Planned Bronx jail site (photos: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)
When Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced last week that they’d reached a deal to speed up the closure of Rikers Island by creating or expanding jail facilities in every borough except Staten Island, it seemed to be a clear sign of a productive partnership between the administration and local elected officials.
The mayor and speaker made the announcement at a news conference at City Hall, alongside four Council members -- Diana Ayala, Karen Koslowitz, Stephen Levin, and Margaret Chin -- willing to accept the political risk of a new or expanded jail in their districts. The city will launch a unified land use review application for all four jails, the mayor and speaker said, combining the arduous and lengthy multi-stage approval process for siting certain municipal facilities.
But the proposal to build the Bronx jail -- the only one of the four that is not either a current or former jail facility -- immediately raised the hackles of elected officials from the borough other than Ayala, a newly elected Council member whose districts spans East Harlem and part of the South Bronx.
“Look the site in the Bronx is a site owned by the City of New York. It is a very smart site in terms of its closeness to the courthouses,” de Blasio explained at the news conference, when asked about a critical statement put out by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who had not been kept in the loop by the administration or the Council. “There is going to be a full community process, but let's be clear, we're going to talk to everyone, we're going to listen to everyone, we're going to try in every way possible address community needs and address other benefits that communities need.”
De Blasio emphasized, “That being said, up here are the people who ultimately have to make the decision – the Council, represented by the Speaker, the members who represent those individual districts, and me and my administration.”
Ayala was aware of the criticism she may face for supporting a site in her district. “We all know that this siting process is bound to be controversial,” she said. “In the Bronx in particular, we are not repurposing an existing detention center but instead building a brand new facility that will require additional careful thought, serious consideration and robust community engagement, and I really wanna underline that…We also know that in the Bronx, too often we see a concentration of city facilities in our borough and there is rightfully some resistance to that. But we in the Bronx also understand the urgent need for criminal justice reform.”
Top Bronx officials were taken aback that this was the first they were hearing of a new jail intended for their backyard. Any consultations that had happened had excluded Borough President Diaz Jr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake, whose district neighbors the one where the proposed site is located at 320 Concord Avenue, currently an NYPD tow pound; and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the Democratic Bronx County party leader whose support helped Johnson win the speakership.
“I was surprised to learn that the administration has already selected a site for a new jail in The Bronx,” said Diaz Jr. in a statement that preceded the mayor and speaker’s Wednesday news conference. The proposed site had been first revealed by the Wall Street Journal the previous night, just after de Blasio delivered his State of the City address. “I hope that, going forward, this lack of outreach is not a harbinger of the amount of community input the people of my borough will have in this process,” Diaz Jr. said. (At the news conference, Johnson showed some contrition immediately, apologizing to Diaz Jr. and promising a “robust, meaningful” community engagement process.)
“It is simply disrespectful that a decision of this magnitude of proposing to open a new jail in the South Bronx was made behind closed doors, without engaging the broader Bronx community,” said Assemblymember Blake, in a statement released Wednesday night.
Crespo, the Democratic Bronx county boss, took to Twitter, calling out the mayor and speaker. “We spent so much time talking the last few months how did this rikers plan in my district never come up?” he wondered.
“I think we were all caught off guard with how far ahead the city seems to be when no one in the Bronx was informed of the process,” Crespo later elaborated, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “Once you decide on a site, that’s gonna have an impact for generations.”
Crespo and the other electeds aren’t opposed to the administration’s goal: building capacity in the boroughs so that Rikers can close. But, he said the Concord Avenue site is not the best option, and the city should explore alternatives. The community and the borough already host their fair share of municipal facilities, Crespo insisted, echoing widespread criticism that the city has long chosen to place seemingly undesirable facilities such as jails, homeless shelters, and waste treatment plants in low-income communities of color. “Make no mistake about it, this borough has been handling an unfair share already for a long time,” he said.
“There’s major investments and their success would also be endangered,” he said of the Mott Haven neighborhood, where new development is underway literally across the road from where the jail would be situated.
The rapid outpouring of criticism didn’t seem lost on Speaker Johnson, who quickly seemed to equivocate on the Bronx site. “I am committed to facilities in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Johnson told NY1. "We are not wedded to an individual location. If there is a better location I am happy to have that conversation."
Responding to an assertion that he was backpedaling, Johnson said in a subsequent tweet that he is “not at all” backing away from the site, but reiterated that the main goal is closing the jails on Rikers Island and that he is “not wedded” to one location. “If there's a better one,” he wrote, “I'm all ears. No other location has been presented.”
If the Bronx elected officials were stunned by the announcement, it’s little wonder that those who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site were likewise surprised and offended to learn of the plan.
The site is located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, north of the Harlem River, with large industrial and manufacturing spaces running between the waterfront and the Major Deegan Expressway.
Residents and others expressed a mix of astonishment, resignation, anger, and resentment as Gotham Gazette told them on Friday that the city intended to build a jail within blocks of their homes and places of work.
“I thought they were gonna do a mall,” said Jesus Ortiz, 50, who runs an auto-repair shop across the street from the NYPD tow pound that occupies the block.
The site is sandwiched between East 141st and 142nd Streets, next to Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a mix of housing and commercial properties. Enclosed by metal sheet walls, the tow pound is almost a hill overlooking its neighbors, with impounded cars visible from the street through a peripheral treeline that is leafless in February.
“They’re trying to rebuild the South Bronx to make it nice,” said Ortiz, “That’s not the way to rebuild, by putting a jail here.” Having worked there 15 years, Ortiz said he’s seen rapid development in recent times. Even the building that houses his auto shop was recently bought out, he said, and the landlords gave him a one-year lease till 2019. He’ll soon be gone from the neighborhood too.
“They’re buying all around,” he said.
Adam Bele, 40, loads containers at the lumber supply warehouse that sits behind 320 Concord. “Nobody wants to be near a jail,” he said. His biggest concern, one that others shared as well, is for the children that attend the several schools in the neighborhood.
“You don’t want children hanging around a jail,” said the father of two infants who will likely attend one of those schools, he said.
As with other residents, Bele was wary of the process for choosing the site. “It’s like they know it’s gonna be unpopular so they tried to hide it and do it quick, quick, quick,” he said. He had a simple piece of advice for the mayor. “Be transparent. Listen to this community, and take our recommendations into consideration.”
But Bele empathizes with the city’s rationale that detainees deserve to be housed closer to their families in humane and modern facilities, and that Rikers needs to close. “You don’t want them treated like animals, they’re human like us,” he said. The mayor and speaker have promised to seek community feedback on the proposed site and, as required by the city’s land use review process, community boards will get an opportunity to hold votes, albeit nonbinding, to approve or reject the proposal. Borough presidents also get to weigh in with advisory opinions.
Along Concord Avenue, in what could eventually be the shadow of a new jail, sit rowhouses, a few of them old and abandoned and showing signs of disrepair. “For Sale” signs hung in a few windows.
In one of those houses lives Nereida Chavez, 38, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed on hearing that her biggest neighbor could one day be a jail.
“I don’t like the idea of having a jail here,” she said. “It’s just scary.”
She worried that a jail could mean more traffic along a little-traversed street. “We have our kids and they love to play out here with their bikes,” she said. And, it might also mean that parking, which has become an issue already owing to the large lumber and oil and gas companies around them, might worsen. “We hardly have any parking here. It’ll be even more complicated if they put a jail here,” she said.
But Chavez was more concerned that she hardly had an opportunity to be heard on an issue that quite directly would affect her. “It makes me worried that things happen around us and we don’t know anything,” she said. “They also put shelters around us. They don’t let us know until it’s there.”
At a bodega on East 141st Street, Mel McKenzie, 33, was buying milk. Gotham Gazette asked if the homemaker knew about the city’s plan to build a jail, three blocks from her home.
“For real?” she said.
“I’m not with it,” she frowned. “It should stay an impound lot....[A jail] won’t bring the community together. It’ll probably make us scared. And it’s too close to home.”
Another shopper, Nancy Lopez, 43, chimed in. “Why move it so close when there’s other areas where they could put it?” she wondered. “Put it across Bruckner where it’s more industrial. There’s kids that walk by everyday on Concord.”
The city’s plan to close Rikers and replace some of its capacity in borough facilities near courthouses entails building for about 6,000 inmates, with the goal of getting the jail population down to about 5,000, according to the mayor.
McKenzie acknowledged that its a laudable objective to help detainees, most of whom are pre-trial and not convicted of any crime, remain connected to their communities. “That makes sense,” she said, but she also expressed concern about what school-going children would take away from it. “That’s the message they’re sending? You’re gonna be close to home if you get locked up.”
“What happens if a prisoner escapes?” said Lopez, who said she is on disability and lives on Concord Avenue in the same row as Nereida Chavez. Instead, she proposed a “positive” alternative. “Why don’t they build affordable housing?”
Both women had one shared concern, however, that neither of them had received an opportunity to weigh in. “They should notify the public,” McKenzie said.
“As it’s happening, not when it’s already decided,” added Lopez. The city will present plans to the public, particularly through the community board, when the site is set for its place in the land use review process. It may be up to local residents to seek out opportunities to hear more and provide their feedback.
Presenting the site as a “fait accompli” would undermine the process, said the Bronx borough president in his statement, but it’s what one resident seemed to expect from the administration. “The city does whatever it wants,” said Hector Camilo, 55. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t argue with the city.”
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
Note - This article has been corrected to note that Assembly Member Michael Blake does not represent the district where the proposed jail site at 320 Concord Avenue is located. He represents a neighboring district.