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Photo: Max Parrott/QNS
Acting Borough President Sharon Lee

Queens has become the forefront of the push behind a land use amendment that would change the city map on Rikers Island, turning it into a public place and banning jails on the site.

Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee held a hearing on Jan. 30 with the Department of Correction and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice on this amendment. The application was posed days before the City Council’s voted in the borough-based jail plan in an effort to close the Rikers detention facility for good. 

The Borough President’s office will have the next month to vote on the proposal before it goes before the City Planning Commission.

Facing one of the first major decisions in her temporary role as borough executive, Lee said that she had some trepidation with giving the project the green light without a definitive project in store for the public space. 

Lee asked repeatedly for other examples of public space throughout the city and borough, and criticized the process of collecting public feedback leading up to the passage of the borough-based jail plan.

“There were concerns over what public engagement was handled over the past year with the borough-based jails. We’re coming into this with a little less faith,” said Lee.

Dana Kaplan, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, explained that a different review process would determine what the public land would ultimately be used, for but ensured Lee that it would involve the surrounding community’s ideas as well as those impacted by substandard facilities in the jail.

“As it relates to any uses of the island, we are committed to doing public engagement on that. We welcome public suggestions on what are the best ways to make sure that stakeholder voices are heard,” said Kaplan. 

Kaplan explained that the timing of the application stems from city hall’s desire to create a binding resolution that prevents any future detention on the island before the de Blasio administration leaves office. 

Ideas have already been percolating in the city hall chambers. A legislative package that Astoria Councilman Costa Constantinides proposed to turn the island into a renewable energy hub received an Environmental Protection Committee hearing on Wednesday.

An opponent of the borough-based plan from its inception, former Assistant District Attorney and Queen Borough President Candidate Jim Quinn showed up to hearing to fight the amendment. He warned about what would happen if there were a sudden spike in incarceration that would buck the overwhelming reduction in the prison population under the de Blasio administration from 11,000 in 2014 to 7,000 last year.

When the hearing ended, he said that it’s a “slap in the face to the residents of Queens that not one other candidate in the race for Borough President showed up.”

None of the candidates running to be the next borough president will have power over the decision. According to the timeline that Kaplan presented, Lee will announce her decision before March.

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