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City Hits Pause on Demolition of Manhattan Detention Center After Outcry From Locals

Days after announcing it was moving forward right away on the razing downtown, the Adams administration decided to hold off for two weeks.

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Construction workers have been taking steps toward tearing down the Manhattan Detention Complex to make way for a new jail, April 25, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Just three days after angering local politicians, activists, and residents by giving the green light to demolish the Manhattan Detention Complex in lower Manhattan as a first step toward erecting a new jail on its footprint, the Adams administration has quietly tapped the brakes, THE CITY has learned. 

The shift came after administration officials sprung the news, at an online meeting of Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee meeting last week, that it would proceed with a full demolition. 

Local activists and elected officials had been pushing instead for an “adaptive reuse” of the existing 15-story jail building.

Assemblywoman Grace Lee, state Senator Brian Kavanagh, and City Councilmember Christopher Marte, who all represent the area where the old jail is being taken down, joined the CB1 meeting on April 19 over Zoom to express their anger about what they said was a surprise decision by City Hall. 

The city Department of Design and Construction [DDC] “had promised that we would be receiving documentation to justify their decision,” said Lee. “We are incredibly disappointed that we are hearing that this demolition is going to move forward without another meeting with our community, without the documentation to support moving forward with the plan as is” to fully demolish the existing buildings.

But soon enough, administration officials conceded they’d made a mistake in moving ahead with the full demolition before consulting with local residents and elected officials.

On Friday afternoon, April 21, Marte, Lee, Kavanagh, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and CB1 officials held a hastily arranged sit-down meeting with Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi, officials from the DDC and the Department of Correction, and a representative from one of the firms contracted with managing the construction of four new jails, including the one planned for Manhattan, that are supposed to replace Rikers Island jails by 2027. That meeting lasted for a little more than an hour, according to Caitlin Kelmar, chief of staff for Councilmember Marte.

On Friday night, Kelmar said Joshi called Kavanagh to say the city had committed to a two-week pause on any action that could conflict with the adaptive reuse of the existing structure at 124 White Street ahead of another meeting at City Hall tentatively scheduled for this Friday. Kavanaugh shared that news with Lee and Marte, and all three then relayed it to their constituents.

Residents oppose building a new jail facility in Chinatown as part of a city plan to close Rikers Island, Sept. 5, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This week, City Hall spokesperson Charles Lutvak declined to comment on the administration’s conversation with the elected officials. He also stressed the administration did not intend to change course, even with this pause. 

“As we have repeatedly said, attempting to create this jail within the existing structure could put the building at risk of collapse and irresponsibly risk the safety of community members and workers in the building,” Lutvak said in an email, noting that the administration had experts and engineers review renovation proposals and inspect the building itself. 

“While some people may be willing to accept these impediments, we will never be willing to compromise safety or throw away taxpayer funds. We have engaged with the community every step of the way, and we are committed to continuing to work with them to limit the disruption of this project and build a more humane facility,” Lutvak said.

Community Consternation

The plan for a new jail in lower Manhattan on the site of the current complex dates back to the $8.3 billion plan then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2018 to close Rikers and build a smaller jail in each borough (except Staten Island) by 2027. According to the Adams administration, the price tag for that plan has now increased to an estimated $10 billion. 

In the meantime, Manhattan activists and residents protested and sued to halt the demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex and construction of a new jail in its place, noting that the area is already home to the Juvenile Justice center as well.

Howard Huie, 68, a resident and member of the board of directors at the nearby Chatham Towers co-op buildings, said that a two-week pause meant little to neighboring seniors like himself, noting that 25% of the population of Chinatown and the Lower East Side is over age 60, and that 29% of people there who are 65 and over live in poverty.

“For seniors like me throughout the neighborhood and residing at the Chung Pak Center, which is directly adjacent to the Manhattan Detention Complex, the last four years have been an emotional roller coaster,” Huie told THE CITY.

“The anxiety over what will become of our community if they end up demolishing the current jail is being felt by all of us, especially since the early work began in December. At our age, we are not able to pick up and move. I just don’t understand all the deliberation when there is a better solution ready and waiting that spares us from all the impacts demolition would bring.”

Jan Lee of the group Neighbors United Below Canal seconded those objections. 

“We’re in a unique position as a community to observe the building of jails that has always been preceded by smaller jails, that are successively built with larger jails every single time,” Lee told THE CITY on Monday. ”And that’s a commentary on incarceration itself. Other neighborhoods think about jails as a concept. We actually see them all around us.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the setting for the meeting between City Hall officials and local elected officials last Friday. That took place over Zoom, not as an in-person sit-down.

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