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Rikers-replacing borough-based jails will drastically shrink

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The height reductions come after staunch opposition from advocates

Max Touhey

The city is slashing the height of four borough-based jails proposed to replace Rikers Island, lawmakers announced ahead of a key vote on the plan.

A group of City Council members, including Margaret Chin, Stephen Levin, Karen Koslowitz, and Diana Ayala—all of whom represent neighborhoods in which those new jails would be located—announced Tuesday that the maximum height for the new facilities will be significantly reduced. Now, none of the new buildings will rise higher than 295 feet, or 29 stories. Previously, the tallest of the facilities, set to rise at 125 White Street in Manhattan, would have risen 450 feet, or a whopping 45 stories.

In Brooklyn, the jail planned at 275 Atlantic Avenue will shrink from 395 feet to 295 feet (which is still slightly higher than the existing Brooklyn House of Detention); in the Bronx, the facility at 320 Concord Avenue will shorten from 245 feet to 195 feet; and in Queens, the building at 126-02 82nd Avenue will go from 270 feet to 195 feet.

“People said these buildings were too large for their neighborhoods, and they listened and fought for changes,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement. “I thank the de Blasio administration for working with us to better serve these communities.”

Despite the changes, the plan’s $8.7 price tag is expected to remain the same, according to City Council officials.

The decision to scale back the size of the new facilities is due to several factors, namely that the de Blasio administration expects the number of incarcerated people in New York City to shrink to 3,300 by 2026—the target date for Rikers to shutter for good. The city’s original plans for replacing the infamous island complex were based on a projection that the incarcerated population would be some 5,000 people by that time. Officials now claim the latest estimates allow them to build facilities that will, on average, hold fewer than 1,000 people on a daily basis.

Other changes, such as to the city’s cash bail system, as well as the relocation of at least 250 beds into NYC Health & Hospitals facilities for those with mental health and other medical conditions, also factored into the changes.

Pressure from the surrounding neighborhoods undoubtedly played a major role; ever since the city announced plans for new borough-based jails, community members and elected officials have decried the heights and, in some cases, locations of those facilities. As the proposal has wound its way through the city’s uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), locals and prison reform advocates have packed community board and other public meetings, calling for smaller buildings or no new jails at all.

But for some community advocates, Tuesday’s announcement led to more questions than answers. Jan Lee, an organizer with Neighbors United Below Canal, which formed to oppose the lower Manhattan jail, called the height reduction a “step in the right direction” but says it’s “insulting to New Yorkers” that elected officials waited two days before the City Council vote on the plan to announce major changes.

“We’re looking at a building that started at 500 feet and now they’re saying its 295 feet. Where did all of those services go? How within months could you take away hundreds of feet?” says Lee, who shares lawmakers frustration with the lack of design and budget details on the four new facilitates. “So does anyone really know what we’re designing here? I don’t think so.”

No New Jails, a grass-roots prison abolitionist group that opposes the plan, has staunchly advocated for the city to invest the project’s $8 billion-plus cost estimate into housing and mental health programs. Marlene Ramos, an organizer with the group, echoed Lee’s concerns about the short-notice changes, but believes the shift is the de Blasio administration cracking under mounting criticism to the proposal.

“I think it’s really irresponsible for the city to introduce these kind of changes literally days before the final vote,” says Ramos. “I also think it’s indicative of the power No New Jails has been able to build. We’ve been able to put a spotlight on all the spending the mayor is putting into new jails when we need to divert that money to new housing, mental health, and supporting neighborhoods.”

The City Council will vote on the plan Thursday, October 17. A 26-vote majority is required for the proposal to pass the Council. Now that the Council has revised the proposal, even if the plan is approved, it will need to head back to the City Planning Commission for further review.