Rumors of a Jail Coming to Rockaway…Much Ado About Nothing?

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After Mayor Bill de Blasio did a politically acquiescent about-face — vowing last Friday, March 31, to close the notorious jail complex on Rikers Island, and disperse inmates in newly-built jails in all of the five boroughs, a rumor spread like wildfire on Facebook group page, Friends of Rockaway Beach. Could the old Neponsit home be up for grabs?

Matthew Murdoch, who did not respond to The Rockaway Times by press time, ignited the fire by posting last Sunday, April 2, a photo of the decades-defunct Neponsit Health Care Center, located at 149-25 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, with the caption: “Coming soon to Rockaway. Mayor de Blasio’s new jail after the closing of Rikers Island. I was told by a City Hall source. I work right off Broadway, if you don’t believe me.”

The post fired up residents, although some doubted its validity, especially around April Fool’s Day. However, with Rockaway consistently being used as a city dumping ground, The Rockaway Times did some investigating to find if the rumor could become reality.

According to Robby Schwach, Deputy Chief of Staff for Councilman, Eric Ulrich, the Neponsit Home, or anywhere on the peninsula, is an unlikely possibility for a jail. “Currently by law, the property has to remain a health-related facility, or it automatically reverts to park land, unless the state legislature from both houses votes to change it. Our local elected officials would never allow that to happen. Additionally, the new jail would have to be sited somewhere in central Queens because the prisoners have to come and go everyday to court. We don’t have any courts in Rockaway. It would cost the City a fortune to house the prisoners here, and bus them to the three courts in the borough - on Queens Blvd., in Jamaica or in Long Island City. We may very well see something we don't want on the site eventually, since the community can't decide what they do want, but it won't be a city jail. Additionally, the buildings are not habitable, so they would have to be demolished and the site repaired; then they would have to build something new, making it incredibly expensive. So we don’t foresee nor have any knowledge of any plans to use that site to incarcerate criminals.”

Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato said, "The Mayor's proposal to close Riker's Island is still just a proposal. Where we put the replacement prisons is even further off. However, there remains an issue with the City seeing the Rockaway peninsula as a place to dump all its otherwise-problematic facilities. I will never stop my fight against that.  But the building in question is zoned for healthcare only, so there's nothing to react to yet.”

NYS Senator Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr., said, “The Mayor should concentrate more on ways to improve the situation at Rikers, instead of creating new problems with siting facilities across the boroughs, generating multiple security and public safety issues throughout the city. Once again, this administration is looking to merely discard an entire program, much like it has done with cluster sites for homeless individuals, instead of looking for ways to fix it."

The Neponsit Home has long been used for medical purposes. Photojournalist and social reformer, Jacob Riis, and his group, the New York Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, opened it as the Neponsit Beach Hospital for Children to treat tubercular children in 1917. It had 120 beds and large open-air balconies.

By the late 1930s, the site became an old age home. Then during World War II, the U.S. Public Health Service operated the facility as a tuberculosis hospital for merchant marines. Following the War, the facility became known as the Neponsit Beach Hospital for Crippled and Tubercular Children, until it closed in 1955. After a dispute with the department of hospitals, the facility was not used until 1964, when it reopened as the Neponsit Home for the Aged.

In 1985, the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) assumed operations of the site. Then in 1998, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, NYC declared an emergency evacuation of the facility. Without any prior notice, close to 300 residents were removed in the middle of night and bused off to other locations operated by the HHC. At that time, HHC officials said that the building was "structurally unsafe." The move was traumatizing to some. Two residents died while being relocated and another resident couldn’t be found for several weeks.

With the sudden closing, there were rumors that Giuliani wanted to sell the land to a political ally and friend, to turn it into an oceanfront hotel/casino. However, this plan never came to fruition because the deed to the land required it to be used exclusively as a healthcare facility or a park. With the hotel plans thwarted, the City planned to clear the property and turn it into parkland. A Legal Aid attorney, however, got a court-ordered injunction in October 1999, which prevented the city from tearing down the buildings.

The beachfront property sits unused and decaying, but still costing the city plenty. It was reported in 2014 that HHC paid $266,000 annually to maintain the property.

According to Peter Corless, Neponsit native and administrator of the Facebook page, Neponsit Home Redevelopment, “There are political and legal reasons why the site can not be used as a criminal detention center.

“A couple of years ago, long-time Rockaway activist, John Patrick Larkin, wanted to mobilize the community to get involved in the Neponsit Home’s redevelopment. Sadly, John passed away a few years ago. One of the last things we worked together on was creating the Facebook public group, Neponsit Home Redevelopment (facebook.com/groups/NeponsitHomeRedevelopment/

“Back in 2014, we started amassing a number of files relating to the legal status and deed information of the site. The last indenture of the property was made in October 1997 between NYC and NYS. The original deed specified that it could only be used as a medical facility. People in the 1970s were concerned that somebody was going to try to use the property as a heliport, and they made amendments to the deed to curtail that. It was last amended in October 1977.

“Then in 1999 after Giuliani shut down the home, and rumors circulated that he wanted to open a hotel, there was a Queens County Supreme Court case between the City Council of NY and Mayor that ruled that the site could not be used for anything else but a healthcare facility, except under the condition that it gets a vote by both houses of the State Assembly, and then signed by the Governor. So there’s no way, it could be used as a criminal detention center unless the covenant of the land is changed by the State.

“The property has been the subject of ongoing discussion. In 2014, we started this Facebook group. We started generating ideas on how the old Neponsit home could be used for the community’s benefit. There were many proposals such as an educational and health center, and veterans’ rehabilitation center. Assemblyman Lew Simon was really involved in this,” Corless said. Although the jail idea is nothing but a rumor, Corless is hopeful it will spark new interest. “Maybe this new conversation will reignite locals’ passion to move the needle on how the community could use this site for something beneficial,” Corless said.

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