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Mayor meets with stakeholders on jail; No press allowed

A handful of demonstrators, including Chinatown activist and “Close Rikers” opponent Karlin Chan, right, staged a counterprotest outside the American Legion Post 1291 when the mayor met with local stakeholders this week. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | After outrage from Chinatown residents over the plans to locate a “community jail” in Lower Manhattan, Mayor Bill de Blasio met with neighborhood stakeholders and Downtown politicians on Tues., Dec. 18.

The new Lower Manhattan jail is a part of de Blasio’s larger project to close Rikers Island by 2027 and open four smaller jails to reduce the jail population to 5,000 from 8,200 to work toward ending mass incarceration and creating a more humane jail system.

“People in the city unquestionably want the era of mass incarceration to end,” de Blasio said Tuesday. “We cannot make the reforms we need if we keep a broken place at the center of the system.”

“Rikers Island was not built for rehabilitation,” he said. “It will not work for the future.”

But Downtowners have been blindsided by the plans, most recently during a back-and-forth on the jail’s location. The latest plan is to demolish the Manhattan Detention Complex at 125 White St. and build a 500-foot-tall jail for 1,500 beds, according to city officials. The city is currently looking for ways to reduce the building’s height.

De Blasio met with stakeholders, including representatives of Community Boards 1 and 3, as well as members of Chatham Green Cooperative and Neighbors United Below Canal, among other nonprofit leaders in Chinatown.

Shortly after the mayor’s remarks, the press were shooed out. Stakeholders in the room said they felt encouraged the mayor came to Chinatown, despite the “closed doors” appearance of the meeting.

“I think we made such a ruckus that he felt pressure to come to Chinatown,” said Nancy Kong, president of Chatham Towers and a member of Neighbors United Below Canal. “I was disappointed that he pretty much shut down many of the requests that we had made,” she added.

Kong told the mayor of how residents have already been living with “armed guards, with bomb-sniffing dogs, with cameras and with checkpoints at every other corner,” especially after 9/11. She requested the city find a fifth site for a jail to reduce Manhattan’s proposed jail’s population — which is what the commission that created the plan to close Rikers had originally suggested. She asked for analysis of other alternatives and to restart the review process with an additional scoping meeting.

“This isn’t just an area where you just have court systems,” Kong said, referring to the city’s argument that a Lower Manhattan jail would reduce detainees’ travel time due to its proximity to courthouses.

A handful of protesters stood outside, including C.B. 3 member Karlin Chan, who said the “closed door meeting” only exacerbates lack of transparency and community distrust.

“This is not acceptable to the community,” said Chan, who opposes closing Rikers Island in its entirety.

Community Board 1 Chairperson Anthony Notaro would like Tuesday’s meeting to become a regular thing.

The public review process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure will begin sometime before spring. Councilmember Margaret Chin supports closing Rikers, but has previously kept the focus on leveraging community benefits through the ULURP process.

Notaro said community benefits C.B. 1 would support would largely depend on the desires of Chinatown, which is mostly in Board 3’s district and would actually be more impacted than C.B. 1.

This article has been updated to indicate Nancy Kong is the president of Chatham Towers, not Chatham Green Cooperative.

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