City Drops Chinatown Jail Plan But Distrust Lingers

From left: Matthew Washington, Manhattan deputy borough president, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Chinatown, Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, James Wong, president of the Lin Sing Association, and Raymond Tsang, president of the Ning Yung Association, addressing the Chinatown community the day after the city announced it will drop its plan to build a jail at 80 Centre St. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

The abrupt announcement from the city on Nov. 28 that it has scrapped the plan to build a new jail at 80 Centre St. and will instead expand the current detention center at 125 White St. (known as “The Tombs”) triggered a new round of strong reaction from Chinatown. Some say the city has heard the voices of the residents. Others note the city again didn’t discuss the new plan with the community before the announcement, and it may in fact do more harm to Chinatown than the previous plan. At a community meeting on Nov. 29 hosted by Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, community members and elected officials asked the city to restart the scoping process and engage the community. So far it seems the city has no intention to do so.

The city previously planned to build a more than 400-foot tall jail on Centre Street as part of its borough-based jail system to replace Rikers Island. After the community protested vehemently, the city announced on Nov. 28 it would give up the location, citing unexpected complexity in the construction. It will instead expand the detention center on White Street to a height of 500 feet instead. In the evening on the day of the announcement, community leaders held a press conference to claim victory. But at a meeting the day after, attendees were not so optimistic.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in the community oppose the expansion of the current detention center,” said Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. “The community is facing many challenges such as education, housing and small business development. It badly needs assistance. Why can’t the city invest more money to solve these problems rather than building a jail?”

“It is premature [to claim a victory],” said Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “125 White St. is closer to Chinatown than 80 Centre St. This seems like a worse plan.”

Niou assured the attendees that the city giving up the Centre Street location came as a result of community protests. But she reminded them that it still hasn’t addressed the concerns raised about the current detention center, such as parking and traffic congestion. And it didn’t stop the scoping process of the Manhattan jail which, now associated with the Centre Street location, is close to an end. Now that there is a new plan at a new location, she said, the city should restart the scoping process to allow the  full participation of the community.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh said it is not clear whether it is legal for the city to keep pushing forward the earlier scoping process when the location of the plan has changed. He said he has asked city attorneys and their response was yes both locations were for the Manhattan borough-based jail plan. “On the one hand, the city has given up 80 Centre St., meaning it has heard the voice of the community. On the other hand, the city is launching another plan without discussing it with the community,” said Kavanagh. “The White Street detention center will be 500 feet [in height] and about 50 floors. This is not an expansion, it is a new construction.”

Jerry Cheng, a retired principal city planner of the Department of City Planning, said during the 37 years he worked for the department, he had never seen a single occasion in which the scoping process was not restarted after the location of the proposal was changed. Jan Lee, a property owner in Chinatown, suggested the possibility of filing a joint lawsuit against the city with other neighborhoods affected by the borough-based jails for not following the procedure required by law.

Manhattan Deputy Borough President Matthew Washington said that the city only agreed to postpone the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) for three months until March to engage the community. But the city told the borough president’s office in April that it would host a community meeting before announcing the previous plan. It never happened. The plan was suddenly announced in August when many residents were away for vacation. Now the new plan was announced in the same manner. So it is hard to believe the city will truly seek community participation during the three months. “The borough president plays a major role in the ULURP application,” said Washington. “If the city fails to involve the community, we’ll vote no.”

Representatives from the offices of Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Council member Margaret Chin attended the meeting. The city had not responded to inquiries from Sing Tao Daily by press time.

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