Urban Humanities and Their Publics Emerging Leaders Program Blog

What do the sites for the Borough-Based Jails plan look like?

Queens Detention Center, Kew Gardens

New York City’s battle to close the Riker’s Island complex and build separate jails for each borough (except Staten Island) is slowly moving forward. The terms of the battle have been set by the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which technically allows community boards the opportunity to respond to and advise on massive land use plans that will directly impact their districts. In this case, the city made the unprecedented move to combine all individual borough-based jail proposals into a single ULURP, effectively limiting debate at the community level. While every community board with a jail proposed in its district voted against the plan in spring 2019, the City Council ultimately overrode these recommendations in one big October vote, and pushed the plan forward.

As of now, a group called Neighborhoods United Below Canal has filed a lawsuit against the expansion of the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), and the Beekman Mutual Housing Association filed one against the plan to build the nineteen-story jail on what is now an NYPD tow pound. A group of homeowners in Queens is also supposedly planning to file a lawsuit against the jail slated to be built there. 

As lawsuits come in, the plan seems to be facing mounting challenges. Nonetheless, the city appears undeterred. In January the Brooklyn Detention Center moved all of its inmates out to other jails including Riker’s and MDC, effectively closing the facility. This would imply that the city may be planning construction soon. The Department of Design and Construction (DDC) recently issued Requests for Qualifications (RFQs), which asks firms to submit “statements of qualifications.” DDC then invites qualified firms to submit construction proposals. A slow, but steady race between lawsuits and construction proposals is likely to follow. As of now, the sites where the new jails are planned are virtually untouched, though they may not stay this way for long. The built landscape of the city is ever-changing. As of now, there have been no construction timelines released.

The Bronx

View of Bronx tow pound, where the Borough's new jail is slated to be built. From 142nd street and Wales Avenue facing south
Bronx Tow Pound, E 142nd St & Wales Ave, Mott Haven

The tow pound sited as the location for the Bronx’s borough-based jail sits at 142nd Street and Southern Boulevard on the border of Port Morris and Mott Haven, right off the Bruckner Expressway. Less than two miles away, docked off the shore of Hunts Point, sits the Vernon C. Bain Center. Intended as a temporary facility, there are no plans to close it despite the closure of Riker’s. 

Ominous sheet metal and barbed wire walls line the border of the tow pound, creating a visual obstruction to immediate surroundings. Across the street on Concord Avenue are low-rise, single-family homes. A 19-story building, likely with few windows and positive visual attributes, will surely block the light of these homes. The immediate area has mostly small businesses, including auto parts stores and mechanics.

NYPD vehicles come in and out all day, so perhaps the community already feels the presence of something–a presence unwanted, but familiar. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has spoken out against the jail being built at the site. He’s said that it would make more sense for it to be near the borough’s court system. Every other jail site is located next to a courthouse. 

Right around the corner from the site is the stunning Saint Mary’s Park, with the historic PS 277 alongside it. 

Queens

Queens Detention Center, Queens Blvd & 82nd Ave, Kew Gardens

The Queens borough-based Jail will be built in Kew Gardens right next to the current Queens Detention Center. The exact location of the building will be where the parking lot for the current jail, courthouse, and Queens Borough President’s office is. Right off the Union Turnpike – Kew Gardens “E” and “F” subway stop, the site is sandwiched in between Queens Boulevard, Jackie Robinson Parkway, and the Van Wyck Expressway. 

This parking lot would still exist in some form, although a nineteen-story jail will sit on top of it. The parking lot already fills up on a Friday afternoon, though there don’t seem to be plans to add more parking elsewhere. 

The Queens Detention Center towers over its immediate surroundings. The lack of windows gives it its foreboding presence. The courthouse attached to it has a more modern look with broad glass walls and sleek features.

Queens Criminal Court Building

The Queens District Attorney’s office is across the street, and next to it are lawyers and bail bond offices. A block away, just over the Hoover Avenue bridge, is a residential neighborhood with a number of public housing projects. The surrounding neighborhoods are primarily residential. Affluent neighborhoods like the famous Forest Hills Gardens and Jamaica Estates, where Donald Trump grew up, are only minutes away.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn Detention Complex, Atlantic Ave & Smith St, Boerum Hill

The jail site in Brooklyn will be a full replacement of the jail that currently sits there, the Brooklyn Detention Complex. The complex will be demolished and replaced by a facility twice as big, at 28 stories and 1,437 beds. The Brooklyn Detention Complex currently has 815 beds.

Guards standing across the street from the courthouse building mentioned that detainees are sent from the court to the jail through a tunnel that goes under the street. They were under the impression that the jail was still operating, which they were not entirely wrong about. Walking into the main entrance of the jail, you’ll find a clerk at the desk behind thick glass. They mentioned there are no people currently being held there. The detainees had been moved out to other jails in preparation for its demolition, as previously mentioned.

Though the jail was empty, a corrections bus can be seen pulling in.

Manhattan

Manhattan Criminal Court Building (Background) Columbus Park (Foreground) Bayard St, Chinatown

The site of the Manhattan-based jail, like the Brooklyn site, will be built where an existing jail stands. The Manhattan Detention Center, which has 898 beds across two buildings, will be replaced by a single building with a total of 1,437 beds. At 32 stories, the building will be more than twice as tall as the 14-story building–the taller of the two–that’s there now. 

The current buildings already tower over Chinatown, which is right next to the jail. Chinatown’s Columbus Park, a fixture of the neighborhood, sits in the shade of the massive courthouse building. 

In the immediate area, there are bail bonds and lawyers offices, just like the Brooklyn and Queens sites. It seems natural that businesses like this will spring up around the facilities, creating little carceral neighborhoods. With the city focusing more on these neighborhood-specific sites, these carceral neighborhoods may expand.