Location, location, location works for jail

New Yorkers are well-accustomed to confining spaces, but could they stomach shopping or living in a building that shares space with a functioning prison?

The answer may lie in downtown Brooklyn, where real estate is so hot that even a city jail is being eyed as a potential home for shops, a restaurant, or maybe even some apartments.

Built in 1957 and closed since 2003, the Brooklyn House of Detention seems an unlikely candidate for gentrification.

Standing 10 stories high, the cross-shaped concrete tower is unwelcoming at best. Razor wire encircles part of its base. Metal cages cover its facade. It looks like the prison it is.

But in real estate, location is everything, and in that respect, the jail has it all.

The building lies a short walk from the Brooklyn Bridge on Atlantic Avenue, a once-shabby boulevard now lined with trendy restaurants, specialty food shops and clothing boutiques. Luxury condominiums are under construction around the corner and down the street. Nearby brownstones are selling for $1,5-million and up.

More big changes are coming. Just eight blocks away, New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner plans to build apartment towers and a glitzy new arena for his team.

To the dismay of some locals, there is also talk about reopening the House of Detention, but with some changes that might make it more palatable.

Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn has suggested turning 2 230 square metres of space on the jail's ground floor into retail space, which might be rented to shopkeepers or an upscale grocery.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has been pushing a grander idea: Tear down the jail and build a new one that would include a floor or two of retail, plus residential housing and possibly a hotel, in addition to jail cells.

In his vision, the project would be partly financed by a private developer who would get control over the parts of the complex that were not a prison.

"I've already called developers, and there is an interest," Markowitz said. "We could really make a statement here... The developer would get a property with a great location. Correction gets a new space. The city would get a tax-producing entity, and the neighbourhood would get a space that's gorgeous."

The concept is not without precedent.

City officials mollified protests over a new Manhattan jail in the mid-1980s by agreeing to add street-level retail and an 11-story housing tower for the elderly on the same block. The result: Most people passing the place today would not recognise it as a detention centre.

Such a project may be a longer shot in Brooklyn, but so far, Horn hasn't said no.

"We're looking at a progression of ideas," said Correction Department spokesman Tom Antenen.

One of those ideas includes doubling the jail's capacity, from 800 to 1 600 inmates.

That has not sat well with neighbours, who, with crime rates continuing to drop, do not see why the place has to reopen at all.

Sandy Balboza, head of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, said adding a few shops would not make up for the damage the neighbourhood would suffer if the detention center reopened.

She remembers the bad old days, when the jail brought nothing but bail bonds offices, the double-parked cars of corrections officers, and the spectacle of people standing in the street, shouting up to incarcerated friends.

"A jail has a negative impact," Balboza said. "It doesn't mean that people break out, or it brings additional crime, but a jail is not a positive force in a neighborhood."

Dropping crime has allowed the city to shutter several jails in recent years. The closures have saved money, but put the system periodically close to running out of space.

City jails, most of which are on isolated Rikers Island, had an average daily population of 13 576 inmates in fiscal 2005, compared to 15 530 in 2000 and a high of 21 448 in 1992.

During the 1980s, the city learned a lesson about the hazards of being caught off guard by surging crime. With fewer than 7 000 jail beds, it turned to a former British troop barge and discarded Staten Island ferries to house prisoners. Other inmates were released outright when the overflow grew to great.

Article from: www.iol.co.za