PRISON BREAK: S. BRONX
LAND CLEARED FOR SALE

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The South Bronx property being eyed by the city for a new jail could soon be on the market, thanks to a recent tax settlement that cleared its owner’s longstanding debt. After more than a year of court-ordered mediation, Britestarr Homes, Inc., which owns Oak Point, agreed to pay the city a lump sum of $3 million in back taxes when the land is officially transferred to its new owner, Oak Point Property LLC. Then it will be free to be sold, developed or acquired.

But Steven Smith, who will control the 28-acre property as head of Oak Point Property LLC, has not yet decided what he wants to do with the land. He is open to selling the parcel but also is keen to develop it himself, after the mandated environmental cleanup is completed. “I would like to see something on the property that is both good for the city and good for the community,” Smith said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Regardless, the city may be able to acquire the land through eminent domain. The Department of Correction first expressed interest in building a jail at Oak Point during an April City Council hearing, citing the land’s massive size and appropriate zoning designation. But some residents of the neighborhood are less than thrilled with the notion of a jail in their backyard, arguing that it will bring few tangible benefits to Hunts Point, and would symbolize the wrong type of future for residents.

The area, one of the country’s poorest urban neighborhoods, is already home to a number of municipal projects, including a wastewater treatment plant, two power plants, and a facility that processes more than half of the city’s sewage sludge into fertilizer.

“The South Bronx has been used as a dumping ground for everything that no one else wants,” said Omar Freilla, the executive director of Green Worker Cooperatives, an environmental justice organization.

This time, however, residents are fighting back. Fifteen community groups who oppose the jail at Oak Point have banded together in a coalition called Community in Unity. The coalition, which includes such groups as Sustainable South Bronx, Green Worker Cooperatives, The Point Community Development Corporation, the Bronx Defenders, and Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, met with Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn for the first time at a community meeting on Oct. 23.

“The goal of today is to begin a transparent process,” Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of The Point, a local nonprofit, said at the time.

At the close of the meeting, Community in Unity members asked Horn to participate in five town hall meetings in the Bronx to discuss the jail project before seeking land use approvals. Horn indirectly agreed, replying that he would meet with “anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

A jail at Oak Point is part of the department’s long-term plan to move a portion of the inmates held at Rikers Island into jails in the boroughs, according to department spokesperson Stephen Morello. For one thing, it’s potentially dangerous to house such a large percentage of the city’s jail population on an island that can be accessed only by one bridge, he said. And thousands of prisoners at Rikers are currently held in facilities that were designed to be temporary and have fallen into disrepair. A jail in the Bronx would also make it easier for lawyers and family members to visit inmates, he added, and for inmates to be transported to court appearances.

The new jail would replace the Bronx House of Detention, which was closed in 2001, and later transferred to the Related Companies as part of the Gateway Center development project. The department also plans to re-open a larger, renovated version of the Brooklyn House of Detention.

Opening these jails would allow the department to raze 6,000 prison beds at Rikers, Horn explained at the Oct. 23 meeting. In response to a falling crime rate, only 4,000 of these beds would be replaced, Horn said, bringing the city’s total jail capacity down to 17,000 from about 19,000.

John Boston, the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Legal Aid, supports the idea of moving prisoners off Rikers Island. And while Boston acknowledges that a jail might not be the most pleasant type of facility for Hunts Point residents to have around, he doesn’t think it would detract from the quality of life in the neighborhood. Boston said he lives in Brooklyn, not far from the Brooklyn House of Detention, and he would not be bothered if this jail re-opened.

“I do think there is a real not-in-my-backyard, knee-jerk response to jails,” Boston said. “Jails have to go somewhere. They’re an essential feature of the criminal justice system.”

Morello agrees. He questions the neighbors’ comparison of the jail with other municipal facilities in Hunts Point. “I think a jail is a clean industry compared to the concerns they have about a fertilizer plant,” said Morello, who estimates that the jail project could bring 1,000 new jobs for local residents.

But neighbors aren’t convinced. Many say the $375 million to be spent on the jail would be better spent on education, affordable housing, or social services in Hunts Point.

Hunts Point is already home to a prison barge and two juvenile detention centers, residents point out. “You live here, you’re surrounded by jails,” Freilla said. “It sends a message that the city doesn’t care about your life. And ultimately this is where you’re going to end up.”

Other groups oppose the jail project because they think it would eclipse the possibility of alternative uses for this large waterfront property. Before the city’s plans for a jail at Oak Point were made public, Sustainable South Bronx and Green Worker Cooperatives had been working on a feasibility study to create a “recycling industrial park” at Oak Point, a collection of businesses that would utilize and recycle construction and demolition waste. This type of operation could benefit both the city and the local community by providing jobs for local residents and reducing the amount of solid waste the city exports, said Conte.

The department has started evaluating the environmental condition of the land at Oak Point and will begin the scoping process for the land as early as January, according to Morello. While the department is still in the early stages of considering Oak Point, no other viable sites have been located.

Community in Unity intends to meet with local elected officials in coming weeks and continue to spread the word among residents. The coalition does not yet have a unified stance on what the land should be used for but is calling for a planning process that includes residents’ input.

Horn is scheduled to meet with the members of Community Board 2 on Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Police Athletic League at 991 Longwood Ave. in the Bronx.