Small talk about big jail for Queens

City is ready to cut back number of beds 20 percent: mayor’s aide

Like trains on the same track headed straight for each other, the mayor and Queens’ top officials are on a collision course over plans to build a massive new jail in Kew Gardens.

The sides are set to meet — head on, it appears — some time in early fall when the City Council must vote on the plan.

The Council has to vote on approving zoning changes that will be necessary to construct a proposed 26-story building, big enough to hold near1y 1,500 inmates and costing an estimated $2 billion.

Now, both sides are starting to make noises about a possible compromise — in short, a smaller jail.

The mayor’s top aide for the jail project, Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Dana Kaplan, told the Chronicle this week that her office is preparing to cut the size of the proposed jail to 1,150 beds, a 20 percent reduction.

After the state passed a sweeping bail reform law last April, curtailing the use of cash bond and limiting pretrial detention, “we have updated our projections,” Kaplan said.

The city’s original plan for four community-based jails to replace 11 outdated ones — eight on Rikers Island and three existing borough jails — was predicated on an average daily population of 5,000 detainees.

“We now believe 4,000 is a reasonable number,” Kaplan said. “That will change the size of the proposed facility. We believe this will bring down the envelope.”

Rikers held about 8,200 inmates as of last August, according to the Queens District Attorney’s Office.

In order to close the complex, jails similar to the one proposed for Queens are also planned for Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.

“I don’t believe in replacing one bad, big institution with four bad, big institutions,” Borough President Melinda Katz told a civic group in Howard Beach last week.

Katz, who is running for Queens DA in next month’s primary, is in favor of closing Rikers but now says she is going to vote against the plan, if only because of its size.

“You got 1,500 beds, what are you going to do?” she asked. “You are going to fill them up.”

“We think the city should be listening to the community and make [the jails] smaller,” said Taylor Nims, executive director of the the Lippman Commission, which in 2017 released a blueprint of reforms needed to close Rikers.

Kew Gardens community leaders, fighting to preserve the neighborhood’s small-scale character and halt what they see as a huge, unwarranted expense, have raised another possible compromise — reopening the seven-story Queens House of Detention that stands on the site now and was closed 17 years ago for cost cutting.

“We don’t like the idea of reactivating the Queens detention center, but we can live with it,” said Sylvia Hack, co-chairwoman of Community Board 9’s Land Use Committee and one of the jail’s most prominent foes.

Kaplan calls the idea of renovating the old jail as a modern facility impractical.

“The conditions and standards of the Queens detention center are from a different time,” she said.

The building, constructed in the 1950s, could hold only around 500 detainees at its current size and would not pass state-mandated standards for adequate cell size or recreational space, Kaplan said.

As for cost, she added, “the level of renovation required could be comparable to a rebuild.”

The jail proposal — which calls for demolishing the old detention center and part of the parking lot behind it to make room the new facility — is working its way through the serpentine Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a legal requirement.

Kaplan said her office is preparing to amend its ULURP application to reflect a lower bed count. But she could not say when nor how much smaller the new building might be.

“We’re working to determine the impact and will update as soon as we have a solid number,” she said.

Hack said she and the rest of CB 9 — which voted unanimously to disapprove the project in April — are unlikely to change their minds over a “minor modification.”

“Let them say, ‘We’re pulling all four ULURP applications and starting all over again,’” she said. “That’s what they have to do.”