Last Thursday, the City Council overwhelmingly passed the Renewable Rikers Act, a pair of bills that would establish a process to transfer the land, buildings and facilities on the island from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
The legislation also requires the city to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and battery storage are feasible on the island.
Councilman Costa Constantinides, who introduced the bill in 2019, said using the land for renewable opportunities could help close power plants, wastewater treatment plants and other facilities in neighborhoods and free up those spaces for better uses.
“Rikers Island is situated in a central location in our city and is ideally situated to host infrastructure that should not be located elsewhere,” he said.
The council voted in 2019 to replace the jails on Rikers Island with a borough-based jail system. Last year, the island was designated a public place by amending the city map.
Lawmakers who supported the Renewable Rikers Act said they saw this legislation as the next step in the effort to close Rikers Island by August 2027.
“This is part of that process, this is us doing what we said we were going to do,” said Councilman Stephen Levin. “When we said we were going to close Rikers Island, we meant it.”
After introducing the legislation in 2019, Constantinides said he listened to advocates and former inmates of Rikers Island, as well as environmental justice activists. He also held a town hall and met with public housing residents in western Queens.
Vidal Guzman, an organizer with the #CloseRikers campaign, said the fight to shutter the jails and work with environmental advocates on the legislation was not easy.
“It felt like we were climbing mountains,” he said, “or that we were walking backwards.”
Advocates such as Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, also known as the Lippman Commission, said though the environmental potential for the island is “enormous,” he also wanted to see the land used to repair harm.
“We had to use the island for the public good, we have to think long term,” he said, “and most importantly, we have to acknowledge the harms that the island represents and use the future of the island to address those harms.”
“Social justice and environmental protection go hand in hand,” added Eric Goldstein from the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Ending incarceration at Rikers Island is a moral imperative.”
In addition to transferring the land from one agency to another, the Renewable Rikers Act would create a 15-member Rikers Island Advisory Committee led by DCAS that would include the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the Department of Parks and Recreation, environmental experts and people impacted by the jail at Rikers Island.
The advisory group will evaluate and provide recommendations on potential uses of the land for sustainability and resiliency purposes, lawmakers said.
Speaker Corey Johnson noted that the city is already required to complete a long-term energy plan to replace in-city, gas-fired power plants with renewable energy. This legislation would require the energy plan to include studying the feasibility of building renewable energy on Rikers Island.
“Rikers Island has the chance to be an environmental hub,” Johnson said. “It’s important that we don’t waste this opportunity.”
Though a majority of the City Council voted in favor of the act, several city lawmakers opposed the legislation. Councilman Rafael Salamanca noted that though Rikers Island is considered a part of District 22 in Queens, represented by Constantinides, the island is also connected to his south Bronx district.
He said his community was disappointed that the decision was made to transform Rikers into a renewable hub without a single conversation in the south Bronx.
“Decisions are being made, and communities that were marginalized for decades are excluded from those conversations,” Salamanca said. “It’s important for us to speak up.”
Johnson noted in the pre-stated meeting press conference that a future mayor or City Council could potentially undo a renewable Rikers Island, but it would be “difficult for them.”
“Given the existential threat that climate change has upon the world and New York City, it wouldn’t be a smart thing to do given that this would be an environmental hub for renewable energy on Rikers Island, which would have a gigantic benefit for the future of New York City,” he said.
During the City Council stated meeting, Levin said Rikers Island is not a suitable location for most other uses, including housing, due to environmental hazards since the island is built on a landfill.
He also noted that due to the island’s proximity to LaGuardia Airport, certain building heights are also prohibited.
“If we’re going to leave our planet with a fighting chance to survive,” Levin said, “we have to take every opportunity to combat climate change.”