jailhouse block

As Planned New Jail Looms, Baxter Street Braces for Impact

The Chung Pak residence for seniors (left) abuts the Manhattan Detention Complex (right).
The Chung Pak residence for seniors (left) abuts the Manhattan Detention Complex (right). Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

With the City Planning Commission set to vote Tuesday on four proposed jail towers to replace Rikers Island, the Manhattan site’s closest neighbors still have no idea what, if any, relief they’ll get once construction begins.

At the Malaysian eatery Jaya 888 at 90 Baxter St., manager Sandy Sang said a city official came more than a year ago to tell staff about a plan to demolish the restaurant’s space to make way for the new jail — but no one has been back since.

Outside the eatery Thursday, she spoke to THE CITY through her neighbor and landlord, Charlie Lai, who interpreted.

“This is her livelihood,” he said. “Where are they going to go? Is it possible for compensation? Is it possible for the city to find her a new space?”

Lai is trying to get answers to those questions, and has a list of queries of his own.

Just down the block, at 96 Baxter St., Lai serves as director of Chung Pak, an affordable housing complex for seniors with more than 100 residents. It currently shares a wall with a low-rise portion of the existing 24-story jail tower known as The Tombs.

Under the proposal from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the 866-bed Manhattan Detention Complex will be demolished and replaced by a new jail housing up to approximately 1,150 people.

‘There Is a Real Concern’

That new facility could rise as high as 450 feet tall, about the height of a 40-story office tower.

“If they’re going to build the jail, if they’re going to tear it down, there’s going to be a lot of noise,” said Jian Li, a retired restaurant worker who moved to Chung Pak with his wife last year.

Jaya on Baxter Street and other businesses in the area may have to shut down when new jail is constructed.
Jaya on Baxter Street and other businesses in the area may have to shut down when new jail is constructed. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Li said he read about the proposed jail in the Chinese-language newspapers in the neighborhood. He’s worried. “It’s going to be so tall,” he said through Lai. “The vibrations — there is a real concern.”

The jail is inexorably linked to the detention facility: Chung Pak’s building was created as a concession to the community when the current jail was rebuilt in 1983.

The organization also serves as the landlord for several businesses on the ground floor of its building, including a daycare and healthcare center, as well as Jaya and other businesses located in retail spaces at the MDC.

Many of the rooms in the Chung Pak senior complex look directly onto the current jail’s windowless walls.

“You’re going to see another building that’s going to be right smack against us that’s going to be twice as high,” Lai said, standing on Chung Pak’s rooftop garden where residents and students from a local school have planted eggplants and cabbage. “And that’s all you will see.”

To protect the garden from dust and noise, Lai would like to see the rooftop enclosed before construction begins. He also wants sound-blocking windows, a centralized fire monitoring system and perhaps a new elevator. With many of Chung Pak residents in their 80s and above, if the elevator doesn’t work, “we’re done,” he said.

Promises Versus Results

At its July hearing on the four post-Rikers jails — the others are slated to rise in Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens — the planning commission asked for more details about the construction’s effect on Chung Pak, as well as whether business would be able to return after being displaced.

In its response, sent Aug. 12, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said officials are working with Chung Pak “to plan for the needs of the small businesses currently located on the ground floor of the Manhattan Detention Center.”

“The intention is to continue to maintain a leasing arrangement with Chung Pak throughout construction and in the new facilities with a focus on ensuring that Chung Pak is able to continue to serve in its mission,” the letter read. “However, the details of that arrangement are subject to continued discussion.”

Charlie Lai, executive director of Chung Pak, points at the jail from his window.
Charlie Lai, executive director of Chung Pak, points at the jail from his window. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Though no specific plan has yet been laid out for the complex, city officials said due to existing building codes, the designers would have to include noise mitigation in their plans. A staffer from the Department of Design and Construction would be on site to address community concerns during the work.

Further negotiation about the site will be driven by the City Council, which holds its first hearing on the jails plans Thursday. By tradition, the Council is expected to go along with the desire of the local members in the affected districts — in Manhattan’s case, Councilmember Margaret Chin.

Through a spokesperson, Chin stressed that her office has pushed Mayor Bill de Blasio to make a concrete plan for Chung Pak and the surrounding businesses before the Council’s as-yet-unscheduled vote. According to land use review rules, the Council vote must take place before Oct. 25.

“After the hearing, it will be incumbent upon this administration to respond and acknowledge the viewpoints that will be expressed,” said Rush Perez, Chin’s spokesperson.

Cheering for Chinatown

Groundwork is gradually getting underway. In late August, Lai led a tour of Chung Pak with officials from multiple city agencies working to figure out how to protect the senior housing complex.

The attention is encouraging, he said, but he knows there is “sometimes a vast gulf” between a promise and a result.

“I am hopeful that those responses that we’re getting — the walking tour and people feeling like we really need to maintain the building — it will lead to an action that is binding and long-lasting,” he said.

On Baxter Street, locals are skeptical. Ammy Cuccia, who runs a Walker Street law firm around the corner from Chung Pak, told THE CITY she sees the plan as City Hall having “no respect for the Chinese.”

The 30-year resident of Chinatown worried the construction will bring dust, pollution and traffic — and erase the character of the area.

“If you bring in a jail here, what’s the tradition of Chinatown? It’s gone,” she said. “This will be a long, long project. No one is happy.”

As she spoke, Sang of Jaya 888 handed her a bag — her lunch order. To Cuccia, it’s the best Malaysian food in the city.

“I come here all the time,” she said, well aware that her days of getting takeout there may be numbered.