Officials at a senior citizens’ residence next to a Lower Manhattan jail say they were told by city officials that they’ll have a few extra months before demolition starts next door. 

The Manhattan Detention Complex’s knockdown is being delayed from next March to June or July, according to Charlie Lai, executive director of the Chung Pak building for seniors, which is adjacent to the jail and is scheduled to receive protective upgrades before the demo work starts. 

“That will give us only 12 months or so to complete everything,” he said, including shielding for a rooftop solarium and new windows. “I am extremely anxious about, you know, getting it started so that the building has its own envelope of safety.”

The call to Lai last week from the city’s affordable housing agency marked one of the latest signs that the de Blasio administration’s 10-year, $8.7 billion plan to replace Rikers Island with smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island has hit some early snags. 

Another sign: some recent pandemic-spurred funding changes, which prompted one Lower Manhattan community group to crow this week: “We have saved Chinatown for now.”

But city officials said the plan to demolish and replace the 24-story jail tower known as The Tombs is still a go — along with the rest of the planned new lockups.

“There have been no cuts to funding for borough-based jails and the city remains committed to closing Rikers and building a jail system that is smaller, safer, and more humane,” said Maggie Halley, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. 

A Big Inmate Drop

Supporters of the plan note that the city’s jail population has dropped to 3,929 as of Friday, according to the city’s Board of Correction. The decrease is tied to bail reform and a push to release people vulnerable to COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic in mid-March, about 5,500 were held in city jails.

The network of new jails will have a capacity for 3,300 detainees, a count city officials had predicted would take until 2026 to hit.  

The Riker Island jail complex. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When the City Council approved the 2020-2021 city budget last week, it solidified a plan first put forth by the mayor at the height of the COVID-19 crisis to move the funding timeline for the jails project back by a fiscal year. Capital funds have been moved around to be spent through 2027, rather than 2026 as previously planned.

The Independent Budget Office called the change “minor revisions” that would affect payments and closeout costs, but “not technically a delay in the construction timeline,” according to a June memo on the city’s spending on jails.

That has not stopped residents and activists opposed to the jail project from predicting a potentially major shift for the project — into the next administration, where they see it sputtering out.

Neighbors United Below Canal, a group that has sued to stop the jail planned at the site of The Tombs on White Street, claimed a victory in a statement to supporters over the weekend — citing a City Council budget document from May predicting changes in financing would “decrease the chances of these jails being built.”

Jan Lee, a NUBC leader, later clarified that the group doesn’t think the project is “dead in the water” just yet, but that members are “cautiously optimistic,” he told THE CITY.

‘A Race Against Time’

The mayor’s criminal justice team has divided the jail overhaul into seven separate projects, with each bid out to contractors.

“Because of COVID-19, procurement deadlines that were coming up for some of these projects have been pushed back by a month or two,” said Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a nonprofit that seeks to help the city close Rikers. 

A project management consulting team working on how the new jails will look has also stopped meeting since the outbreak of COVID-19, according to a June 29 statement from Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge who led a panel calling for the closure of Rikers. 

Charlie Lai, exec. director of Chung Pak, shows ‘The Tombs’ from his office window last year. Credit: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

It’s critical to get everything moving again “so that the short-term COVID-related pause does not turn into an excuse for inaction and for failing to live up to the promise to close Rikers,” said Nims.  

For Lai, the delay means more time for the city to figure out a construction mitigation plan for the 100 elderly residents living next door. He described the rush to protect the seniors as a “race against time.” 

All Eyes on 2021

Some who have fought for years to close Rikers Island for good do not see the procurement delay as a bad omen. 

Brandon J. Holmes of JustLeadershipUSA, the group that spurred the Close Rikers campaign, believes now is the best moment for the mayor to recommit to the plan with the jail population at its lowest point in decades.

“We did not anticipate to get closer to, or 700 away, from our target population in the first few months of 2020,” he said. “This should present an opportunity for the city to move faster.”

With the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated people, “the urgency has never been more pressing,” Holmes added.

“The way the political will and popular opinion has shifted on these issues, this is the opportunity for this administration to go out with a bang and make sure that they get this plan to a point of no return,” he said.

Nancy Kong, a Chinatown activist and member of NUBC, is also looking forward to the 2021 election. She’s seeking a new mayor who will scrap the current plan.

“We’re not even looking at Corey Johnson,” she said of the Council Speaker, a likely mayoral candidate who supports the jails plan. “He’s just a non-factor right now.”