Rikers: A Bright Green Future for a Dark Place?

One day, Rikers could be a source of light, in the form of solar power. Plus, Lee Zeldin’s efforts to avoid positions some New Yorkers consider unenlightened.

James Barron

By James Barron

Nov. 2, 2022

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Good morning. It’s Wednesday. Today we’ll look at a plan for Rikers Island, assuming the jails there are shut down in five years on the timetable set by the City Council. We’ll also look at Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, who tapped into discontent about inflation and crime in his campaign against Gov. Kathy Hochul.

An aerial view rendering of a green energy hub on Rikers Island.
A rendering of Rikers Island as a green energy hub.Credit…via Andrea Johnson for Regional Plan Association

What would Rikers Island look like if it became a green infrastructure hub?

The question — with an answer from a prominent urban policy organization and an alliance of groups representing people who have been incarcerated there — comes against the backdrop of more violence in the notorious jail complex.

A city correction officer was stabbed in the head by a detainee on Monday, the same day that another detainee died in the same unit of Rikers, of what was thought to be a drug overdose.

The incidents followed a report from a federal monitor appointed to oversee reforms at Rikers that said the jails remain “dangerously unsafe,” though the monitor’s report applauded recent changes at Rikers. Officials are trying to head off a possible federal court takeover of the complex.

The idea of turning Rikers into a green energy hub has been circulating since the City Council mandated the shutdown of the jails in 2027. That will leave Rikers empty, a large parcel of land in the East River close to La Guardia Airport.

“If the era of jailing on Rikers is ending,” said Moses Gates, a vice president of the Regional Plan Association, which commissioned a report on Rikers as a green infrastructure center, “we have to think about a vision.” That idea was echoed in the report, which said it would “likely take generations to repair the harm Rikers has done to Black, Brown and poor New Yorkers, but we need to start somewhere.”

Gates credited the idea of Rikers as a green hub to the Renewable Rikers Coalition, an alliance of groups representing people who had been incarcerated there that was part of a steering panel that guided the report. “We’re going to need a great deal of green infrastructure if we’re going to come close to meeting our climate goals,” Gates said.

Also envisioned in the report was an institute to provide training in technical skills needed for jobs in green industries.

The report laid out plans for more than power. It envisioned consolidating four wastewater treatment plans onshore, freeing 182 acres of land “for communities to redevelop according to their own needs and priorities — and eliminate severe health risks.”

The report also marked off a place for a composting and recycling hub that could process roughly one-third of the city’s organic waste stream. It could replace waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, Gates said. Wastewater treatment facilities on Rikers could replace older installations currently operating in the Bronx and Queens and on Randalls Island, he said.

“The chance to have 400-plus acres of land in New York City that we can use to put us at the forefront of fighting climate change is really a transformative opportunity,” said Zachary Katznelson, the executive director of a commission that is part of the Renewable Rikers Coalition, the alliance of groups representing people who have been incarcerated there.

The report noted that much of Rikers was landfill, so the island is higher than the nearby low-lying neighborhoods onshore. Only the perimeter of Rikers falls within the 100-year floodplain, but even so, the report said that future development must recognize projected increases in sea levels and storm surges.

Katznelson said the city was “studying the nuts and bolts” of each element in the report. And Gates said that having essentially a “blank slate” for infrastructure was “hugely advantageous.”

“It’s got to be incredibly difficult to site a power plant in New York City,” Gates said. “Rikers would let you put all these things that are vital to the city and its future where there’s the least effect on the surrounding neighborhood, while it lets you decommission a lot of the aging infrastructure.”


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