Concerns voiced over planned probation office, lack of transparency in Civic Center plan
Even before Cas Holloway, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Operations, let slip at a Community Board 1 meeting that the city had plans to move the probation department to a residential area in the Financial District, complaints were brewing from board members and the public that the city had no interest in getting community input on what’s turned out to be a series of moves to consolidate city agencies in Lower Manhattan.
The moves are part of the city’s Civic Center plan, according to Julianne Cho, Chief Communications Officer for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. What’s known at this point is that a criminal summons court is being moved to 71 Thomas Street and portions of the probation department are moving to 66 John Street.
Details of the wider plan are slowly being outlined by city officials at CB1 meetings, which have seen a surge in attendance since word of the moves has spread. In the case of the criminal summons court move, Holloway and other officials attended an October CB1 meeting to allay residents’ fears.
However, he only addressed the meeting after the majority of the 100-plus residents who showed up to protest the court’s move had left. At that meeting, Holloway unintentionally revealed that the probation department will be moving to 66 John Street.
Approximately 200 probationers will be visiting 66 John Street on a weekly basis to check in on ATM-like kiosk machines. The probation department said those checking in at John Street are considered low-risk and the majority are arrested for crimes such as theft, DWI and drug possession. The department stressed that no sex offenders will be checking in at John Street.
In response to the surprise revelation, CB1’s Financial District Committee called a meeting on Nov. 6 with city officials to discuss the move further. The meeting was held in a NYS Assembly hearing room at 250 Broadway that became so packed, some attendees were held up in the lobby because the room was at capacity.
The community’s concern with the move has to do with the growing residential nature of 66 John Street. The area is home to at least five schools that serve students ranging in age from kindergarten to college. Those who live in that area of the Financial District have taken to calling the neighborhood the “Diaper District” and “Stroller Alley.”
Financial District Committee co-chair Ro Sheffe, citing MTA statistics, said the subway station at nearby Fulton Street ranks as the 11th busiest out of 468 in the city.
“Would you want this office across the street from your family?” committee member Linda Gerstman asked representatives from the city. Laurence Busching, First Deputy Criminal Justice Coordinator, refused to answer the question but said the same operations are currently going on at 346 Broadway – also known as the Civic Center because of the concentration of city agencies in the area – and haven’t led to any incidents.
“You can’t compare [66 John Street] to 346 Broadway,” said Susan Cole, co-chair of the committee. “It’s a different area, it does not have the schools, it does not have the churches, it does not have the population that we have at 66 John, it is different, so please don’t compare it.”
“The Bloomberg administration deliberately developed this neighborhood into the largest growing residential community in New York City,” said Patricia Moore, another committee member. “We are so dense now that anyone coming to these offices and courts and leaving has to traverse blocks that are covered with strollers and toddlers and babies.”
Joel Rudman, who lives half a block from 66 John Street, said that safety was an important factor when his family moved into the Financial District.
“Just this year, our 11-year-old daughter has started to walk to school…and she goes by 66 John every day…and the word that bothers me is ‘risk,’ because I don’t want any risk when my daughter leaves,” said Rudman. “I’m going to have to change the way she goes about her lifestyle because of the way these people have led their lifestyle, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
In interviews and in comments at the meeting, members of the committee expressed deep frustration that the city was not forthcoming with details on their plans to relocate city agencies. They were initially told by the city that the agencies at 346 Broadway would be moving to 80 Centre Street, which currently houses the city’s marriage bureau and the jurors office. That plan was later changed because of space issues.
In response, city officials said that notices for two public hearings on the matter were placed in the City Record, a Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services newspaper containing public notices.
“This move was not announced to local residents, it was deliberately concealed from them,” said committee co-chair Ro Sheffe in an interview. “The only ‘public notice’ was buried in paragraph 17 of an obscure government newsletter never distributed to the residents of this community. Legally, this may constitute ‘public notice.’ Ethically, it is an outrageous betrayal of civic responsibility.”
CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes said that even though the city has a lease signed for 66 John Street, the board isn’t sure whether the city followed the proper notification protocols under the city charter, and that there is a question of legality that must be answered.
Land use and zoning lawyer Paul Proulx, who lives in the Financial District, said the city’s sale of 346 Broadway – which prompted the criminal summons court and probation department move – and any related actions must be reviewed together to determine the overall environmental impact of a proposal.
Proulx said in an interview that the lease of 66 John Street – the related action – was not subject to such review. “Or if it was, it was improperly ‘segmented’ from the primary action of selling 386 Broadway. Segmentation is prohibited by environmental law and may leave the city’s decision to sell the property on Broadway and lease new space on John Street exposed to legal challenge.”
At the Nov. 6 committee meeting, Matthew Berk, Executive Director of Citywide Real Estate for DCAS, said as part of the Civic Center plan that every city agency located at 346 Broadway would be moving. Berk said some of those agencies are moving to addresses at 1 Centre Street and 100 Gold Street, but that he didn’t know which agencies.
“One of the things that is most disturbing to us is that the first inkling we had of any of this was five days ago,” said Sheffe. “We thought that the city would engage the community a lot sooner than that so we could have some discussions with you about mitigating effects.”
Julianne Cho, Chief Communications Officer for DCAS, did not respond to repeated requests for more information about the Civic Center plan.
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