Further delays for the Women’s Building as third block party nears



The future Women’s Building, on the south corner of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, was formerly Bayview Correctional Facility. Photo: Emily Paulin.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said 58-year-old former prisoner Sharon Richardson in a calm, reassuring tone. “So if it takes the next three, four or five years, then so be it. It will be when it’s ready.”

Almost three years ago, the NoVo Foundation announced that the Chelsea building which once housed Bayview Correctional Facility would become the Women’s Building, a resource hub for the girls’ and women’s rights movement. NoVo, a private grant-making institution advocating for women’s rights, united with the Goren Group, a women-led development firm, for the project.

The transformation of the former medium-security prison for women – evacuated during Hurricane Sandy in 2011 and shut down soon after – is experiencing lengthy delays due to ongoing negotiations with the building’s state-run owner, Empire State Development (ESD). The exact terms and conditions of an access agreement, which is required to develop and use the state-owned site, are still being determined.

As a result construction is on hold, though it was scheduled to start in 2017. The original 2020 opening has been delayed twice, to 2022 and now to late 2023, with a five-year build expected.

 “It has been a long process,” said Pamela Shifman, the executive director of the NoVo Foundation, which has a 99-year lease on ESD’s 87-year-old building. “But we hope [the access agreement] will be finalized soon. Once [it is], we anticipate construction will begin in approximately a year.”

In 2016, the NoVo Foundation requested 15 zoning overrides from ESD, including waivers for building height and setback; floor area; and yard and signage regulations.

When asked about the terms of the pending access agreement, ESD spokesperson Adam Kilduff, said “The State is continuing to work with the NoVo Foundation on its plan to transform the Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility into the Women’s Building.” He did not confirm whether the zoning overrides are being discussed in the current negotiations.

Until the access agreement is granted, Shifman is working with multiple groups – the project’s Advisory Circle, which is made up of global activists, grassroots organisations, female tradeswomen, and social change facilitators; women who were formally incarcerated at Bayview, such as Richardson; and the local community, including Community Board 4 – to ensure that “even as the physical building comes together, we are building the Women’s Building, and its community, every single day.”

One initiative is the Women’s Building annual block party, which returns for its third instalment on Saturday October 13 on a closed-off West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. A mix of approximately 40 local and national organizations ­conducting critical work for the girls’ and women’s rights movement are exhibiting at the event, which includes live performances, speakers, food and drinks, kids’ activities, and a photo booth. Brooklyn Express Drum Line, the National Double Dutch League, Girl Be Heard, Women You Should Know, and STEPS to End Family Violence represent just a snippet of the full line-up.

“It’s a very, very positive and happy vibe,” said former inmate Keila Pulinario, who completed a 20-year prison sentence for killing the man she said raped her. Two of those years were spent at Bayview.

Pulinario returns to the block party for her second year as a food vendor, dishing up Latin cuisine from Chi Chi’s Kitchen, the catering business she created after she was released, in honor of her grandmother.

“It’s empowering,” she said. “I mean, as a woman who has been in the system, I never in a million years would have thought that I would be a part of something like this.”

Richardson, who spent just one year at Bayview during her 20-year sentence for domestic violence-related murder in the second degree, described the event as “a melting pot of questions, and tears, and emotion, and anger, and happiness, and joy”. Her soul food business, Just Soul Catering – which she hopes will find a permanent home in the Women’s Building – is appearing at the block party for its third year.

While the event’s line-up reflects the types of organizations that the building will house, tenants have not been selected. “It’s too early to make a determination,” said Shifman, adding that all groups currently involved will continue to remain involved whether they are tenants or not.

“As many local organizations as possible,” is Community Board 4’s preference for tenants, according to district manager Jesse Bodine.

“Anything that’s going to help empower women and girls, that’s awesome,” said Pulinario. “A place where women who need help in whatever – domestic violence, therapy – is basically what I would love to see.”

While the group waits for the access agreement, Shifman said that Deborah Berke Partners – who won the architecture commission in July 2016 – is using “hundred and hundreds of hours of consultation with the community members” to develop “incredibly creative” plans.

Office and event spaces, a childcare center, and a cafe or restaurant are certainties, according to Shifman. The firm’s initial proposal mentions an auditorium, galleries, lounges, a media center, wellness facility, outdoor terraces, and a “bold new tower” on the former prison annex, too.

Even with delays, Shifman remains optimistic.

“New York State real-estate is challenging and I think that’s been the biggest challenge to help make this building come to fruition,” she said. “But we feel like we have so much support from the local community, from activists, from a broad range of extras from the hyper-local level to the national and international level. I think we feel like we’re in a really good place to the get this building done.”

Richardson agrees.

“My wisdom, my experience and my walking journey has taught me that we have to be patient. We have to sit by the river and just wait. And this building will be born, and it’s going to be wonderful.”

The third annual block party will take place in front of the future Women’s Building on October 13 from 12pm until 6pm. For more information, visit the Facebook page.