Jan. 25, 2019 By Nathaly Pesantez
A local coalition made up of several community groups is hosting a “call to action” town hall in Kew Gardens next week over the city’s controversial plans to build what some locals refer to as a “mega jail” in the neighborhood.
The town hall, organized by the Community Preservation Coalition, will take place on Jan. 31, and centers on the city’s borough-based jail proposal released last summer that aims to close the jails on Rikers Island and develop four new jails across the boroughs.
The plan would see the redevelopment and expansion of the Queens Detention Complex on 126-02 82nd Ave., which connects to Queens County Criminal Court, and the parking lot next to it into a 1.9 million square-foot detention facility with about 1,510 beds—a development approximately three times larger than the existing building.
The proposal, while garnering praise by many for its goal toward justice reform, has also been met with much criticism over the amount of community engagement in developing the plan, and even the scope and objective of the project.
Next week’s town hall at the Kew Gardens Community Center will see members of the Community Preservation Coalition, formed specifically to fight against the city’s borough-based jails plan, give a presentation on the proposed complex and disclose what has transpired in their meetings with city officials since.
Several members of the CPC are part of a Queens Neighborhood Advisory Committee, a 20-or-so person group established by the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice and meant to provide community input as the project, which requires rezonings and other permits, prepares for its imminent public review process.
Maddy Farooqui, a business owner, lifelong Kew Gardens resident, and a member of both the CPC and the Kew Gardens Civic Association, said locals have lots of questions about a plan that has been “railroaded” in, and are not fully aware of its extent.
“We want to inform and educate our neighbors about this very vague and rushed proposal,” she said, later adding, “A lot of people don’t understand the far-reaching impacts of this.”
The coalition maintains that the proposed jail constitutes bad city planning, and does little to nothing in moving toward a “smaller, safer, and fairer criminal justice system,” as Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his 2018 announcement.
The proposed detention facility would rise to a height of 310 feet, a structure that the coalition says would simply dominate the skyline and overpower the neighborhood, as the current complex is only 86 feet tall.
To spread the word on the height and size of the project, the group has taken to creating its own rendering that purports to show the build envelope for the Kew Gardens site—strikingly larger than the structures around it—as planned by the city.
“They are literal monuments to incarceration, given their height,” Farooqui said of the proposed jails.
The coalition has also questioned how creating a new jail that spans nearly 2 million square feet, and building three more of about the same size in other boroughs, fits with the administration’s goals to reform the criminal justice system.
“How can you have criminal justice reform when you are building jails? she asked. “That is a contradiction to reform.”
Farooqui and others in the coalition believe reform should be achieved by changing how police and courts operate, and suggests that the city can use the money needed for developing the jails into hiring more judges and providing other services instead.
Concerns, furthermore, remain on the impacts the structure will have on traffic (as it involves demapping part of 82nd Avenue) public transportation, sewers, sanitation and more.
Much of those concerns will be answered once the city releases the results of its environmental study for the project, which is expected to be some time in March—the same time the public review for the jails kicks off, according to Sylvia Hack, member to both the NAC and Community Board 9.
Hack said she has invited a representative from the Queens District Attorney’s office to the town hall, as well as Council Member Robert Holden, a staunch opponent of the city’s borough-based jails plan, who introduced a bill last spring to study the feasibility of renovating Rikers Island.
The town hall will also see coalition members, made up of local leaders from Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Briarwood and more, suggest ways that the community can work to oppose the project, including petitions, protests, calls to legislators and more.
The meeting has already seen great interest, the coalition said, adding that the community center can fit just under 200 people. The town hall, however, will also be live-streamed.
The Jan. 31 event follows a petition against the plan that has received more than 4,000 signatures, among other continuing efforts to stop the build out, although the group recognizes the challenges ahead.
“We haven’t really even stopped to think about that,” Hack said in response to the possibility of the jail plan going through. “But we know what we’re up against.”
The town hall will take place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31 at the Kew Gardens Community Center, located at 80-02 Kew Gardens Rd. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. ID is required for entry.