Inside the Bronx fight to pass the New York City borough-based jails plan and

The borough-based jails plan to replace Rikers—which was approved in October 2019—is expected to cost $8.3 billion and handle roughly 3,300 inmates.

Time frames range: The Queens jail began construction in June. The Bronx site is the last to launch.

Work on the Mott Haven jail is expected to begin late next year and last through 2027, according to the New York City Department of Design and Construction. Yonkers Construction Group secured a $76.7 design-build contract with the city to prep the grounds, and it began clearance work in March.

Parts of the existing 11-story Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue will be demolished this year, the city said, with construction due to begin in summer 2023.

The Chinatown jail site in Manhattan is expected to be demolished this year as well, though there has been intense and ongoing community opposition to the replacement project. Facility design and construction in Manhattan is scheduled to begin early next year.

Battle in the Bronx

The Bronx jail site battle provides a powerful example of the obstacles in modern city planning.

The process to even get shovels in the ground was filled with pitfalls for members of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, who needed to obtain agreements with politicians from four boroughs to give the replacement plan even a fighting chance.

“At every step of the way this was an incredibly complicated and complex crisis that no one took as a likelihood or as a given that it would move ahead,” said Dana Kaplan, former deputy director of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The administration’s concession to Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx of more than $128 million in new funding investments toward criminal justice reform and more than $137 million in neighborhood investments secured City Council approval of the plan to close Rikers and replace it by 2027.

But throughout land-use negotiations, community members and elected officials in the Bronx established an obstacle for the city and opposed placing the jail at a proposed site in Mott Haven.

The intransigent opposition by influential politicians—including Rafael Salamanca Jr., chairman of the council’s land-use committee, and Ruben Diaz Jr., former Bronx borough president—threatened to upend the Rikers replacement plan. Arline Parks, a community organizer for Community Board 1, rallied local opposition against the project, spearheaded a lawsuit against the city and urged the community board to vote down the Mott Haven proposal in May 2019.

“I will say that there was just not a shared opinion as to what the most appropriate location was in the Bronx,” Kaplan said. “It was much more challenging to look for a plot of land in the Bronx that would work when there wasn’t an existing Department of Correction facility next to the city courthouses.”

Unlike the jail replacement sites in the other three boroughs, which are to be built adjacent to a district courthouse, the Bronx proposal was to build over a New York Police Department tow yard at East 141st Street and Concord Avenue in Mott Haven.

Salamanca and other critics argued that idea behind the jail replacement plan was to build beside courthouses—a point not lost on the architects of the project.

“The idea for all these jails, because they’re right next other courthouses, is that you don’t deal with problems at Rikers, where they have to transport people, bus people all over the city for their court dates,” said Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Lippman Commission, which in 2017 reviewed and recommended the plan to close Rikers.

“The hope, and belief, is that by being next to the courthouse, people will get to court and won’t languish in jail just because they aren’t physically unable to get to the courtroom,” Katznelson said.

South Bronx residents including Parks argued construction of a jail would tank real estate values and harm residents’ quality of life. Salamanca pushed for an alternative site near the Bronx Hall of Justice, closer to the Harlem River. The Concourse site would’ve required a significantly smaller construction footprint and necessitated the jail rise even higher than the proposed 20 stories, Kaplan said.

Ultimately, the approval of a single council member allowed the project to move forward.

Concession granted

Councilwoman Diana Ayala represents the 8th District in the East Bronx, home of the Mott Haven site. Throughout the contentious negotiation period in 2019, Ayala remained committed to closing Rikers, having voiced her experience of watching her brother wallow there. Her commitment proved crucial to holding a final vote.

The unofficial council process of member deference allows a single member to decide the fate any land-use or rezoning action proposed within his or her district. The practice gained renewed scrutiny when Councilman Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn used the tool to tank the Industry City rezoning plan in…

Read More: Inside the Bronx fight to pass the New York City borough-based jails plan and

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