A jail reopening brings unease to Brooklyn

NEW YORK Fri Feb 10, 2012 2:17pm EST

A woman walks with groceries past the public entrance to the Brooklyn Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, February 10, 2012. The jail, which fills a city block and has been shuttered for the past decade, reopened this week in a newly upscale neighborhood following a legal fight over its proposed expansion. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A woman walks with groceries past the public entrance to the Brooklyn Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, February 10, 2012. The jail, which fills a city block and has been shuttered for the past decade, reopened this week in a newly upscale neighborhood following a legal fight over its proposed expansion.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The icing on the cake spelled out, "Welcome to the Brooklyn Detention Center."

The jail, which fills a city block and has been shuttered for the past decade, reopened this week in a newly upscale neighborhood following a legal fight over its proposed expansion.

For some neighbors, such as those on an adjacent block where a townhouse recently sold for $3.4 million, the jail is disconcerting.

A recent open house -- including a look at the spare, six-by-eight-foot cells -- was meant to improve relations with neighbors, and more than 600 people showed up for a tour.

"Since our doors are normally shut, this is a great opportunity to let people in," said Dora Schriro, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. "We are looking for every meaningful way to be a really terrific neighbor."

The department is working to address concerns from neighbors, including the fear the jail will bring a glut of traffic and, potentially, an increase in crime.

The imposing, grey detention center, which opened in 1957 as an adolescent jail and was later used to incarcerate adults, shut down in 2003, and the city considered several proposals for expanding it. One plan called for ground-floor retail space. A 2009 lawsuit blocked the expansion.

The facility, which can accommodate 759 prisoners, will allow the city to move prisoners out of its main jail complex, Rikers Island, an isolated facility in Queens that the city plans to renovate.

The reopening has left many residents furious.

"It just seems like a waste of valuable real estate. And, with the regeneration of the neighborhood, it feels like we're moving backward, not forward," said Hugh Forward, who lives a block from the jail with his wife and two children.

The jail sits on the border between gritty downtown Brooklyn, home to an assortment of municipal buildings including several courts, and quaint residential neighborhoods known for their historic brownstone buildings.

Since the jail last held inmates, the area has seen a flourishing of new restaurants and boutiques, including the arrival of luxury retailer Barneys Co-Op and the grocery chain Trader Joe's. The Nu Hotel opened across the street in 2008.

"We've always known it could reopen so it's not a big surprise," said Macon Jessop, a stay-at-home mother who bought an apartment on the same block as the Forward family five years ago. She said she has no regrets about choosing the location, and added that she appreciates the extra police presence.

Still, in a neighborhood with so many luxury developments, some wonder if the neighborhood's transformation will stall.

"If you're living in the neighborhood and you're all excited about Barneys, it's a disaster," said New York retail consultant Howard Davidowitz. "This is a burgeoning, upscale area and (the jail) is not consistent with that. A detention center is not that cool."

He said the detention center is more likely to bring "low-end food" establishments, like fast-food chains and pizzerias.

The jail will be used mostly to house individuals awaiting trial in Brooklyn and Staten Island who have not been released because they were denied bail or could not afford it. Inmates, who will stay at this jail for an average of 56 days, will walk to the Brooklyn criminal courthouse through an underground tunnel.

Visitors filing in to the Brooklyn Detention Complex for the open house were greeted by a cheerful receiving line of corrections officers. In addition to the cake, visitors were offered slices of Rikers Island's famed carrot cake -- the same kind of cake served to inmates on special occasions.

Many said they had never before seen the inside of a jail.

"One of the biggest concerns was that inmates would be screaming out the window," said Walter Nin, the warden. In fact, the cells do not have windows and inmates are unable to reach the building's metal-framed, mesh-covered windows, he said.

Mariclaire Cloutier, a market researcher who lives a few blocks from the jail, said she had been concerned about safety, but found the tour "quite reassuring."

"I guess it's sort of a necessary evil," said Lavern Jones, an administrative assistant who toured the jail. "I guess they have to put them somewhere."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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