After a decade of disuse following Superstorm Sandy and a failed billionaire-backed redevelopment project, a shuttered prison in West Chelsea could soon come back to life as supportive housing for formerly homeless people. 

The Empire State Development Corporation will seek proposals to revamp the state-owned Bayview Correctional Facility, officials announced during last week’s vote of the agency’s directors on a controversial plan for real estate redevelopment around Penn Station to fund transit center upgrades.

ESD has included residences at Bayview — originally a home for traveling seamen — in a list of promises to local elected officials it has made in connection with the Penn project. In a Monday letter of commitments, representatives of Gov. Kathy Hochul said “no fewer than 60 supportive housing units [will] be provided on that site.”

Supportive housing provides affordable apartments for people who would otherwise be homeless, along with social services on site that may include mental health or addiction counseling.

Jeffrey LeFrancois, chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 4 and a member of the volunteer Penn Station Community Advisory Committee, said he learned about the solicitation for supportive housing at Bayview during last week’s committee meeting.

He said he supports the state using the site for a public good such as supportive housing. But LeFrancois isn’t a fan of the state dragging Bayview into the mix with the Penn Station redevelopment. The jail is located on 20th Street at West Street in Chelsea — many blocks away from the Penn Station redevelopment area in Midtown. 

“I don’t know that folks in the community will see it as appropriate mitigation to what’s happening around Penn Station,” he said. “But it could potentially meet one of the long held social service goals of Community Board 4.”

Owned by New York’s state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the 108,000-square-foot jail facility closed shortly after Superstorm Sandy battered New York in 2012, with the building sustaining $600,000 in damage. The state, through ESD, issued a solicitation in 2014 to overhaul the site — selecting a proposal from the NoVo Foundation, the nonprofit group with ties to billionaire Warren Buffett. 

The former jail building in Chelsea has been empty since 2012. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As previously reported by THE CITY, NoVo planned to transform the facility into the Women’s Building, providing office space for organizations focused on women’s equality and an art gallery community for events. The proposed property redevelopment got the backing of many organizations and people, including then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. 

But in 2019, NoVo pulled out, saying that the timelines and costs exceeded original estimates. The organization said it would instead make a $50 million commitment “to continue the work already underway by this remarkable community.”

Housing Not Jails?

The state’s Penn Station plan will allow developers to add 18 million square feet of new buildings, most of it office space, in exchange for money that will allow the state to make improvements to Penn Station.

The state’s list of Penn project pledges includes additional promises for affordable and supportive housing. Hochul said of the 1,800 new units of housing created in the Penn area plan, up to 648 would be “rent restricted and/or offer supportive services,” Monday’s letter read.

Counting the 60 proposed residences at Bayview, ESD said 708 new “affordable and supportive housing units” in all will be included “as part of the governor’s broader vision for the Penn Station area and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, advocates for incarcerated people have pushed to reopen former state prisons in Manhattan as new correctional facilities, as New York City moves ahead on plans to close chaotic and dangerous jails on Rikers Island. 

The #BEYONDrosies campaign, spearheaded by the Women’s Community Justice Association, is pushing for Rose M. Singer Center — the women’s prison at Rikers — to end operations before the city’s planned 2027 closure of the island penal complex. With former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and former Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi among its supporters, the campaign is also calling for using any one of three former state prisons, primarily Lincoln Correctional  in Harlem, to be reactivated as a standalone prison for women. 

The Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which drove the plan to close Rikers by 2027, has recommended that Bayview and Lincoln reopen.

Dana Kaplan, a senior advisor to the commission, said that while she hopes one of the prisons will be used to help alleviate the crisis at Rikers, supportive housing is a critical component of helping those who have gone through the city or state’s prison system. 

“I think that the decision by the state to use Bayview for supportive housing is something that I think many advocates and organizations would support,” she said. “We want to see even more housing in the city, particularly housing that can effectively serve a justice-involved population.”