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05.06.2009
Jail Bait
In bid to stop Brooklyn project, pol blames architects
RicciGreeneAssociates, the firm set to redesign and expand the Brooklyn House of Detention, have had their work attacked by Comptroller William Thompson.
Matt Chaban

The gentrification of Boerum Hill was well underway by the time the Brooklyn House of Detention closed in 2003, but now that the Bloomberg administration wants to reopen and expand the 759-bed jail, neighbors new and old have rallied forcefully to stop it. In the latest move, Comptroller William Thompson came to the neighborhood’s defense with an unusual procedural gambit: He rejected the city’s design contract for the expansion, just 12 days after a Brooklyn judge allowed the jail to reopen.

In a letter sent to the mayor on March 30, Thompson placed part of the blame on the expansion’s designers—a team led by RicciGreeneAssociates and 1100 Architects—finding them inexperienced for the job. The main thrust of Thompson’s argument was this: As part of the RFP process, the design team submitted ten previously completed projects. But none of the ten projects, Thompson wrote, “is remotely ‘similar in scope and type’ to planned renovation and expansion of the BHOD.” In particular, Thompson said, none of the projects reached anywhere close to the expansion’s $450 million price tag.

RicciGreene, however, has considerable experience designing correctional facilities and court houses, and the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which is developing the project, stands behind them. Matthew Monahan, public affairs officer for the department, called the firm “one of the foremost correctional design firms in the United States” with ample experience for the project.

Rick Bell, executive director of the AIA New York chapter, also defended the design team, pointing out that if the cost of a project were always the primary factor in selecting firms to design it, small firms would never be able to compete. “The way people work now, firm size has nothing to do with the projects they can undertake,” Bell said.

Thompson’s real complaint seemed to be that the cost of the project had nearly doubled from an original estimate of $240 million—and that this was announced three-quarters of the way through the design process. To that argument, Monahan countered that the initial amount was submitted by a different agency and then adjusted afterwards. He added that the cost of a project should have no impact on whether or not a firm is capable of designing it.

Amid the debate, some have wondered whether Thompson’s pique over the contract might have something to do with the comptroller’s campaign for mayor next year. In response to an email seeking comment, the comptroller’s spokesman replied simply: “The facts speak for themselves.”

Matt Chaban