In six years, Rikers Island, a New York City jail complex notorious for inhumane treatment, will be closing, as the city opens a series of smaller jails in each borough instead of housing all its inmates in one place. A new report highlights some of the ways that the land—a 400-acre island in the middle of the East River—could potentially be transformed.
“As we’re starting to look at what happens next in New York and really around the country, I think the Rikers redevelopment is a critical part of really helping to solve some social justice issues, and then helping to solve some economic and development issues,” says Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, which published the report. “I think the moment is really here to get Rikers’ closing and the future of Rikers back in discussion.”
The island currently holds nine outdated, dilapidated jails, where reports have documented systematic abuse from guards. Cage-like cells often don’t have air conditioning, there are rats, and the island, which is built partially on landfill, often emits noxious odors. There aren’t basic social services for those who are mentally ill. Many of the thousands of people who are incarcerated are there because they couldn’t afford bail while they await trial. But in 2019, the city council voted to close the jails, with a plan to both reduce the number of people who are jailed in the city overall, and to open new, safer, more humane jails in each borough that would be closer to each inmate’s family and attorneys for visits. That will leave a large space for redevelopment.
The report outlines several proposals for Rikers Island from various groups, with some ideas that could potentially be used in combination with others:
- “Infrastructure island,” a concept proposed by the architecture firm FXCollaborative, could include solar power and batteries, helping shut down fossil fuel-powered “peaker” plants in low-income communities in New York that run when there’s peak demand on the electric grid. A new wastewater treatment plant could also make it possible to shut down older plants along the East River, freeing up space for more housing or parks there. The island could also house a new composting facility and a “waste-to-energy” plant for unrecyclable items, helping the city reach a goal to eliminate waste by 2030.
- The island could be house a new industrial and maker hub, larger than the Brooklyn Navy Yard, adding new middle-class jobs. A new green industry campus could research technologies in renewable energy or waste reduction. A training program could help give New Yorkers, especially those who were previously incarcerated, the skills for green jobs.
- The island could potentially be used for new parks and public space. The architecture firm Perkins and Will, for example, previously proposed “Bikers Island,” with a velodrome, bike trails, and a bike manufacturing incubator to train the formerly incarcerated. Some car lanes on the bridge that connects to the island could be converted to bike and pedestrian paths. Parks along the edge of the island could double as a place to capture stormwater and buffer the island from storm surges and flooding. A new museum could commemorate the thousands of people, primarily people of color, who were incarcerated in the area.
- The area could also potentially be used to build new affordable housing in a city that’s short on space. New York City has a goal to build 300,000 new units of affordable housing. In one previous proposal, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects suggested building a new residential neighborhood, with new transit connections to the rest of the city and a park acting as a buffer between homes and nearby LaGuardia Airport. The environmental challenges the island faces from the landfill underneath it, however, along with the noise from the airport, could make it challenging for it to be used for housing.
It’s too early, Scissura says, to say which direction to take, but with only a handful of years before the jails close, it’s time to start the discussion. “Now we’re in the planning process of what comes next,” he says. “What makes the most sense for New York and the future?”