In the shadow of the Bruckner Expressway in the South Bronx, behind a metal fence topped with barbed wire, is a tow pound with a pivotal role in the city’s campaign to close the notorious jail complex on Rikers Island.
The city plans to build a jail on the lot it owns at Concord Avenue and East 141st Street, in a residential and industrial area of the Mott Haven neighborhood. The preliminary proposal, announced in February, is a key prong in the city’s plan to close Rikers and replace it with smaller, safer jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
But opposition is brewing among residents in the once-blighted neighborhood, who say the city’s plan is an unwelcome step backward for the South Bronx as it works to shed its synonymity with urban decay. Residents and some elected officials, concerned about safety and quality-of-life in an area saturated with homeless shelters and methadone clinics, and near a sewage plant, said they regard the plan as an effort by the city to use their home as a dumping ground.
“It doesn’t belong here; a jail is the last thing we need,” said Arline Parks, a resident of the Diego Beekman Apartments within a stone’s throw of the lot. Ms. Parks is chief executive of the tenant-run complex, which encompasses more than 1,200 units spread among 38 prewar buildings. The nonprofit tenant group was formed in the 1990s as the South Bronx was reeling from fiscal and drug crises. Poverty and crime soared as violent gangs like the Wild Cowboys competed for turf, landlords abandoned buildings and blocks were burned down.
In recent years, as developers have begun pouring money into the South Bronx and the city has advanced redevelopment plans, Diego Beekman has been putting together its own plan for what residents would like to see built on the site of the proposed jail and other locations, including more than 700 homes for low- and moderate-income families, a supermarket, manufacturing facilities and the revitalization of St. Mary’s Park.
Ms. Parks said that many residents have relatives who have been in jail and support closing Rikers, but they worry that having a jail in Mott Haven could lead to more crime. The neighborhood is part of the 40th Police Precinct, one of the most violent in the city, inside one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.
“We’re trying to break the cycle of crime here,” Ms. Parks said on a recent morning, as she stood in front of P.S. 65 Mother Hale Academy, an elementary school on East 141st Street at Cypress Avenue, a corner where dealers openly sell drugs. “Every day we have challenges related to our past.”
Diana Ayala, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council, supports the jail plan but acknowledged concerns.
“This is not the reality that parents that live in the South Bronx want their children to grow up seeing,” she said. “Their concern is that this facility is going to be a blight on the community.”
Ms. Ayala said she believes the project gives residents a chance to push the city to make investments in an area it has long neglected. The needs, she said, are numerous: programs for the aging, playgrounds, schools, community centers, libraries and housing for homegrown artists.
“I think it’s an opportunity to have the administration’s ear, and to reassess the way that we provide social services in the South Bronx,” she said.
Building and preserving affordable housing is a key goal of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who wants to build 300,000 units by 2028. Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said building the jail is not an obstacle.
“We can certainly push forward our ambitious housing agenda without throwing away any piece of our plan to create smaller community-based jails,” she said.
In fact, the South Bronx has seen a miniboom in affordable housing construction in recent years. In Mott Haven and neighboring Melrose and Port Morris, the mayor’s housing plan has created or preserved 4,400 units of affordable housing, and 2,000 additional units are in the pipeline, according to city data.
Rikers Island has been plagued for years by violence and other issues. Last year, an independent commission recommended that the city replace the nine-jail complex with several smaller, modern jails close to courthouses and public transit, in lots big enough to also provide spaces for community use.
The lot, a Police Department tow pound for more than 40 years, takes up an entire city block; it is bordered by East 142nd Street to the north, East 141st Street to the south, Concord Avenue on the west, and Southern Boulevard and the Bruckner Expressway to the east. It is about two miles from the Bronx courthouse and around the corner from the No. 6 train.
Across Concord Avenue, the lot faces brick townhouses with bracketed cornices. Farther down, on blocks that were once burned out, iron fences painted a shiny black surround brick and vinyl-sided townhouses built with the help of federal funds.
Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge, who is chairman of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, said fears of the new jail reflect antiquated ideas about what it would look like, as well as unfounded ideas about how jails affect crime and property values in neighborhoods.
Modern jails, designed to incorporate light and air, as well as community and retail space, can provide “safety for everybody, yet space for everybody,” he said.
He pointed to the Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown and the Brooklyn House of Detention in Boerum Hill, both jails in low-crime neighborhoods where real estate values have climbed despite their presence. The city plans to expand and renovate both. (Boerum Hill thrived while the jail there was closed and it only reopened after the city prevailed in a lawsuit filed by residents to keep it closed.)
The jails plan is years from fruition. The city says it will take 10 years to complete, unless lawmakers in Albany pass legislation on bail, parole and speedy trials that would reduce the jail population sooner. And the plan could be upended if the state steps in to take over the jails.
Absent state intervention, the jails plan has to go through the City Council’s Land Use Committee, and its chairman, Rafael Salamanca Jr., said he would stop it because it would put three jails within two miles of each other in the South Bronx.
Mr. Salamanca, whose district borders the one where the new jail will be built, said the city needed to make closing the Vernon C. Bain Center, a medium-security barge on the shore of Hunts Point, and the Horizon Juvenile Center in Mott Haven part of its plan.
“Without something in writing, it’s a non-starter,” he said. “My community in the South Bronx has done more than its fair share.”
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