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Rikers Island
Max Touhey

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Can Rikers Island be reinvented with green infrastructure?

As the city pursues plans to shutter the island, local leaders are reimagining its legacy from incarceration to infrastructure

As the de Blasio administration pursues an ambitious plan to shutter and replace Rikers Island, questions linger over what will become of the infamous island, and how it could be transformed from a blight on the city’s criminal justice system into a beacon for environmental justice.

The city is in the midst of the land use review process for a plan that would close Rikers and replace the facility with four jails in every borough except Staten Island by 2027. While those plans trudge through the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), politicians, urban planners, and community advocates are envisioning a new future for the more than 400-acre correctional facility between northern Queens and the south Bronx.

“We want to transform the stain on this city, which is Rikers Island—the stain on the moral values of our city,” said Jonathan Lippman, a former New York State chief judge who led a city-appointed commission that crafted a 2017 report spurring plans to close Rikers, at a panel discussion last week on the fate of the island. “We want to transform that into a resource for a cleaner and a healthier future for our city and its people.”

Green space, renewable energy, and relocating a wastewater treatment plant from Hunts Point have emerged as possibilities for altering the island’s legacy from incarceration to infrastructure. The Regional Plan Association (RPA)—which sponsored Friday’s panel discussion at The New School (moderated by Alyssa Katz, the deputy editor of THE CITY), along with the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform and the Center for New York City Affairs—has conducted independent analysis on what could be achieved by freeing up Rikers Island. The group hosted the event to get “this on people’s radar” and jumpstart “a community-centered process that begins digging into questions of feasibility” sooner rather than later, according to Moses Gates, an urban planner with RPA.

“This is one of those moments that doesn’t come often, and if you don’t take those opportunities, they fall by the wayside,” Gates told Curbed, stressing that infrastructure investments on Rikers Island could go a long way toward meeting city-wide sustainability goals. RPA estimates that new facilities on the island could provide 40 percent of the contributions for the city’s Zero Waste goals, generate enough renewable energy for 30,000 homes, and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 150,000 cars taken off the road.

The inner Long Island Sound is a prolific dumping ground for Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs), which discharge waste into the city’s waterways, but through new infrastructure to manage that waste, 175 CSOs could be eliminated to get rid of 9 million gallons of sewage spewed into the sound annually, according to the RPA. More than 12 miles of inaccessible shoreline could be given back to the public, including space in the south Bronx and northern Queens, and over 200 acres of open greenery on the island, RPA estimates.

Significant strides could also be made toward shifting infrastructure that has burdened communities with air pollution onto the island. Parts of the Bronx, for instance, with peaking power plants and heavily-trafficked truck routes, have earned the nick name “asthma alley” with some of the highest rates of the chronic respiratory disease in the country; asthma hospitalizations have been recorded at five times the national average and at rates 21 times those of other city neighborhoods.

One step toward that vision could be a plan developed by City Council member Costa Constantinides, who represents Rikers and part of northern Queens. That proposal calls for 100 acres of the island to be reimagined as a solar energy field and with a battery storage system. Constantinides, who is the chairperson of the council’s Environmental Protection Committee, based the suggestion on research conducted by the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform; he says the solar power plant—plus a new sewage treatment site— would enable the city to shutter other facilities elsewhere in the boroughs.

Constantinides believes those infrastructure upgrades must be prioritized over other possibilities, such as turning the island into an additional runway for neighboring LaGuardia Airport. Converting the island into an airport extension would “sacrifice” a tremendous opportunity for lasting health and environmental impacts, he warned.

“The only runway we need in Queens is a runway that takes off to renewables,” Constantinides said during Friday’s panel. “LaGuardia Airport may be strained but the communities that live with poor air quality and asthma, sickness, respiratory illness for too long have been strained—I’m more concerned about their strain than I am about LaGuardia’s strain.”

Others still have floated a massive anaerobic digester, which essentially gobbles up food waste and converts it into energy, as another key piece of infrastructure that could eventually be placed on the island once its eight jails have shuttered.

The massive penal colony is more than 400 acres with eight functioning jails.
Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

Melissa Iachan, an attorney with the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, stressed that the city is struggling to find adequate space to process organic waste as it works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and divert waste from landfills, and that the creation of a digester “can sort of take care of all these problems at once” by dramatically increasing the city’s organics waste processing power while creating renewable energy. A new marine transfer station could also be built that would allow waste to be barged to the island instead of sending fleets of gas-guzzling trucks through communities.

“In this vision we could really capture a lot of the city’s organic waste, keep it from being trucked into our communities of color, and instead have it be railed and barged directly for beneficial use,” said Iachan.

Such projects wouldn’t preclude a massive injection of open greenery into the city either. Claire Weisz, a founder of WXY architecture and urban design firm, noted that whatever is planned at Rikers needs to stray from the mindset of “you chose one thing, you don’t get another.”

“These are places that could be park-like,” said Weisz. “They could integrate amazing education centers, job opportunities, but they could be done the right way in terms of infrastructure.” Not squandering the opportunity of hundreds of new acreage with a series of shortsighted projects, is a chief concern and Weisz points to Randalls and Wards Islands as “an example of how not to plan things,” noting that the islands were developed without a longterm plan for their cohesion into the city.

Apart from rehabilitating the current bridge that connects Rikers to Queens, Gates doesn’t foresee the need for new major transportation infrastructure apart from a possible expansion of the NYC Ferry system to connect the island to existing routes. Dramatically reshaping Rikers would likely rely on a fusion of public and private dollars, though Gates says it’s too early to say with certainty how such an undertaking would be funded.

At the moment, the city has no concrete plan for what will become of Rikers and the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge off the south Bronx—the only existing borough-based jail that is not being reconstructed and will be decommissioned—although a separate ULURP process will likely take place for whatever is proposed for the island, an official with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said at a local news briefing on the borough-based jails plan Monday.

“I think our only commitment at this point is no jails,” said Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “There isn’t a plan for what that looks like other than a recognition and affirmation that there would have to be public engagement, and I think we presume that whatever it is that is proposed would likely require a ULURP process as well.”

In the city’s “Smaller Safer Fairer: A Roadmap To Closing Rikers Island” report, it frames possibly moving “municipal functions such as fleet storage from the boroughs to Rikers Island, freeing up space in neighborhoods across the City that could be used for new affordable housing” as one future for the land. To flush out that vision, the Implementation Task Force for the borough-based jails plan, which is made up of city criminal justice and social service officials, will work with “New Yorkers and experts to solicit ideas and develop a plan,” according to the roadmap to close Rikers Island report.

All told, the new borough-based facilities are part of a broader strategy to reduce the city’s jail population—last year, there were roughly 8,200 detainees, the lowest number in three decades—with a new total of 5,750 beds, or approximately 1,440 beds per site. But each proposed jail has faced pushback, namely for the soaring heights of the new correctional facilities. In response to those concerns, the city has worked to reduce building heights 30-45 feet at each building. The new Manhattan complex would be the tallest at 450 feet; the most compact would be in Queens, which would stand 270 feet tall, according to Kaplan.

The City Planning Commission certified the city’s proposal two weeks ago, which officially kicked off the ULURP process and started the clock on the 60-day review period the local community boards have to weigh in and vote on the proposals. Manhattan Community Board 1, Brooklyn Community Board 2, Queens Community Board 9, and Bronx Community Board 1 are in the midst of issuing recommendations and casting advisory, non-binding votes on the plan. Afterwards, the plan will head to the respective borough presidents’ offices, before heading back to the City Planning Commission, and finally snaking through the City Council for a make-or-break vote on the proposal anticipated in October.

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