On Thursday, October 17th the New York City Council will hold a hearing that caps the land use review process and would send the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four borough bases jails to Mayor Bill de Blasio for a signature if approved. The notorious Rikers Island has been plagued with controversy and dysfunction with reformers demanding the facility be closed. In 2017 the de Blasio administration agreed and proposed replacing Rikers with four new borough-based (every borough except Staten Island) jails and reducing the overall City prison population as part of criminal justice reforms such as bail reform, a city-funded release program, and mental health initiatives.
Though supported by criminal justice reformers the communities asked to house the new jails were up in arms. Every single community board voted down the proposals as did the Bronx and Queens Borough Presidents, citing among other concerns, the proposed locations, the overall review process, and what they see as a lack of community engagement. The Manhattan and Brooklyn Borough Presidents endorsed the plans but had some specific requests. However, both the community board votes and borough presidents’ recommendations are only advisory steps in the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP, see chart). To add insult to injury the City bundled all four jails into one ULURP application, thereby providing less specific review than if each facility went through its own individual approvals.
To assuage constitutes and receive the blessing of the District Council members the City Council and de Blasio administration agreed to certain design changes. All four borough-based facilities will see a reduction in size:
- Bronx: from 245 feet down to 195 feet (the equivalent of 24 floors high to 19 floors high).
- Brooklyn: from 395 feet to 295 feet (39 floors to 29 floors high).
- Manhattan: from 450 feet to 295 feet (45 floors to 29 floors high).
- Queens: from 270 feet to 195 feet (27 floors to 19 floors high).
This late agreement should seal the vote though not without controversy. The overall costs of this project are still unknown (the figure given is $8.7 billion) nor is what will happen to Rikers Island once the jail is closed, though expect some sweetheart real estate deal. The basic idea has merit and should be considered, so too does the idea of renovating Rikers with better education and training for the staff, so does the idea of closing Rikers and replacing it with nothing. This process needs to be open and given extensive community input, yes people will be disappointed with the outcome but that is not controversial it’s a democracy. What people in the City government, as well as advocates who pushed this plan, need to get through their heads, it is not NIMBYISM that has most people up in arms. It is that by continuing to operate behind closed doors and ramming through unpopular proposals the City shows New Yorkers that they do not care about community input or transparency. This entire project was fait accompli with scraps thrown at elected officials to give them cover. Respect goes both ways and time and again City leaders show us exactly how much respect for us they have.