New Yorkers are well-accustomed to confining spaces, but could they stomach shopping or living in a building that shares space with a functioning cellblock?
That question could get answered in downtown Brooklyn, where real estate is so hot that a city jail is being eyed as a potential home for shops, a restaurant, 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, it is a cross-shaped concrete tower with razor wire around part of its base and metal cages over its facade.
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. Eight blocks away, New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner plans to build apartment towers and a new arena for his NBA 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.
Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn has suggested turning 24,000 square feet 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 stores, plus housing and maybe a hotel.
“I’ve already called developers, and there is an interest,” he 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 neighborhood would get a space that’s gorgeous.”
The concept isn’t without precedent. City officials responded to protests over a new Manhattan jail in the mid-1980s by adding street-level stores and an 11-story housing tower for the elderly on the same block. Most people passing the place today would not recognize it as a jail.
Dropping crime has allowed the city to shutter several jails in recent years. But the system periodically comes close to running out of space.
The city’s jails, most of which are on isolated Rikers Island, had an average daily population of about 13,600 inmates in fiscal 2005, compared with 15,500 in 2000 and a high of 21,400 in 1992.
In Brooklyn, one idea under consideration is doubling the House of Detention’s capacity to 1,600 inmates. That doesn’t sit well with neighbors, who with crime falling do not see why the place has to reopen at all.
Sandy Balboza, head of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, remembers the bad old days, when the jail brought nothing but bail bonds offices, double-parked cars and people standing in the street, shouting up to friends behind bars.
“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.”