Mayor Should Call ‘Collect’ for Borough-Based Jail Plan [OP-ED]
As expected, the City Planning Commission this week rubber-stamped the controversial jail plan which would see the closure of Rikers Island in favor of four new borough-based jails. Next up is today’s City Council ULURP hearing, which will likely amount to just another mass validation session. Question is, besides the unofficial “common sense” caucus among councilmembers, who else will stand up and speak out against the plan during the open debate? Certainly not Margaret Chin, who has yet to reply to Chinatown leaders’ request for her official stance. So much so that Chinese press recently labeled her, “The offender of the century against Chinatown.”
Over the past few months, Mayor de Blasio’s office has fast-tracked the prison plan, despite community opposition, and often with questionable means. Such as the apparent bait-and-switch on the Environmental Impact Statement from 80 Centre Street to 125 White Street, where the administration is hell-bent on building a Tombs replacement.
Yet, why not look again at alternative locations that may be suitable? Why not Collect Pond Park?
Collect Pond served as the freshwater source for lower Manhattan settlers in the 1700s. It was also a recreational area, albeit briefly. The sixty-foot-deep pond fell on hard times thanks to polluted runoff from the nearby tanneries and slaughterhouses that dotted what is now Mulberry Street. In the early 1800s, the city sealed Collect Pond, and created a canal to help drain the water towards the Hudson River; this canal was itself covered and later became Canal Street.
The city constructed housing atop the capped Collect Pond, yielding the notorious Five Points neighborhood of yore; then present-day Chinatown. The original “Tombs” arrived in 1838, and for the next hundred years, the site was synonymous with jails. The detention center was demolished in 1901, and a replacement “Tombs” followed using concrete caissons going as deep as 140 feet below ground for stability. The current compound across the street at 125 White debuted in 1941.
So, why has Mayor de Blasio and his team dismissed the Collect Pond land as a viable alternate site for the new Chinatown prison? An under-utilized park surrounded by four huge government buildings would seem an ideal location if they must build. The Family Court to its west, Department of Health on the south, criminal courts to the east and 111 Centre Street to the north, these buildings would offer sufficient buffering between residential buildings and the construction site. Access roads for construction and supply vehicles on Lafayette and Centre are also much wider than Baxter. Underground passageways, meanwhile, could provide access to both criminal courts.
Perhaps Collect Pond wasn’t considered due to the underground water source, but given today’s engineering technology it would be totally possible. After all, the city constructed a massive building there a century ago. And architects implemented a “bathtub” foundation for the World Trade Center over 50 years ago to keep water out.
The city has a chance to do right by all involved and lessen the disruption to the surrounding community instead of taking a non-negotiable posture. The Manhattan plan could be revised for a smaller jail in Collect Pond along with renovation of the current Manhattan Detention Complex to accommodate the 1,500 detainee population target.