Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The city is looking for backers to convert a former roach-infested youth jail into a mixed-use affordable housing complex.
A Bronx building once used for housing arrested teens—and a lot of roaches—could soon be converted into housing for low-income families. The New York City Economic Development Corporation recently issued a request for proposals to turn the former Spofford Juvenile Detention Center on the Bronx Hunts Point peninsula into a “live-work campus.”
Developers are “encouraged to consider a wide range of residential and non-residential uses for the site, including commercial, cultural, institutional and light manufacturing,” according to a NYCEDC press statement, with an emphasis on “affordable housing and high-quality, career-oriented jobs.”
For decades, though, the youth jail that once occupied the nearly five-acre parcel was somewhat of a scourge for the surrounding Hunts Point community. As reported in DNAinfo, the once city-run Spofford Juvenile Detention Center was infamous for abusing its youth inmates and keeping them in decrepit conditions. In an early campaign for ending teen incarceration, the Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Project spelled out 10 reasons that the jail should close. Among those reasons from that 2004 report:
The conditions at Spofford have a strong psychological effect on a young person that is detained there. The building’s physical design consists of long dark hallways, barred windows, and cell block style rooms. Spofford residents must use open showers and toilets. They receive clothing and underwear that have already been used and the facility is known for its poor sanitation. In 1997, The Daily News reported that the dining hall at Spofford is “overrun by roaches that invade the food.” The rooms are small and narrow and do not allow for circulation of fresh air. “I was so horrified . . . it was not a place I thought children should be” said a former DJJ official.
Spofford once housed a young Mike Tyson. Community-development professional Majora Carter lived down the street from the jail, where her father worked as a janitor. “There were 100 percent negative associations with the place,” she told Next City in an interview last year. She has envisioned converting the facility, which was shuttered in 2011, into housing and other uses as part of her broader urban revitalization agenda for Hunts Point.
The CANY’s Juvenile Justice 2004 report called for the city to redirect funding used for the youth jail to help renovate “the city’s most dilapidated schools,” and to convert the leftover building “into a use that benefits the community.”
“There’s a few things we are looking to see in this proposal, first and foremost the preservation of permanent, affordable housing, and specifically housing that is affordable to people within this community,” says Angela Tovar, Director of Sustainable Policy and Research for Sustainable South Bronx. “That means focusing on area median income here in Hunts Point, which is significantly lower than it is across New York City.”
The new Spofford housing proposal is included in the city’s agenda to create 200,000 units over the next 10 years for low-income families. The city is leveraging this proposal off of the other major projects it’s helping finance in the south Bronx neighborhood including the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the BXL Business Incubator, the South Bronx Greenway, and the Randall’s Island Connector. So far, close to 20 companies have expressed interest in participating in the Spofford jail do-over.