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NYC eyes green future for Rikers Island

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The city is about to embark on a planning process to reimagine Rikers

Rikers Island could be reinvented with green infrastructure under a package of City Council bills.
Max Touhey

New York City is launching a citywide process to plan the future of Rikers Island, according to an executive order Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign in the coming weeks.

That process seeks to use public input to develop a roadmap for repurposing the infamous 413-acre jail island. The executive order, which was crafted with the City Council, comes four months after lawmakers approved a plan to replace Rikers with four new borough-based jails by 2026 and amid a land use change to prohibit detention centers from the island. The de Blasio administration is open to a mix of uses, but is working with a climate and equity lens in mind shaped by the OneNYC 2050 plan for a more sustainable city, says Daniel Zarrilli, the mayor’s chief climate policy advisor and director of the OneNYC team.

“In our mind, it is essential that future uses on the island create broad public benefits [and] help our city meet urgent goals such as climate justice, economic equity, and fairness,” Zarrilli told the Council’s environmental protection committee at a Wednesday hearing. “It is also essential that all voices are heard and considered, including the many New Yorkers impacted by the criminal justice system.”

In the coming months, Zarrilli says he and his OneNYC team will lay the groundwork for what amounts to “a first step in the broader master planning process” for the island’s future. This includes appointing an advisory board, which will be made up of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, local leaders from the Queens and Bronx communities most directly impacted by the island, and criminal justice and environmental advocates. Officials will study the feasibility of proposed uses, and by 2021, aim to release a plan with next steps, according to mayoral spokesperson Julia Arredondo.

“We cannot undo all of the mistakes of the past but we can shift our course for the future,” said Johnson. “We now have an extraordinary opportunity to turn Rikers Island into something positive.”

A trio of Council bills known as the “Renewable Rikers Act,” introduced last summer by Queens Councilmember Costa Constantinides, seeks to reimagine the island with green infrastructure, including a wastewater treatment facility, solar fields, and a battery storage system. That land presents an opportunity to shift infrastructure that has long-burdened communities with air pollution onto the island, say Constantinides.

Residential development and other options, such as new runways for LaGuardia Airport, makes little sense for Rikers, says Constantinides, because only 90 acres is actually natural land; the remaining 323 acres is degrading landfill—trash from when the island served as a city dump in the early 1900s—that is leaking planet-warming methane gas and will likely require environmental remediation before any sort of redevelopment.

“The ash and garbage that make up Rikers is still rotting nearly 90 years after it was dumped that presents a whole panoply of safety risks,” said Constantinides.

City Hall says it supports two bills that would study the feasibility of renewable energy and wastewater treatment on Rikers, but wants the planning process for the island’s future to unfold before backing a third bill that calls for jurisdiction to be transferred from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Environmental Protection.

“What you see here is a very energy and environment foot forward from the administration because we think there is a lot of opportunity for sustainability and resiliency type infrastructure here,” said Zarrilli.

Rikers is currently home to several jails, but the island is zoned for commercial and manufacturing uses such as auto-body shops and warehouses. A land use change, which is in the midst of the review process, will ban jails from operating there with a “public place” designation. That remapping restrict’s the land’s use to the public good. Housing is prohibited, but that could change through a rezoning—a land use action that would require a separate seven-month review process.

Rikers is technically part of the Bronx, but due to a community districting quirk the jail complex falls under the purvey of Queens Community Board 1. The review process for the remapping kicked off earlier this month with the community board’s land use committee hosting a hearing on the change. The next step in that process is taking shape Thursday with Queens Borough Hall holding a public forum on the provision.

The Queens and Bronx borough presidents, along with the community board, will weigh in on the change before the application moves forward in the land use review process.