‘Tombs’ turnaround: City shifts jail site 3 blocks north

The Manhattan Detention Complex, more colloquially known as “The Tombs,” at White and Centre Sts., is once again the city’s preferred site of a new towering jail building to serve the entire borough. Under the project, The Tombs would kick the bucket, and an entirely new jail would be constructed there.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | On Wednesday, the city backtracked on locating a jail at 80 Centre St.

City officials told The Villager the de Blasio administration plans to return to its original plan to locate a jail at Manhattan’s existing detention complex at 125 White St. at the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as “the Tombs.”

The city had been pitching constructing a 430-foot building at 80 Centre St. as a part of its larger project to close Rikers Island and drastically reduce the city’s jail population. The Manhattan District Attorney’s offices, the city’s Marriage License Bureau, and other offices are currently housed at 80 Centre St.

But, the costs associated with relocating those offices within Lower Manhattan proved more burdensome than originally believed. Instead, according to a mayoral spokesperson, the city plans to demolish The Tombs and site its new Manhattan borough-based jail there.

“It’s crucial that we close Rikers Island and transition to a smaller, safer borough-based jail system as quickly as possible,” mayoral spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas said in a statement. “We found that the challenges associated with relocating various offices at 80 Centre St. would make siting a jail there far more complicated and more costly than we originally anticipated. As we met with the community, it became clear that the original site we considered better addressed their needs without costly challenges created by using 80 Centre, and we are reverting our site selection to the Manhattan Detention Complex.”

The other four boroughs’ locations for their new jails will remain the same, according to a city official.

The Manhattan jail is a part of a larger project to close Rikers Island and open four borough-based jails in all boroughs — except Staten Island — to reduce the city’s jail population to 5,000. This year, the jail population has averaged around 8,200 — the lowest in three decades and 12 percent less than last year.

The city emphasized the goal to close Rikers by 2027 still stands, but the public review process, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, will be pushed back by about three months.

When the location was originally changed from White St. to Centre St. in August, the city argued that The Tombs was inadequate to meet the new jail’s needs of 1,500 beds since the location currently only has 1,000 beds. Furthermore, the city said in scoping documents that The Tombs’ facilities were outdated, falling short of modern detention facilities in terms of inmates’ space, sunlight and social spaces.

To solve that problem, the city proposed tearing down 80 Centre St. and building a 430-foot building in its place.

The new plan will involve demolishing the Manhattan Detention Complex, and the borough-based jail will still hold 1,500 beds, according to a mayoral spokesperson. The maximum height of the new facility could be slightly higher than 500 feet, but the city is working toward decreasing that height in the coming months.

For more than a year, the Downtown community had thought the borough’s “community jail” would be located at The Tombs. But then in August the city told local stakeholders at an insiders’ meeting that the city planned to tear down 80 Centre St. and build a 430-foot jail there instead. Chinatown activists have since blasted the city for changing the location and Downtown politicians have criticized the city’s process.

In a statement, City Councilmember Margaret Chin said sees the latest location change as “a sign that the community’s concerns and input about the future of this facility matter.”

“By focusing the conversation on this existing detention site,” she said, “we can ensure that this facility remains near the courts, and Columbus Park will no longer be placed under the shadow of a proposed 40-story jail at 80 Centre St.

“Let’s be absolutely clear,” Chin stressed, “this moment would not be possible without elected officials, advocates and residents fighting to increase opportunities to engage in this process. There remains a great deal of work to be done to make sure that true community engagement is achieved.”

Borough President Gale Brewer said in a statement, “The administration needed to change course on the location for the new facility, but the core problem here was that City Hall wanted to announce its plan before engaging with the community on how to craft it. I hope that in the coming weeks and months, City Hall will engage in a more bottom-up process that builds support in Chinatown and Lower Manhattan, makes people feel like they were actually heard, and improves the plan — instead of repeating the mistakes that got us here.”

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