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‘Renewable Rikers Act’ aims to remake the island with green infrastructure

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A new package of bills seeks to reimagine the infamous island

Rikers Island could transform from a jail complex to infrastructure under three City Council bills.
Max Touhey

A trio of new City Council bills would lay the ground work to convert Rikers Island from its current state, a notorious jail complex, to a hub of renewable energy.

The “Renewable Rikers Act,” crafted by Queens Council member Costa Constantinides, aims to create a green vision for the 400-acre correctional facility that would keep the island out of the hands of luxury developers, while lessening the burden on communities loaded with city infrastructure.

“Closing Rikers Island, if we do this right, can not only end overpolicing and the atrocities that have gone on there, but we can look at what renewable opportunities we have and really get into the weeds and come up with a plan,” Constantinides told Curbed.

The leglislation, which will be introduced Thursday, seeks to build off the de Blasio administration’s plan to shutter Rikers and replace the complex with four jails in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens by 2027.

Currently, the city has no concrete plans for what will become of Rikers and the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge off the south Bronx, which is the only existing borough-based jail that is not being redeveloped and will also be decommissioned. Whatever happens at those sites will likely go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Jonathan Lippman, a former state chief judge who led the commission that crafted a 2017 report spurring plans to shutter Rikers, urged city officials Monday to simultaneously work toward replacing the jail complex and imagining a new future for the island itself. The plan to close Rikers isn’t truly complete without setting the stage for a new reality on the island, he said.

“It is also time to look ahead to how our city can repurpose this island, which has been a symbol and accelerator of misery for so many, and turn it to the use for public good,” Lippman said in a statement.

Chiefly among the Renewable Rikers Act, is a bill that would transfer ownership of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Environmental Protection. The move would enable the agency to begin retrofitting the island with green infrastructure once its detainee population dips below 5,000.

A second piece of legislation would require the city to study “renewable energy capacity” on the island—exploring solar and batteries, for instance—while a third bill would order a study on the creation of a wastewater treatment plant and how such a facility could open the door to closing existing treatment plants in northern Queens, the south Bronx, and upper Manhattan.

Riker’s history of brutality should be memorialized, says Constantinides, but beyond that “every other inch” of the island should be utilized for the public good and not turned into “a playground for the rich.” Developers began eyeing Rikers Island as efforts to shutter its jails started gaining steam in 2016. Others have floated the idea of transforming Rikers into an additional runway for La Guardia Airport.

The three bills come on the heels of the City Council’s April passage of the Climate Mobilization Act, a historic legislative package that aims to reduce the city’s planet-warming emissions by 40 percent by 2030. If passed, the Renewable Rikers Act could help the city meet its pledge to generate 1,000 megawatt of solar energy annually by that time—enough energy to power some 250,000 homes—and meet other mandates created by the Climate Mobilization Act.

“These bills are a downpayment for a brighter future for this island—one that actually serves New York communities instead of tearing them apart,” said Constantinides. “As we made the bold decision to close these jails, we must be as courageous in making this type of investment in a renewable Rikers.”