Housing complex takes South Bronx jail project to court

Mott Haven site is one of four tied to de Blasio plan to close Rikers

Feb.February 12, 2020 12:06 PM
Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson with an aerial of 320 Concord Avenue, the site of the jail project (Credit: Getty Images, Google Maps)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson with an aerial of 320 Concord Avenue, the site of the jail project (Credit: Getty Images, Google Maps)

A petition filed yesterday seeks to nullify the city’s plan to build a jail in the South Bronx.

The petition challenges the selection of a New York Police Department tow pound site Mott Haven for the construction of the facility, instead of an alternative proposal to develop the lot into a mixed-use residential and commercial space.

The petition, filed by Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association and Mott Haven resident Walter Nash, alleges the city conducted a “rigged and rushed” environmental review to select a site for a jail the community did not want, in order to meet a deadline for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers and build four new jails.

The plan, which has been criticized by community groups but supported by some criminal justice reformers, does not mandate the closure of Rikers jail complex or the island’s redevelopment, but seeks to shift the jail’s population over time to the other facilities. The City Council later took a separate action to reassure doubters that Rikers would be closed.

“The city is still reviewing the claims in the litigation but stands by the process by which we worked with neighborhoods, community and the Council to develop the plan to build a smaller, borough-based jail system and achieve the moral imperative of closing the jails on Rikers Island,” said Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the New York City Law Department.

The petition argues that the siting of the jail in Mott Haven would jeopardize the “substantial financial investments” in the Diego Beekman Houses, a nonprofit affordable housing complex near the proposed jail site, according to the petition.

Last year, before the review process was completed, the same plaintiffs filed a separate lawsuit in a failed effort to prevent the city from deciding to place the jail at the Mott Haven site.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development made a $100 million investment in the Diego Beekman Houses, a Section 8 complex that had been plagued by a drug ring called the “Wild Cowboys.”

In 2012, the housing complex refinanced a $19 million loan from the New York City Employees Retirement System and in 2018 the complex received a $25.5 million loan from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to rehabilitate the complex. It operates currently as a Housing Development Fund Corporation.

The petition also calls out a 2019 justification for the siting from the Department of Correction, which states that because the jail would keep property values in the area low, businesses would not be “indirectly displaced” by rising rents.

“Such statements are insulting,” the petition reads.

A spokesperson for activist group No New Jails, which has advocated for the closure of Rikers without the construction of any new jails, said the current jail plan would “commit New Yorkers to a future of incarceration.”

But the group expressed suspicion at the motivation for the legal challenge. A spokesperson for the group called the petitioners “[Not In My Back Yard] folks who had every opportunity to build with No New Jails but chose not to.”

“Jails are more than a public blight that depress property values — they are systems and institutions which regularly subject people to torture,” a spokesperson for No New Jails said.

Adam Stein, an attorney at Stein Adler Dabah and Zelkowitz representing the plaintiffs, said that the groups, while aligned in their opposition to the jail plan, did not coordinate.

“The theme that’s come out, based on No New Jails and other groups, is that the entire process was made to be about criminal justice reform as opposed to an examination of land use and a chance for the community that will be adversely impacted to have a say,” Stein said.

The four-jail plan went through the city’s seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

Mott Haven, located in the poorest congressional district in the nation, has historically been a dumping ground for unwanted city facilities, the petition notes. The neighborhood is home to a disproportionate number of waste transfer stations — along with Jamaica, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Hunts Point — and has the highest rate of child asthma in the city.

The neighborhood, which has seen an increase in real estate development, is also the site of Brookfield’s planned $950 million megaproject on the South Bronx waterfront, which will span 4.3 acres and include more than 1,350 apartments, 30 percent of which will be affordable.

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