Hundreds of community members gathered at the first of three environmental review public hearings at Borough Hall last Wednesday to voice their concerns over the de Blasio administration’s plans.
In an effort to shut down the current detention facilities on Rikers Island, the city is planning to open four new borough-based jails, including one at 126-02 82nd Avenue, the site of the former Queens Detention Complex and parking lot.
The Kew Gardens jail, as well as new jails in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, would be open by 2027.
In Queens, plans are to expand the current building from 497,600 square feet to nearly 2 million square feet to accommodate 1,510 beds.
Each new jail will have community space and ground-floor retail, as well as on-site support services. In Kew Gardens, there will be a centralized infirmary and maternity services.
Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said operating Rikers is inefficient and expensive. She added that the decades-old jail does not work with the city’s plan to break the “cycle of violence” when it comes to criminal justice.
In a presentation, Kaplan compared the new jails to the Las Colinas Detention Facility in San Diego. She explained that the units at Las Colinas are smaller and the center has decreased the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults.
The city has stated that neighborhood advisory boards consisting of local elected officials and community leaders will be created to provide feedback on integration, programs and quality-of-life issues.
But nearly everyone in the crowd argued the plan jeopardizes the safety of the community, especially children with PS 99 nearby.
Opponents also said the city chose the site simply due to its proximity to the Queens Criminal Courthouse, failing to adequately examine other potential sites.
The possible threat of violence stemming from the jail is especially troublesome for Samantha Elswick. She said she was a victim of a random attack near Union Turnpike.
Elswick brought letters from Union Turnpike businesses who have written to Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz about the potential negative impacts.
“You already can’t walk from Chase Bank to CVS without being approached for money,” Elswick said.
Since the homeless shelter opened at the former Comfort Inn and current Umbrella Hotel, community members say they’ve witnessed an uptick in quality-of-life issues. Elswick is worried that the situation will get worse with the proposed jail.
In an attempt to appease the crowd, Kaplan pointed out the congested neighborhood would benefit from the jail when it comes to parking.
“You will be provided with close to 700 publicly accessible parking spaces provided on site,” she said.
But the promise of parking did nothing to reduce the tension. Some audience members noted the city’s plan will actually demolish a municipal parking lot that was completed last year.
Another attendee was concerned with the proposed 29-story building. He argued the jail will give developers an opening to build larger buildings.
“If a developer in the future wants to build a 25-story building on Queens Boulevard, what’s to stop him from saying ‘hey, there’s a 29-story building there, so why can’t I build one at 25 stories?’” he asked.
Another speaker suggested the city use the money to revamp a penal system rooted in racism.
“Anyone in prison should not be subjected to the inhumane conditions as has been witnessed and has been documented at Rikers,” she said. “However, to bring a poorly conceived system into a community without the consent of its residents causes many obvious and unforeseen negative consequences.”
Elizabeth Oh, a case handler for the Legal Aid Society, disagreed with a statement by Koslowtiz when the jail was announced that it would spur economic development.
“Parking spaces and a jail cannot bring significant economic development in Queens or anywhere in the United States,” Oh said. “The majority of people that are incarcerated are poor people of color. Caring for their families, contributing to the economy, and going on with their lives beyond the confines of prison is not economic development.”
Community Board 9 member Sylvia Plath said that although the presentation featured “lovely photos of modern designs,” there was a complete lack of transparency with the community.
She said the city rushed the project, and that asking for suggestions now didn’t make sense for a project of this magnitude.
“I don’t how understand how anybody would believe that there have been community meetings because there haven’t,” Plath said. “There has been no community participation.”