Demolition to start on White Street jails

Demolition permits have been filed and work has begun on dismantling the two jails on White Street, as the city moves forward with its ill-considered plan to build an even bigger mega jail on the site to allow for the closing of Rikers Island. The plaza has already been demolished, including the bridge between the two buildings, and demolition work has started this week on the interiors and the gymnasium structure.

You can track the city’s progress on it here.

Local activists who have been fighting the jail for years, after realizing plans would move forward, pushed the city to (at the very least) reuse the buildings rather than demolish them. But at Tuesday’s CB1 Quality of Life Committee meeting, reps for the city simply said they (City Hall, the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice and the Department of Corrections) decided against it. They said adaptive reuse was “impractical” and “not appropriate.”

“No studies have been performed to justify demolition over adaptive reuse,” Neighbors United Below Canal wrote in a press release. “The community has now been blind-sided in what can only be described as a complete and utter disregard for Chinatown, its neighbors throughout Little Italy, Tribeca, and elsewhere in the district.”

“We will come full force on everyone who is moving forward on this,” said NUBC’s Jan Lee, who was (justifiably) enraged. “The decision to move forward with demolition when you have no builder, no final budget, no finish date, and no proof that adaptive reuse cannot be done is going to leave a community in shambles with a gaping hole in the ground, ultimately, exacerbating the plight of detainees by delaying their trials and keeping them at Riker’s much longer.”

Speaking of impractical and not appropriate, the demolition budget *alone* for our site *alone* is $125 million. The budget for the Manhattan site construction overall is $2.13 billion.

Demolition will continue for the next year, though I see no reason to assume that it will stay on schedule. The city only provided milestones for the next two months. (See below.) The construction timeline for the facility is not yet set — they are in the procurement process now.

Some more depressing figures:

  • The capital budget commitment plan outlines $8.16 billion over 10 years for the citywide borough based jail plan
  • The annual cost of incarceration grew to $556,539 a person per year – or $1,525 each day, according to a 2021 study by the city comptroller
  • The DOC projects the jail population will soon eclipse 7,000 people, and it has to fall below 3300 to close Rikers
  • New York City spends more than any other big city in the country to incarcerate far fewer people, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

And it looks like everything is just getting worse.

Assemblywoman Grace Lee said the Department of Design and Construction promised documentation on the rationale for moving forward with demolition and not adaptive reuse. She asked that demolition be halted until that is provided, but no one at the meeting even flinched. “The city is just ignoring commitments made to elected officials last month,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh.

It all seems like a farce. The electeds can kick the can down the road, but at this point, the buildings, which functioned fine till this all started, are now damaged. Plus the city’s jail population continues to grow; Rikers cannot close until the jail population is reduced enough to fit into the four borough based jails. The city’s rep said at the meeting it will be several years before Rikers can close.

“It feels like the city finally realized what the problem was so pulled the rug really quickly,” said board chair Tammy Meltzer. “After it’s ridiculously overbudget and we will need to pay for it, and after all the feedback that we have given is ignored, the booby prize will be that the citizens of New York were right.”

I am just saying one more time with feeling: why are we not building a new jail on Rikers? Assuming it is the construction trades’ political power driving this plan, couldn’t they get the same thing out of it there? Using all the same progressive building plans, improving transportation for visitors, moving some of the court operations there to decrease travel time, and taking advantage of a unencumbered building site? Decisions like this — to close an existing jail complex that really could be anything they want it to be and build jails in towers in dense neighborhoods in the city — from scratch — for billions — makes me want to move.



  1. This could be a fun Madlib! “New York City spends more than any other big city in the country to [VERB fill in the blank] far fewer [NOUN fill in the blank].

  2. Q: “why are we not building a new jail on Rikers?”

    A1: hard to build a new runway for LaGuardia Airport on Riker’s without the prisoners escaping.

    A2: hard to build luxury waterfront housing on Riker’s with all the NIMBY objections by the current occupants.

  3. An absolute disgrace. Such an misguided, wasteful, plan, with no plus sides at all.

    “The DOC projects the jail population will soon eclipse 7,000 people, and it has to fall below 3300 to close Rikers.”

    …and that population would be much higher still if the laws were actually enforced.

  4. I’m with you on this, and agree 100%. Insane plan. This city is headed in the wrong direction: down. I hope we soon acquire leadership with common sense, or I’ll want to move as well.

  5. It is not being built on Rikers because the ultimate plan is to build luxury waterfront housing on Rikers, connected by a ferry system to Manhattan. Then once they build the jail in Chinatown and folks have died from pollutants or moved because of the noise and the 100s of construction trucks trucking contaminants throughout Tribeca, soho, Chinatown, Little Italy to the tunnel and bridges, developers will sweep in and buy the property to develop.
    Adams stood in Chinatown and said no jail, while campaigning. No Adams! Remember!

  6. I’m not sure I quite understand the objections. They’re basically rebuilding an existing jail just to house more inmates, to facilitate closing Rikers, which strikes me as a noble goal. Is the objection that you think there shouldn’t be a jail at all? Why have these objections arisen only now instead of some time in the last 100 years? Is the objection that you dislike the concept of more inmates? Is it the cost? Then why would you be ok with expenditures on Rikers?

  7. This is insane NIMBYism. Only in NYC would people oppose Rikers Island closing, and replacing rundown, hellish jails with modern facilities. NYC really needs to reduce the power of the Community Boards and local “community” organizations to slow down and increase costs with every single freaking project.

    Can someone please give one reasonable objection to this project? It was cut in half (for no reason) apparently because NIMBYs complained it was too tall for Lower Manhattan (global home of the skyscraper). The building will be surrounded by much taller towers. Then other NIMBYs complain that Lower Manhattan is “inappropriate” for a jail. There has only been a jail on this general site for over two centuries. Yet other NIMBYs complain it’s inappropriate for Chinatown, even though jail uses predate Chinatown by more than a century. Now some NIMBYs appear to be concerned about costs, even though Rikers costs far more to operate, and NIMBYs have delayed and exploded costs on the project, with endless lawsuits and protests.

    • Some objections:

      – Is this cost-effective? (vs. cost of modernizing Rikers and renovating rather than demolishing the Chinatown jail)

      – environmental effects of the demolitions and construction

      – community disruptions of the demolition and construction

      – safety concerns

      – traffic and congestion concerns both during demo/construction, and once the neighborhood facility is operational

      – If the goal is a more “humane” system, what is the evidence that this will solve the problem? If there is an abusive and inhumane system, the move will simply relocate that system.

      – see, for example:
      “Spending $9 Billion on New Architecture Will Not Solve the Rikers Problem”

      – Not enough space. The new plan does not allow enough space even to house the existing number of inmates. What happens if we get officials who actually want to be tough on crime, and arrests increase as a result? Even with soft-on-crime officials, what happens when the next crime wave hits?

      So again, the point is that one can consistently believe in modernization and reform of the culture and facilities of the system, yet question and criticize whether this current plan is the way forward, or just a massive, time-consuming and expensive, shuffling of the board, with no real improvement in any desired outcome: more humane and safe system, reduction in crime and recidivism, increase in public safety, etc. Can those goals be achieved more effectively, less expensively, less disruptively, while addressing the concerns above (and any others I may have left out)?

    • Please, your excessive use of the word NIMBY is truly uncalled for and offensive. If you have any opinion please articulate.

  8. I agree with Ben & Crawdad. The hysterical comments on here are straight out of fantasy land. It’s becoming clearer by the day that NIMBYs are one of the most destructive forces in our current politics. We need to continue maintaining & evolving our infrastructure across the board to create a better future for ourselves & the next generations, yet NIMBYs oppose the necessary progress every step of the way.

    Not only do we badly need to provide actually humane living conditions for inmates (new construction will be huge step there), the whole point is to have the jail near the courthouses for maximum efficiency. They should be happy it’s on the site of an EXISTING JAIL, my god! Where else do they propose building this instead? Or do they oppose closing Riker’s at all? Or they’d rather send it to far-flung, disadvantaged neighborhoods instead?

    Just unbelievable. It’s the same deal with the predictably absurd uproar over Gov. Hochul’s totally reasonable (and overdue) housing plan, which is sorely needed to fix the country’s extreme housing crisis (caused by NIMBYs). Same for offshore wind turbines, solar farms, transmission lines, I mean the list goes on. NIMBYs do not live in reality and they are endangering us all. This should keep moving full steam ahead.

    • No one has a problem with the existing jail in Chinatown — it’s the 10-year construction project that they are opposed to. And I don’t think there is anyone who thinks the reason Rikers is the way it is, and inmates are treated the way they are, stems from the layout of the floors. We are not the only borough based jail: a neighborhood in the South Bronx, which already has a floating prison and had to fight for years to get the city to relocate another one AND hosts just about every other municipal facility is also getting one. Jails are not great neighbors, no matter what you think of the people in them. That’s why Rikers Island makes sense to me.

    • Attacking people, in this aggressive manner, who care about their communities as “NIMBYs” is cheap points scoring. Nothing else. It’s meaningless.

      Yes I read the Tribeca Citizen because I care about the community I live in. Yes I don’t think knocking down an existing prison to build new buildings, that look remarkably similar to the ones being knocked down, is good use of tax payers money or good for the environment or good for healthy living or good for the prison service. Jamming prisonerss into inner city communities does not seem, to me, to make sense, either – never has. This does not make me a “NIMBY”.

      There seems to be some lets shove it to the Tribeca citizens in these NIMBY notes. “They are a bunch of selfish “NIMBYs lets stick to them”. Not true. Caring about where you live is not a bad thing. Taking a practical, common sense and non politically motivated view is not either. This development does not make sense to most people living here and to many who don’t. Thank you TC for covering this.

      • @Will, thank you!

      • Very well put @Will. Thank you. I have lived with the existing jail near me for 15 years and have never complained about it. I have lived with a shelter near me for 15 years and never complained about it. My issue with this project is that instead of finding a way to repurpose an existing structure – upcycling if you will, we are wastefully demolishing a functioning building. This is environmentally irresponsible. My position has nothing to do with not wanting a mail in my back yard – I already have one!

    • @Th. There we go again, NIMBY. If the jail was proposed in the middle of Franklin and Church, hysterical probably wouldn’t be your choice of adjective. ( God forbid, the expensive people of Tribeca!). This whole scheme is not only poorly conceived and consists of layers of dated racism, classism, collusion( real estate, construction + city, what else?), the displacement of businesses and residents near by was never part of the conversation, because there was none. ( or shall we say NIMBYs). The noises and pollution in the coming months/years will be unimaginable, but of course it affects only those blocks away from beautiful Tribeca, you know, east of Broadway.
      So big real estate is winning on both ends, transforming Rikers Into the new Long Island City + Green Point while dumping the jail in Chinatown! Except in 2023, even in Chinatown, gentrification is moving in, slowly but surely. So in ten years the new condo owners in branded Chinatown probably wouldn’t appreciate the monstrosity of a jail in their midst.

  9. I am all for modernizing the facilities in both locations. I don’t see the sense of closing Rikers and the massively expensive and disruptive demolition and construction in the neighborhoods. Surely there are more cost-effective and less disruptive solutions that achieve the same goal of clean, updated, modern facilities.

    The issue is this: Why not renovate and modernize Rikers instead?

    And for the existing Chinatown buildings, why not adaptively reuse and modernize interior, instead of complete demolition and rebuild?
    This is what Councilman Marte is pushing for.

  10. If St. Vincent’s hospital could be gut renovated and offered as high end living spaces certainly this jail space can be gut renovated and made acceptable. This sounds like another win for developers and those who make money enabling them.

    • Excellent point.

    • @K. Very strange analogy. The closing of St. Vincent’s is a shameful and tragic event for many whose lives had been irrevocably damaged for years after. Another example of how real estate interest helps transform this city into less and less humane and livable.

      • This analogy had nothing to do with whether it was a good thing to close St. Vincent’s and make it high end housing. It is only about how a hospital was able to be transformed into high end housing without tearing down the original structures. If that is possible to do, why can’t a jail be renovated and made comfortable instead of tearing it down, creating a nightmare for those in the neighborhood and re-building basically the same thing

  11. To me, I find it unfathomable that this project is really the best way to spend $9 billion (and we all know the final cost will likely be double that). This just reeks of special interests and more bloated government nonsense.

    After the reports about how 75% of the ridiculous budget for the Second Avenue went to “consulting fees” as opposed to the actual construction costs, this plan of tearing down towers just to rebuild very similar ones in the same spot needs to be looked at much more carefully. In fact, it’s perfectly justified to view every major infrastructure project approved under the DeBlasio administration that way given the past corruption that’s already come to light.

    And yes, as others have said, I really would love to hear why the White Street jail can’t be renovated to be just as functional as this proposal without the years of neighborhood disruption, environmental damage, and inevitable graft that will surely be taking place.

  12. Thanks to TC for reporting on this. The jail project does impact people in Chinatown greatly – to argue niimby is not fair unless you are the one who is actually having this construction disrupting your lives – the noise, the pollution and the disruption to business.

    Why shouldn’t Chinatown be allowed to ensure that the project is done with care to ensure it has minimal impact on the above? that is what the advocates of this effort are trying to accomplish which i think is admirable.

  13. As of Friday April 21 the demolition is now on pause and a meeting with elected officials and community representatives is to be scheduled.