only care about their agenda and forcefully push a plan through, but focus on our neighborhoods and the lives of the New Yorkers in our community that deserve a voice. We ask again for a more transparent and fair process to reach a better outcome for all of us involved and to respect our community. Many community members were unable to enter the first public hearing because of poor planning by the Mayor’s administration. Our voice has been neglected and our needs have not been met. Our community made it clear since day one we want a meaningful engagement process, but the Mayor and the City continues to push onwards with little regard and no respect to our community. When more viewpoints are at the table, better decisions are made. The process we have had thus far largely lacks what true community-based decision making should look like and it is shameful. Rikers must close and close on time, but this current plan is neither thoughtful abolishment nor community based. It pits communities against one another and does not focus on the needs of our detainees or our community members. I know we can do better and we have a responsibility to do better.

We urge the Council to vote in opposition to these plans. As we have already noted, this process was flawed from the start and we must restart to work on a holistic approach that places true community engagement as a priority and provides humane and effective reforms to our criminal justice system.