In Boerum Hill there stands a monolith.
It is the misfit and unfavored neighbor of a community otherwise in bloom. Mid-day on bright afternoons it casts a gargantuan shadow over low-level nearby residences. And for years now, it’s had a target on its back.
On Oct. 17, that target was hit.
That monolith, the Brooklyn Detention Complex, will now fall demolished—only to rise back, even taller.
But exactly how tall it will be, and what it will look like inside and out, remains a source of discussion and tension.
In 2017, the de Blasio administration announced that it would close Rikers Island, which holds eight of the eleven detention facilities in New York City. Instead, it would be replaced by four “community-based” jails in four of the five city boroughs, excluding Staten Island. To build these four locations, three existing jails, including the Brooklyn Detention Complex, would have to be torn down and built back up. The ongoing uncertainty about what is to come has become central to the conversation on closing Rikers. It’s the same question being asked over and over: how, exactly, will these replacement jails be designed?
In this case, looks matter. The decision to close Rikers was pitched as a concept of re-approaching criminal justice through architecture. And in a September report, the City Planning Commission stated that the “new facilities would be designed with the needs of the communities in mind.”
But according to members of the Boerum Hill community, the city failed to seriously engage them in dialogue.
Justin Pollock is a resident of the neighborhood and a father of two. He lives ninety feet from the Brooklyn Detention Complex. When talk surfaced of shutting Rikers Island, Pollock attempted to contact the Mayor’s office to express the need for community input to prevent the existing jail’s problems from surfacing in the new building. He was promised a meeting, but Pollock said that by the time that meeting came, the proposal had already been drafted and was just days away from being officially announced.
“Their idea of neighborhood engagement is, ‘we’ll meet with you as many times as you want, but we feel confident in our plan.’ And so it’s a matter of convincing you. It’s not a matter of listening,” he said. And then there’s Pollock’s go-to saying: “They’ve already put the cake in the oven. They’re just asking what color we want the icing to be.”
Boerum Hill is an affluent neighborhood, noted by The New York Times for its “urban energy, brownstone charm.” It’s a tree-lined place with a handful of bustling commercial streets. And though the jail casts its eleven-story shadow, the residents are used to it. It’s been in Boerum Hill before Boerum Hill had such a name. Things with the jail aren’t perfect, but hardly anybody bats an eyelash at its existence at present, said Howard Kolins, president of the Boerum Hill Association. Parking is a problem because the jail doesn’t allocate enough space for its workers, forcing correctional officers to take up parking spaces designated for residents. But the community members have adapted. The jail is a part of life there.
The city thinks of Boerum Hill residents as “NIMBY,” Pollock said, which is short for “Not In My Backyard.” “But nobody has ever said no,” he said. “All we want is to know the size, and whether it’s actually going to be better.”
But the city can’t tell the residents the size, because a comprehensive design does not yet exist. For months leading up to the Oct. 17 vote, the city pushed a proposal for closing Rikers that never actually offered detailed building plans for any of the four facilities that would take on its population.
This is unusual. Traditionally, when the city proposes a building project through the public review process, a working blueprint for that project is created ahead of time. City Council is not allowed to approve the project until that blueprint has been reviewed by three local government entities and undergone multiple public hearings. In theory, the public is offered several opportunities to review a pre-existing design and offer feedback.
This time around, the city tried something different. Under the new process, called Design-Build, a design team is not hired until the City Council approves the project. The project, in this case, is to close Rikers Island by building the four new jails. The de Blasio administration carefully pitched all four jails under one project proposal—this made it so that City Council had to approve all the jails at once or none of the jails. And if none of the jails were approved, then there would be no identifiable replacement for Rikers.
But because no blueprint was provided, community members were forced to debate ideas rather than design. In lieu of an architectural plan, the city offered hundreds of pages of written aspirations for construction. In an official report, the City Planning Commission notes that this method provides “much less information and detail than is customary.”
And though the city has not provided any blueprints, outside organizations have. The Van Alen Institute, for example, worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to propose reimagining jails as “justice hubs.” These hubs would include spaces like libraries and medical clinics within the facility to “reduce [community] fear and stigma surrounding jails.” Another early design by 1100 Architects envisioned the new Brooklyn jail as a house made partially out of glass, with air flow and light.
It’s unclear as to what impact any of these suggestions will have on the final design. In a September report, the City Planning Commission acknowledged that a “great deal of materials has been provided showing how the facilities could be designed,” but that no design will be set until after the jails are approved to be built.
As a result, the public has been left in the dark – they have been provided enormous numbers, such as the $8.7 billion cost of the plan, with no conception of how the buildings will look on the outside and within.
A short documentary called “After Rikers: Justice by Design,” has been screened all over the city this year. It catalogues the innumerable and largely uncontroversial reasons for closing Rikers, and showcases a number of existing examples that might be models for the new jails. Expert voices in the film express a relatively uniform take that a better building design does not inherently lead to criminal justice reform if there is no change of culture, but that smart architecture is a crucial first step.
After one of the film screenings, however, city official Dana Kaplan, deputy director of Close Rikers, said on a panel that she has yet to see an existing jail that “stands out” in terms of a true model.
Barry Campbell, a 33-year old self-described “system-baby,” sat on the same panel in late April. He was skeptical about the philosophy of being blueprint-oriented. “If you’re going to shift around buildings but not shift the culture, you’re going to have a problem,” he said.
Though much of the design decisions are still up in the air, some definitive choices have been made. The city has already chosen a contractor to handle the entire process moving forward: a management team.
In October of 2018, the Department of Design and Construction put out a solicitation for a company to manage the building of the project—meaning that the chosen company will not itself design the buildings, but will be in charge of choosing the Design-Build teams that will.
Six months later, the Department awarded a $107.4 million contract to AECOM-Hill, a merger of two separate construction companies: AECOM and Hill International. AECOM is a government contractor that is frequently awarded deals with federal agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
AECOM’s press release promises that the new facilities will integrate “health, educational and re-entry programs, as well as community space.” And though little else has been made public about the management team, its leader has been named: Beverly Prior.
A Bay Area native, Prior is an architect who spent 25 years leading a firm named after herself. It’s been five years and two months since she joined AECOM, according to her LinkedIn page. A bio written by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in New York states that Prior has “dedicated her career to justice architecture.” A 2011 article in the San Francisco Business Times describes her as being “on a crusade to improve the California criminal justice system through thoughtful design” and notes that she “designed a specialty in building prisons as communities.”
According to the same AIA bio, in her past five years with AECOM Prior has led programs in the building of several jails, including the L.A. County’s Mental Health Treatment Center, which was pitched as an enormous replacement to an already huge pre-existing jail in downtown L.A.
Like New York’s proposal, this project was a Design-Build initiative, meaning that most of the design information was withheld or non-existent until after government gave it a stamp of approval to proceed. County government approved the plan in February of this year and was met with major and continuous pushback by the local advocate group JusticeLA, as reported by the Intercept. Six months later, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors terminated the $2.2 billion contract in favor of “funding community-based mental health and substance abuse care.”
Now in New York, an $8.7 billion contract has been approved. In a press release, City Council pledged to “support the communities and neighborhoods surrounding the borough-based facilities,” though when and how it plans to do so is a question that remains unanswered.
“We’re not saying no,” said Justin Pollock of Boerum Hill. “We’re saying show us.”