Jail Time

Rikers replacement plan moves forward with reduced jail tower heights

Rikers Island currently holds 10 distinct jail buildings. (Via Flickr/formulanone)

Last week on October 17 the New York City Council voted to approve a controversial plan to build four borough-based local jails to replace Rikers Island by 2026. The decision came after the city announced it would reduce the maximum height for the new facilities from 450 feet to 295 feet. 

The $8.7 billion proposal passed 36-13 and was backed by all four council members who represent the neighborhoods where the new high-rise jails will be located. Council member Margaret Chin of District 1 in Manhattan publically defended her choice to bring the tallest of the jails to Chinatown, saying the 155-foot height drop on the White Street tower “will [now] not be out of scale with the neighborhood.” Likely to now stand 29 stories tall, the facility will be significantly shorter than some of the recently-built and planned skyscrapers around the Lower East Side, but locals, prison-reform activists, and some architects still oppose it

Each community board overseeing the proposed sites actively disapproved of the plan when it came before them, and just two weeks ago, over 1,000 people marched through Chinatown in an effort to change Chin’s mind. The Neighbors United Below Canal (N.U.B.C.) has already announced it will sue the city for its decision, citing an unlawful approval process as its main defense. According to the Tribeca Tribune, the group’s founders believe the public should have been allowed to review the changes to the Manhattan location and that the environmental impact report, finalized in August, lacked significant details.

Side by side comparison of New York street with second image of tower covering a city block

A comparison of 125 White Street today and with the older, taller version of the proposed jail tower, which will now be 125-feet shorter. (Courtesy the New York City Department of Correction)

So far, no one knows what these jails will look like, which is one piece of critical information opponents say should have been included in the too-vague proposal. N.U.B.C. also asked where all the much-needed services will go now that so many floors have been cut off from the high-rise towers. “How within months could you take away hundreds of feet?” said organizer Jan Lee in an interview with Curbed New York. “So does anyone really know what we’re designing here? I don’t think so.” 

Until AECOM, the lead design-build firm on the project, reveals initial visuals of each structure, it’s unclear just how these buildings will accommodate the incarcerated. For now, all that’s known are the heights of each facility: in Brooklyn, the 275 Atlantic Avenue site will be 295 feet; in Queens, the 126-02 82nd Street will be 195 feet; and in the Bronx, located at 320 Concord Avenue, the jail tower will be 195 feet.

City officials explained that the new heights are based on the new estimated number of detainees in New York by 2026. The de Blasio administration expects the city’s population will be halved by the time the jails open, to 3,300 people. Based on this, each facility will hold less than 1,000 people. Mayor De Blasio has said that he will sign off on the proposal when it arrives at his desk.

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