In Yonkers, a Shuttered Jail Becomes Part of a Budding Art Scene


The NY Times


YONKERS — Mayor Mike Spano looked out at the waterfront here and decided it was no place for a jail. So last year he put the Yonkers City Jail up for sale.

The two-story brick building, which held prisoners from 1926 until it was shuttered last fall, sits on the Hudson River in an area the city has long tried to revitalize. Mr. Spano thought someone might turn it into a restaurant or a brewery.

The prospective buyers were more exciting than he had hoped for: Daniel Wolf, an art collector and dealer, and his wife, the artist and architect Maya Lin. Mr. Wolf was enchanted by the building and wanted to transform it into a home for his expansive collection and a space for studios and a gallery.

“I just thought it was a really beautiful building,” Mr. Wolf said as he walked through the jail on a recent afternoon. “It kind of looks like a museum. It has that feel to it, although it’s a jail.”

With metal bars on the outside windows and rooms inside with heavy double doors, Mr. Wolf said the jail would be “a fortress” for the contemporary paintings, 19th- and 20th-century photography, prehistoric American art and ancient Chinese ceramics that he has amassed over four decades, most of which now sits in boxes in storage. He plans to keep one of the jail cells intact “just for fun.”

Otherwise, the building will get a major makeover, with renovations expected to cost more than the $1 million he paid for it in December.

Mr. Wolf, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, envisions a Jean Lurcat tapestry in the stairwell and a chandelier in the entryway. Eventually, he plans to add two more floors for art studios designed by Ms. Lin, whose work includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

For Mr. Spano, who has been mayor since 2012, it is a triumph that the pair is investing in Yonkers, a city known more for its blue-collar industrial past and struggle over desegregation than for its art scene. The sale of the jail is part of the mayor’s ambitious plans to develop the waterfront and make it a place where young people want to live.

The mayor argues that if Yonkers, the state’s fourth largest city, can attract artists and technology companies, then those who might otherwise head to Brooklyn will follow. He often notes the arrival of Mindspark, a tech company owned by the media company IAC, which recently moved into a historic building downtown that was once an Otis Elevator factory.

At his annual state of city address last week, Mr. Spano announced that the New York artist David Hammons had purchased a warehouse on the city’s southwest side for an art gallery. Mr. Hammons is known for using found objects and focuses on themes related to African-American life.

The city is beginning a marketing campaign this spring called Generation Yonkers, with “Gen Y” highlighted in the logo. Its pitch to millennials is that Grand Central Terminal is only 30 minutes away by train, and apartments on the river are more affordable than comparable apartments in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

“When you look at what has been developed, we’re the next frontier,” Mr. Spano said in an interview at his office in City Hall. “We’re the next natural place for people to go.”

Mayors have been promising the waterfront’s revival for at least the last decade. Before the recession, there were growing investments in the area, in apartment complexes and a $35 million public library, but the economic crash halted that push. Plans for a minor-league baseball stadium downtown fell apart.

The city has also worked to change negative perceptions after Yonkers was forced by the courts in the 1980s to desegregate housing and schools. It has grappled with corrupt politicians and an embarrassing episode last year when the last mayor, Phil Amicone, as part of a defamation settlement, had to apologize on the steps of City Hall to a local newspaper publisher and strip-club owner.

Another obstacle surfaced this winter when the school district was found to have a $55 million deficit because of an accounting scandal.

Mr. Spano, a former state assemblyman, is part of one of the most politically powerful families in Westchester County. His brother, Vincent E. Spano, is the city clerk, and his brother, Nicholas A. Spano, is a former state senator who was released from prison last year after serving 10 months for income tax fraud.

One selling point of Yonkers that the mayor often mentions is public safety. The crime rate here is one of the lowest among large cities, and the violent-crime rate decreased 7 percent last year from 2012, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Yonkers Police Department.

At a restaurant near the jail called Waterfront Cafe, workers from Mindspark and other offices grabbed lunch on a recent afternoon.

Dan Romal, 64, a caseworker for the county who has commuted to Yonkers for 30 years, said he was skeptical about plans for growth. The waterfront lacks access to a major highway, he said, and basic amenities like shopping. “I think it’s going to be a tough sell,” he said.

The cafe’s owner, John Khader, is betting on a turnaround. “People are seeing just high-rises and not a lot of activity,” he said. “We need more bodies down here.”

But there are signs of progress. Two of the city’s most prominent abandoned buildings are in the process of being redeveloped: The cathedral-likeGlenwood Power Plant is to become a convention center, and the city is talking to potential buyers of the vine-and-graffiti-covered Boyce Thompson Institute. Both have sat derelict for years.

As for the jail, it needs a lot of work. City officials transferred prisoners to another municipal building and gave it a sweeping before handing over the keys. The two dozen or so cells each still have a simple cot, toilet and sink. Long-term prisoners were not held here; the jail was usually just a stop on the way to the county jail in Valhalla.

As Mr. Wolf passed a door inside the jail reading, “Women’s restrooms: no prisoners,” he acknowledged, “Sometimes, it is kind of creepy.”

But he added, “It will be so much fun to see art everywhere.”


Yonkers Raceway could see new pot of money in Cuomo casino gambling plan

Written by
Jorge Fitz-Gibbon

YONKERS — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to legalize casino gambling in the state could provide a massive financial boost to Yonkers Raceway and New York’s eight other “racinos” — horse racing tracks with electronic gaming facilities that already have proven extremely lucrative.

Tim Rooney Jr., general counsel for Yonkers Raceway and Empire City, its gaming operation, said a new amendment to allow more traditional casinos in the state would prompt “a more significant investment” in operations at the track, which collected nearly $7.8 billion last year — 30 percent of it going to the raceway.

“We think that the addition of the gaming and poker games and blackjack would really put us in a position where no one would have to go to the Connecticut casinos or to the New Jersey casinos and we’d be able to offer everything they have, including the entertainment and the hotels and restaurants and things of that sort,” said Rooney, whose family has owned the track since 1972.

“Basically we see it as sort of a natural extension of what we’re doing now, just allowing us to offer more of the games that our customers really want to play, which is blackjack and the live table games,” he said. “We have some electronic table games now, and they’re very popular. But yet they’re not near as popular as the real table games might be.”

State officials note that the measure, part of Cuomo’s proposed state budget, is in the early stages with details still not ironed out. But the governor said it could bring an additional $1 billion annually, expanding on statewide racino operations that reported $16 billion in sales last year and provided $593 million in state education spending.

The proposal includes a merger of the New York State Lottery, which oversees the racino gambling operations, and the state Racing & Wagering Board, which oversees horse racing. The new entity, the New York State Gaming Commission, would control most of the state’s games of chance.

“Let’s amend the constitution,” Cuomo said in a budget presentation in Yonkers on Jan. 18. “Let’s call them what they are. Let’s regulate them right, let’s regulate them properly. Let’s tax them correctly, let’s get the revenue for our state and let’s protect our people. Let’s pass a constitutional amendment that allows casinos, recognize the reality and regulate them for what they are.”

Officials at both the wagering board and the lottery declined to comment.

Empire City at Yonkers Raceway was by far the most successful of the racinos, supplying nearly 50 percent of sales and net revenues and 54 percent of education money last year. Yonkers’ dominance of the racino operations could face a challenge. New York’s newest gaming facility, the Resorts World casino at Aqueduct Raceway, kept pace with Yonkers Raceway after it opened in October.

Rooney, the Yonkers track’s general counsel, also said that details of Cuomo’s casino proposal could prove significant. For example, if self-standing casinos are allowed under a new gambling amendment, they could compete with the racinos for gamblers.

Rooney also said that though Empire City handles billions of dollars, it receives only 30 percent of the take, with all expenses coming out of that cut. He noted that “that 30 percent that some people misconstrue as sort of our bottom line is really the top line, and everything comes off of that.”

The bulk of the money brought in by racinos goes back into jackpots and for education funding. If traditional casino operations are brought into racinos, Rooney said, the formula might have to change.

“Frankly the live table games are much more labor intensive and the house is at risk,” he said. “And even … with the electronic table games we wind up losing money on some of them sometimes, depending on how the players are faring. So, the tax rate on the table games may have to be adjusted off of the 70 percent rate we pay now to something significantly lower to make it worthwhile.”

Regardless, officials in Albany reiterated that any fine-tuning in the proposal is still under way. They maintain, however, that Cuomo has been firm in his desire to see the law change.

“The governor has submitted his proposal to change the constitution that would govern gaming,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office. “That, I think, speaks to how early we are in the process. All things in due time and I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.”

Yonkers New Mayor

Mike Spano inaugurated as Yonkers mayor



Debby Frank, Keller Williams Realty, (914) 498-5443,

Yonkers police lift warning after chlorine spill contained

Yonkers firefighters set up a command post several hundred feet from a building containing a chlorine treatment operation Monday on Central Avenue in Yonkers after a chlorine spill inside the building. Police closed off southbound Central Avenue and several side streets near the facility, which is near Midland Terrace.

Seth Harrison/The Journal News 
Yonkers firefighters set up a command post several hundred feet from a building containing a chlorine treatment operation Monday on Central Avenue in Yonkers after a chlorine spill inside the building. Police closed off southbound Central Avenue and several side streets near the facility, which is near Midland Terrace.
 Written by Shawn Cohen |
An advisory for city residents was lifted after emergency crews contained a chlorine spill at the Hillview pump station on Central Park Avenue on Monday.  Police had been urging residents within a quarter-mile area to stay inside and keep their windows closed after a worker reported the leak about 9 a.m. It was lifted about three hours later.

Yonkers firefighters, police and a hazardous materials team responded after workers noticed the odor emanating from a storage area of old chlorine tanks. The plant treats water for Yonkers and Mount Vernon, and the leak occurred on the section that treats Mount Vernon’s water.  There were no reported injuries.

The station, part of the Hillview Reservoir, is located at 375 Central Park Ave. just south of Yonkers Raceway. It belongs to the New York City Department of Enviromental Protection and 99 percent of the city’s water passes through Hillview from upstate reservoirs.

The reservoir property also stores large quantities of chlorine. This summer, federal environmental officials agreed to halt plans to build a $1.6 billion concrete cap over the water body.