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The Future of Rikers Island

By Maggie Green

More than 400 acres of land will open up in New York City in the next decade. The catch? It’s on Rikers Island. The city is discussing their plan to close Rikers and move detainees into smaller jails in each borough. But some groups are already eyeing the land and contemplating the possibilities. Maggie Green learns what the future of Rikers may hold.

GREEN: That land on Rikers Island could be worth a lot. Jon Squires is a broker with Cushman and Wakefield. He says depending on what the city decides to do with the land, it could be worth somewhere in the realm of a few BILLION dollars in affordable housing units.

SQUIRES: So there is significant value there. It’s just a question I think about what the city deems the best use.

GREEN: Retail, infrastructure or housing. He says some New Yorkers can’t be picky about where they live.

SQUIRES: There are all sorts of properties that people are currently living in or on that were once funeral homes or houses of worship that there might be some sort of stigma or superstition to, but New Yorkers seem to get over it pretty quickly.

GREEN: Take Gowanus. It’s a superfund site. But condos there can go for over a million dollars. But lawyer Melissa Iachan says the land on Rikers would be better used in other ways. She works for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and she says housing on Rikers is a no-go.

IACHAN: Because that island is toxic. It’s uninhabitable for humans, which is why the detainees currently housed there need to come out as soon as possible.

GREEN 2: At a panel discussion at the New School this morning presenting ideas for the future of Rikers, she reminded the audience that the facility is built on a landfill. She has a different vision for the island. IACHAN: It’s the place where you can build solar panels. Because solar panels aren’t people.

GREEN: City Councilman Costa Constantinides represents the Queens district that includes Rikers. He sees the land as tailor made for green infrastructure. He says Western Queens and areas of the South Bronx bear the burden of the city’s energy needs with power plants and wastewater treatment centers on their shorelines. He has another idea.

CONSTANTINIDES: Using one-fourth of Rikers Island for solar power could replace every power plant that has been built in the last 20 years.

GREEN: Constantinides says that by opening up solar farms and new, more efficient treatment centers on RIkers, the city could start cleaning the water and the air in nearby areas. That would mean these outdated power plants on the Queens and Bronx coasts could close, leaving room.

CONSTANTINIDES: Building affordable housing in those locations, I think makes sense much more in the long term. GREEN: But these are just ideas. Some previously closed correctional facilities in New York City offer a clue for what might happen. In the Bronx, the former Spofford Juvenile Detention Center will become a development with affordable housing, community and retail space. In Chelsea, the Bayview Correctional Facility will soon become home for groups that elevate women’s rights. And in Staten Island, the production company Broadway Stages bought the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility to use as a movie set. Spokesperson Warren Cohen says Broadway Stages doesn’t need another jail.

COHEN: But I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the other local production companies wants to pick up a prison for themselves too, because it’s pretty cool.

GREEN: Maybe Rikers?

COHEN: Who knows?

GREEN: Another idea came from Olympia Kazi, who sat in the audience of today’s panel at the New School.

KAZI: Maybe Amazon wants to go there! ((laughs))

GREEN: Rikers won’t close until 2027, so residents and policy makers have some time to think about these options. Maggie Green, Columbia Radio News.


The radio version of this story incorrectly identifies Rikers Island. It is a jail, not a prison.


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