Jail will “demap” a piece of White Street for 500-foot tower

A crew of city employees from across three agencies came to CB1 this week to defend the mayor’s plan for a 500-foot jail tower on White Street, and in my mind, left a few key questions unanswered. The city has changed its mind on the location twice, but now seems set on demolishing the Tombs at 125 White as well as 124 White in order to build one giant detention center to hold 1,500 prisoners. The construction would also erase that easternmost piece of White Street when the building is constructed right over it. Here’s my attempt at a summary of a huge and complex issue for the city and the area, or you can read the presentation here for yourself:

The city has enormous citywide support for closing Rikers Island, which has fallen so far into disarray that no one could come up with a plan to save it. (Though could it be much worse than this federal prison in Brooklyn last week?). The notion is to change the entire culture of the city’s jail system; to do that requires making the system smaller, less centralized and less isolated, as well as safer and more convenient for prisoners and guards.

The first piece of the mayor’s plan (much of which will be executed after he leaves office in 2022) is to cut the prison population in half – from 9,400 when the city announced the plan in 2017 to 5,500 by 2027 – by reducing the number of people who enter jail mostly with alternatives to incarceration, and by keeping people in jail for less time. The immediate goal is to reach 7,000 prisoners by 2022, and the city seems on track to do that now; numbers are already on the decline since all children ages 16 and 17 were moved out of Rikers. So the point is not to add capacity, but to shrink it then divide it.

The second piece is to build jails in each of the four boroughs, excluding Staten Island. Those jails would be designed to make the space more pleasant for prisoners, guards and visitors by increasing natural light, creating open floor plans with better sightlines and smaller units with better access to social services (see rendering below). As Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, put it at the meeting, “How can design help promote a culture change?”

The city plans to have 1,500 beds in Manhattan, which it calculates requires 1.4 million square feet of floor space. By demolishing both the Tombs (125 White) and 124 White they can construct a larger building over the site of both by demapping the little stretch of White Street between the two buildings.

It makes my head hurt to think what the demolition and construction of this project might cost – and the toll it will take on anyone in the area. To give an example, the Citibank project on Greenwich came with a $2 billion price tag. Presenters said White Street would remain open to pedestrian traffic as part of the design, but the design process has not started. City streets are demapped (for example, the Bogardus Triangle development that took over the first block of Hudson Street) but for a jail? Then there’s construction and the impact on a dense, lively residential and commercial neighborhood: a rough sketch of the timeline shows construction could last for four years.

The city wants to start the formal land use process for site selection on March 25. The community board will then have 60 days to comment. Among others, two primary questions remain: Why are the White Street buildings not being repurposed? And if the goal is to create smaller units, why does there have to be one much larger building? What is the plan for Rikers after the prison leaves? What is the price tag on the new construction? The folks from the Office of Criminal Justice will return to CB1’s land use committee meeting again next month.



  1. I don’t think this is true. I was at the Community Board Meeting this week where this plan was discussed (I am a Public Member). I specifically asked if White Street was being de-mapped and was told NO, the street will remain, but the new building will rise on both sides and above it creating a similar streetscape like Chambers through the Municipal Building……without the grandeur.

  2. While I can certainly understand the local alarm at a new jail in the community, I must admit I am swayed by the arguments presented here by Dana Kaplan as well as other advocates of the building. There is a lot of evidence out there for local jails, and I am very much for the ATI programs and fewer individuals incarcerated overall.

    I wonder if Rikers had been without heat during the arctic blast a few weeks ago, how many would have gone all the way over there to protest as they did at the downtown Brooklyn jail? The isolation of Rikers puts lives and human rights at risk. We can’t just move vast portions of our population to isolated areas and pretend they don’t exist. While I certainly don’t prefer to be next door to a jail, I think it’s a necessary way of making the cracks in our justice system visible to all, and thus promoting an overall healthier society in the long run.

  3. This whole plan and process seem rushed; as noted above, so many unanswered questions. The community input process seems very late and perfunctory. Not only the communities, but the taxpayers who will pay for this massive questionable project, and just the citizenry in general, deserve to know much more, and to have serious guiding input and decision influence on any such plan.

    Whatever problems plague Rikers, there is not a consensus that this massive plan will even solve those problem.

    DOI to Council: Closing Rikers Won’t Fix Systemic Woes

    ‘There are no advantages’ to closing Rikers Island, two Queens officials say at prison panel

    You can find much more debate and discussion online as well. There needs to be more transparency and public input in such an expensive and potentially pointless, and even destructive, project.

  4. Not a good idea. Last thing people want is to live next to the world’s tallest jail.