With 11 votes in favor and 2 opposed, the City Council's Land Use Committee took a rare step Thursday to block the construction of any future correctional facility on the land in the East River between Queens and the Bronx that is now home to the city's most notorious jail complex.
"We're giving the public an assurance that we are going to close Rikers, for good," Democratic Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin said.
"Once Rikers is closed at the end of December 31, 2026, we will change the zoning on that land. It will be a public space, and therefore detainees will never be housed there again," said Democratic Bronx Councilman Rafael Salamanca, the chair of the Land Use Committee.
The proposal calls for filing a city map change application with the City Planning Commission so the area cannot be used as a correctional facility. The mayor appoints several members of the City Planning Commission.
"We will be filing a ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] application to essentially make it impossible to have incarceration on Rikers Island," said Dana Kaplan, deputy director for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.
The change comes after opposition groups under the "No New Jails" banner cast doubt over Mayor Bill de Blasio's promise to close the facility.
Despite initial opposition, the mayor now supports the plan to close Rikers, which calls for replacing it with four borough-based jails, one on every borough except Staten Island. Three of them would be built on the site of current or former detention facilities in lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and Kew Gardens in Queens. The Bronx jail, to be built on the site of an NYPD tow pound, is the most contentious.
In early September, members of the City Planning Commission voted 9 to 3 on the plan to permanently close Rikers and replace it with the new jails.
That plan has proven to be controversial, with even some criminal justice reform advocates criticizing the opening of the borough jails, while other protesters express fear of closing the facility.
Vidal Guzman, who says he spent years on Rikers, is part of the Close Rikers Coalition, which supports the city's plan.
"These borough-based facilities are making sure that people are closest to the courtroom, closest to their lawyer," Guzman said.
The new construction ban comes after criticism of the plan to close Rikers has increased, mainly from groups that oppose the building of jails anywhere in the city. Some, like Queens and Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, singled out that the plan to close Rikers and replace it with smaller jails lacked a legal requirement to close Rikers.
"We heard from the public, who raised concerns that there was no legally binding way to do this," Levin said. "This is our response to that."
Although the new construction ban was approved, there was opposition from members who criticized the rushed process and others who are entirely opposed to the mayor's closure proposal.
"I am a no vote today in regards to anything that has to do with not correcting the criminal justice system. But closing down a building, that's not the problem," Democratic Bronx Councilman Andy King said at the hearing that preceded the vote.
"I have a problem voting on things that I haven't had a chance to consider," said Democratic Queens Councilman Barry Grodenchik, who abstained from voting.
The mayor's plan to close Rikers will be up for a vote before the full City Council next week. A final vote on the mayor's proposal to close Rikers is scheduled for October 17.
Sources tell NY1 that the mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson have been working the phones in recent days, trying to whip up as many votes in favor of the proposal, which is facing increased criticism.
"I think conversations are ongoing, but I know one of the things that some members are concerned about, from a quality of life standpoint, is, certainly, what are the impacts with height? What does the transportation infrastructure look like?" Democratic Queens Councilman Donovan Richards said. "Those are all legitimate conversations that I hope the administration is actually paying close attention to."
Just how the administration sweetens the deal will be decided over the next couple of days.
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