Chelsea Residents Prefer Prisons to More Luxury Condos

Locals would prefer 550 West 20th Street remain a jail.

Locals would prefer 550 West 20th Street remain a jail.

Given that every day seems to bring news of more luxury condos coming to Chelsea (even the development sites are getting gussied up), we’re not surprised to hear that the likelihood of yet another local institution making way for high-end housing has riled the locals. What is unusual, however, is that the institution locals are so sad to see go is a medium-security prison.

“I consider it a tragedy that the prison is lost,” community board member Pamela Wolff told The New York Times, which reported on the state’s plan to lease or sell Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium security women’s prison at 550 West 20th Street. “The amount of recidivism was minimal. For those women, for this community, which for 35 years has been in perfect harmony with the use of that facility, the repercussions will never be measured.”

With the exception of economically bereft towns upstate, there are few places where residents are clamoring to open or keep a prison in the neighborhood (and even the upstate towns are not without their NIMBYs). But apparently, Chelsea has reached a state of such hyper-gentrification that longtime residents miss their incarcerated neighbors. Or, at least, prefer them to yet more rich denizens blocking the sidewalks with their mammoth strollers and shopping bags.

The state’s decision to shutter the prison stemmed from damage that the building sustained during Hurricane Sandy—the women were evacuated days before the storm flooded the building, which has been empty ever since. Though the state has made repairs, it has no intention of bringing the former residents back.

The state has yet to market the Art Deco building, which was a single-occupancy residence before it became a prison in 1974, but there’s a high probability that luxury housing is in the cards. After all, real estate developers’ voracious appetite for luxury conversions has consumed every other type of public institution in the city—from schools and libraries to hospitals and nursing homes. Prisons would, as far as we can tell, be a new one, but given that Bayview was used as an SRO before becoming a jail and is also unlandmarked, conversion or demolition hardly seems far-fetched. Especially given that the building is in a hot neighborhood and has great views of the Hudson.

“Developers are circling the skies like vultures,” community board member Joe Restuccia told The Times. “They look at this not as any sort of public resource, but a piece of property and that’s it. It’s just the next available site.”

Of course, at this point, most residents are agitating for the building to be used for some kind of community purpose or affordable housing rather than being turned back into a jail. But it says a lot about Chelsea’s current state when locals prefer criminals to members of the ruling class. And while we doubt a luxury residential conversion will bring anyone to blows, as the loss of the Village’s St. Vincent’s did recently, you have to wonder what it means for the the future of a city when life becomes so rarefied and precious that residents start mourning not only the loss of the hospitals and churches, but also the prisons.