If a good compromise is one in which neither side is happy, then New York’s prison system leaders should be proud of themselves for angering just about everyone with their decision to build a giant facility for ex-criminals in the middle of Gowanus. Except it kind of wasn’t really a compromise at all. And they’re actually being sued.
Construction of a reporting office for parolees — on Second Avenue between 5th Street and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn — has riled residents of the surrounding community who fear that, when finished, the facility will bring waves of criminals to their streets. Plans for the 60,000-square-foot center that will serve as many as 6,000 parolees per month haven’t earned many fans among parolee advocates, either.
Gowanus residents have filed a lawsuit against the New York State Department of Correction and Community Supervision, the New York State Office of General Services, and New York City, for overriding the area’s zoning restrictions to make way for the center. They also allege that the state approved the facility without conducting the proper environmental review for the site — a former bus repair shop — and that the community wasn’t consulted on plans to build the center.
“I get it. It’s not easy. We need parole facilities, and they’re not easy to site,” says New York City councilman Brad Lander, who represents Gowanus. “But the answer can’t just be, ‘Just don’t tell them.’ ”
According to the Department of Correction, the center will service as many as 526 parolees a day, most of whom will go there weekly to meet with their parole officers. The facility is slated to employ about 150 people.
In addition to the lawsuit, an ad hoc group called Gowanus United has plastered the neighborhood with glossy flyers stating that the center’s location is unsafe and inconvenient. They have a rally against the center planned for November 19: Protesters will stop for free hot chocolate from The Bahche before marching to the site to hear speeches from community leaders.
The chorus of opposition to the facility has occasioned calls of NIMBYism — the notion that communities will object to construction of anything in their own back yards.
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Kathryn Krase, a social worker who owns property in Gowanus, has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She’s worried there isn’t enough security or police foot patrol on the street to make a parole center safe for the neighborhood, and that the building is too close to Al-Madinah School, a Muslim K-12 institution. The school, located on Third Avenue, is just one avenue away from the facility. Gowanus United calls the area a “kid-friendly corridor” owing to its high-end amenities that cater to youngsters, including a skateboarding school and a clay workshop.
Krase says cries of NIMBYism are incorrect and uninformed.
“We’re not Park Slope. We don’t want to be Park Slope,” she says of Gowanus’s neighboring residential area, which has become known for its opposition to development. “Are there safety concerns? I think some of the child-centered businesses are concerned registered sex offenders on parole are going to walk past the school and the subway, and I think those concerns are valid.”
Jeremy Saunders, a spokesman for VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that advocates for, among other things, the rights of parolees and the incarcerated, says that what’s happening in Gowanus is more complicated than some tired gentrification narrative.
“There are issues of NIMBYism going on right now. It’s undeniable,” Saunders says. “There’s also very good reasons why this [parole center] is not necessarily a good idea.”
The center is a seven-minute walk from the Smith-9th Street F and G train stop and a nine-minute walk from the R train at 9th Street, according to Google Maps.
The awkward location, far from most other trains, could make it difficult for parolees to get to their appointments on time, Saunders points out.
“That could have real implications,” he says. “Being late for or missing an appointment can be considered a violation of your parole,” he explains. “And violating your parole [could lead to] being sent back to prison.”
As it stands, all Brooklyn parole offices are downtown, close to stops on the 2,3,4, and 5 lines at Nevins and Hoyt-Schemerhorn streets, and not too far from the Atlantic Avenue station that serves most of the borough.
Keeping parole centers public, near subways and amenities, is something the state should continue, not walk away from, Saunders says: “Hiding parole in some warehouse district — that runs counter to the direction everyone wants to see our criminal justice system going.”
Brian Pearson agrees. A construction worker and a leader on VOCAL’s civil rights campaigns, the 38-year-old has been on parole three times — most recently for a drug-related offense in 2012. “Going downtown [for parole], that’s how I got involved with VOCAL,” he says.
Pearson, who currently lives in Bed-Stuy but previously lived between Brownsville and East New York, says the Gowanus parole center hub would be a difficult trek for many Brooklynites. He’d prefer to see smaller offices with helpful services scattered throughout the borough, “sort of like a community center.”
Says Pearson: “If you put it all over there [in Gowanus], everybody in East New York loses as well. They lose security, access.”
Yuppie helicopter parents and prisoner-justice advocates may make strange bedfellows. But with the overwhelming consensus of opposition to the center, the remaining question is how, exactly, it was allowed to happen in the first place.
According to a letter from the DOC, community consultation is not a required step for finding a site for facilities like this one. Rather, the state publishes an ad in the Contract Reporter, a bulletin board of sorts on the NY.gov website that lists requests for proposals and bidding opportunities for public projects. As of press time, 699 “available opportunities” were on the site.
After a request for information is placed on the site, the state looks at responses that meet the requirements — the site can’t be adjacent to schools, residences, or children’s spaces, for example — and chooses the best option.
But the state does have to follow some requirements. What those requirements are seems to be the crux of the argument the residents make in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the state must conduct an environmental assessment of the site; the state says it doesn’t have to do that because it’s just leasing, not buying, the property.
The lawsuit says the state signed its lease with the landlord before it applied for the city zoning override it would need in order to build such a large facility without extra parking.
Finally, the lawsuit blames the city for sneaking in the approval for the override during the last days of the Bloomberg administration.
Residents say they’re willing to put up with a smaller-scale parole center but are mostly upset that the decision was made without input from the community.
Lander says when he first heard about the center over the summer, he had to call the DOCCS multiple times before getting a call back to discuss the plans.
The community was informed by a letter from the location’s property manager, Chaim Simkowitz, which said that “we look forward to working with your office to ensure the seamless transition of this facility.”
The letter explained that DOCCS previously rented a parole center in Brooklyn on Livingston Street, but that when the building was sold, the department split its parole centers into three “temporary locations, which are less than ideal because of lack of usable space and poor conditions.”
“The state of New York cannot operate without a DOCCS presence,” adds Simkowitz, who donated to Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign in 2013 and his run for Public Advocate in 2009. “Due to the difficulties of finding a suitable location, we are very excited that we were able to obtain the necessary permitting and approvals to expedite this process.”
The Voice emailed Simkowitz on Monday evening but has not heard back.
In a letter to Brooklyn Community Board 6, which serves Gowanus, the DOCCS wrote that the proposal was approved in 2013. Representatives from the department did not immediately respond to questions from the Voice.
Care to read the court docs? They’re on the next page.