March 25, 2019 By Christian Murray
The de Blasio administration’s plan to build four community-based jails took a significant step forward today with the City Planning Commission certifying the plans, representing the beginning of the seven-month public review process.
The plan presented by the city to the planning commission calls for four community-based jails–including one in Kew Gardens–each housing 1,437 inmates.
The sites, however, all need to be rezoned in order for the jails to be built, requiring public review.
The certification represents the beginning of what’s called the ULURP process, where the plans undergo community board and borough president review. Both will weigh in on the proposed rezoning with non-binding advisory opinions.
The plan will then go back to the City Planning Commission for further review and will ultimately go before the city council for a vote. Should the council vote in favor, the sites will officially be rezoned and the city can move ahead with the plan.
The plan centers around closing Rikers Island, which has eight of the city’s 11 jails. The de Blasio administration’s goal is to shut down Rikers and house all city inmates in four community-based jails by 2027.
The city views it as a “moral imperative,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, at a Friday press conference. “It is crucial that we have safe, humane jails that promote the dignity of those who are incarcerated and those who work there.”
There are currently about 8,000 inmates in city jails and the administration aims to reduce the number to about 5,000 through a number of reforms to the criminal justice system. A sharp reduction is needed since the total number of beds under the new plan would be about 5,750–down from 11,000.
The city, according to its latest plan, wants to house all female inmates in one location, which would be at the proposed Kew Gardens facility at 126-02 82nd Ave. The site would also contain a detention area for some men.
The scale of the Kew Gardens facility would also be reduced from the original plan, since the plan announced in September called for 1,510 inmates–about 75 more that the revised plan. The jail, which was initially to be about 30 stories, would be scaled back to 27 stories.
The detention facility would also be 1.3 million square feet, down from the original plan of 1.9 million.
The Kew Gardens facility would include a maternity ward and an infirmary, catering to inmates throughout the system. The site would also contain space for community facilities and retail space, like the three other jails.
The plan also calls for a pedestrian bridge that would connect the detention facility to the Queens District Attorney’s office and Queens Criminal Court building. There would be 605 parking spaces below the jail and an adjacent parking garage that would provide approximately 676 spaces.
The city said it reduced the scale of all four proposed facilities in response to community concerns.
“Obviously, we have been engaged in a very intensive process of neighborhood and community engagement, and, you know, we’ve obviously heard what the concerns are, and we are doing what we can to respond to them,” said Dana Kaplan, Deputy Director of the Office of Criminal Justice.
The city said it is looking to pare back the size of the facilities as much as possible without undermining what’s required.
“We continue to look at ways to both reduce the heights and to ensure the integrity of the program,” Glazer said.
The de Blasio administration believes that the council will support the plan, despite pushback from the public.
Marco Carrion, the city’s Commissioner of Community Affairs, said that the council members representing the neighborhoods where the jails are planned back the plan.
“The four councilmembers are very supportive of the plan and are partners in moving forward,” Carrion said at the press conference on Friday.
Council Member Karen Koslowitz, who has supported the plan to date, has come under fire from those who are calling for the city council to block the plan. She has said that she has not rejected it outright since she wants a seat at the table when it comes to making modifications.
Many residents, however, adamantly opposed the plan.
Queens Community Board 9 on March 12 rejected the plan by a vote of 34-0 and in the resolution stated that jail would “quite simply overwhelm and destroy the small historic residential neighborhood of Kew Gardens, and also adversely affect the adjacent community of Briarwood.”
Borough president Melinda Katz urged the Mayor, in a joint letter she penned with the Bronx borough president March 8, to slow down before starting the public review process. She said the city needed to work more with the community before moving forward.
“We are deeply disturbed by the lack of meaningful community engagement,” the joint letter read. “The backlash to the current plan is what happens when affected communities are not treated as partners.”