Rikers Island, which has housed inmates in New York City for nearly a century, stretches almost 415 acres atop a former landfill in the East River. It is half the size of Central Park.
And soon it could be open for development.
Within seven years, the city plans to move thousands of detainees and officers out of Rikers and into new jails across New York City, essentially shutting down the island as part of a sweeping effort to overhaul its corrections system.
In a cramped city, the island will become a rare blank slate — a large parcel of flat, undeveloped land with nearly endless possibilities.
So far, three proposals have emerged as possible next chapters for Rikers: turning it into a renewable energy hub; adding a runway for nearby La Guardia Airport; and building low-cost housing.
“This is really important and fun and challenging,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg who spearheaded the development of Hudson Yards, a new upscale neighborhood on the Far West Side of Manhattan. “Given the complexity and the multiplicity of needs that we have in the city and the lack of available land on which to do it, we should be really thoughtful.”
An island of renewable energy
So far, one proposal appears to be the most advanced: creating a nexus of renewable energy on Rikers. Three members of the City Council, including the island’s representative, Costa Constantinides, have introduced legislation that would put Rikers on that path.
Mr. Constantinides said 100 acres on the island could be devoted to arrays of solar panels and batteries that would store the energy generated. Together, they could replace some power generators in the city, known as “peakers,” which are not main providers of energy but fire up a few days every year during peak energy use.
Four such generators, all natural-gas-fired plants, are within about a mile of Rikers, in largely low-income, minority neighborhoods. If power plants like those could be shut down, Mr. Constantinides said, air pollution would decrease in neighborhoods and land could be cleared for investments like new housing or parks.
“Every 100 years, there is a chance to change how we power our cities,’’ said Mr. Constantinides, who is running for Queens borough president. “This can set the standard for us to help think about other opportunities for renewables and meet the need to address climate change.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has pushed an expansive climate plan in Congress called the Green New Deal, has endorsed the renewable energy idea, saying it could replace inefficient, polluting facilities.
A 2017 report by an independent commission studying the closing of Rikers found that a solar plant on the island could generate about 90 megawatts of electricity every day — enough to power roughly 25,000 households. The batteries could store an additional 300 megawatts.
On average, New York City uses about 11,000 megawatts every day.
While the solar arrays would make up a tiny percentage of the city’s overall energy production, it would be by far the largest provider of solar energy in New York City. Today the city produces about 200 megawatts of solar energy. New York State has a goal of producing 6,000 megawatts of solar energy statewide by 2025.
“What New York really needs is an expansion of infrastructure for a city that continues to grow,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “and infrastructure that doesn’t rely on old paradigms of dumping infrastructure on communities of color.”
Room for La Guardia to grow
The independent commission, led by Judge Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge, proposed in its 2017 report that Rikers could be home to both solar panels and an expansion of La Guardia Airport.
La Guardia is the smallest of the three major airports in the region, but the closest to Midtown Manhattan. It has been plagued with problems for years.
It is one of the most-delayed airports in the country, with notoriously long lines and cramped terminals. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, is overseeing an $8 billion redevelopment of La Guardia.
But the airport’s most significant upgrade could be made possible by taking advantage of land on Rikers. The eastern edge of Rikers could be built up to increase the island’s size, allowing for a runway to stretch across it, the commission proposed.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has also expressed interest in a runway at Rikers, saying in 2016 that he “was very intrigued.” The Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment, and the cost of such a project would undoubtedly be quite large.
Elevated platforms would connect Rikers to the main airport. La Guardia’s two current runways are too short for larger aircraft typically used for international flights. But a longer runway on the island could handle trans-Atlantic flights that now land at either John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens or Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.
A larger La Guardia could bring in an additional 12 million passengers ever year, a 40 percent increase from 2018, when about 30 million passengers traveled through the airport, the commission found.
A den of affordable housing
Perhaps the most challenging project at Rikers would be the construction of new housing. The independent commission, as well as developers, have studied the possibility. And a Democratic candidate for the New York Senate recently endorsed the idea.
It is the proposal that makes the most sense, said Jean Lerman, who was the president in the early 1990s of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state agency that oversees development on that island.
“There is always a need for more housing,” Ms. Lerman, who is now retired, said. “Getting more affordable housing would be fabulous.”
To spur development on Roosevelt Island, a commuter tramway was built in 1976 to connect the island with the Upper East Side of Manhattan; it is a roughly four-minute trip. A subway station on the F line was added in 1989. The island now has about 12,000 residents.
If Rikers were developed with the same density as Roosevelt, it could be home to more than 33,000 residents.
But Rikers is even more remote.
A narrow, roughly mile-long bridge between Queens and Rikers is the only means to access the island. A city bus stops at the jail complex’s visitor center. The closest subway stop is a 30-minute walk from the bridge.
To make Rikers a feasible place to live, it would need major transportation upgrades and perhaps a subway station, which would be enormously expensive, Mr. Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor, said. A ferry stop could be added but the city’s commuter boats only hold a few hundred people.
“Maybe there are next-generation approaches that might be tried there,” said Mr. Doctoroff, whose company, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent, Alphabet, is redesigning a part of Toronto with futuristic technology.
Even if transportation investments were made, any effort to build housing on Rikers would also face another significant challenge: height restrictions. Because the island is so close to La Guardia’s runways, no building could be taller than 150 feet.