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Rikers Island’s Second, Greener Life

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Rikers Island in New York is famous for many things, none of them are good. The gargantuan prison is known for its notoriously brutal living circumstances—its where Harvey Weinstein is currently serving his life sentence, as is Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon.

Just look at the PBS documentary, Rikers: An American Jail to get an idea. In it former inmates recall the criminal justice system firsthand: this hellhole “sounds like a madhouse,” you can’t show “any signs of weakness” and people are “drugged up and deprived of food.” It signals a crisis of mass incarceration, and Dr. Baz Dreisinger, an activist and author calls it “one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time.”

But that little island just east of the South Bronx in the East River, has a more positive future and it undergoes plans for an environmental overhaul. The city of New York has plans to shut down Rikers in 2027 and turn it into a hub of renewable energy, including a solar farm and water treatment facility. Just last month city council voted to shut it down and kick off the Renewable Rikers Act, a bill that’s expected to be passed this year.

“The effects of climate change are already perceived by the world population without even consulting the scientific data that are overwhelming,” says a spokesperson from We Act, a nonprofit who has been advocating for the plan.

“If we consider that the building industry is responsible for around 40 percent of CO2 emissions is evident that a new way of thinking about buildings is necessary. But we have to be serious; it’s sometimes surprising to read something described as ‘fossil-fuel free’ when it is made of concrete, steel, and glass because the production of these materials entail burning a huge amount of fossil fuels.”

The vision for the island will most likely have wind and solar powered facilities, as well as battery storage. This renewable energy hub ties into the city’s Climate Mobilization Act, a long-term energy plan to phase out fossil fuels.

According to research analysis by Sustainable CUNY, 35 acres of solar panels installed on Rikers Island would have a capacity of 14.6 megawatts and generate about 17.2 gigawatt hours annually. Meanwhile, 12 acres, or 4 percent of the island’s total area could potentially hold 1520 megawatts worth of storage, or about one half of the goal set for the entire state by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

With a new mayor up for election in New York, the front runners are embracing the demands of climate activists, lobbying to ban fossil fuels. Some of these activists claim that repurposing Rikers Island as a renewable energy hub will help further so called “environmental justice.” The claim is that disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change including those demographics that were incarcerated at Rikers Island. “The proposed bills would help ensure a just transition that reduces the burdens on frontline communities,” writes environmental activist Rebecca Bratspies

But is this all a fantasy? There’s a trend of large companies pretending to be green, like Amazon’s new tower in Arlington, the Helix, which is being called an eco-fantasy project. As the Harvard Design Magazine asks: “Could high-profile eco-projects instead question the insatiable drive for newness and bigness and enable emerging conceptions of the members of the vegetal realm as irreducible, incalculable, and unsystemetizable…yet utterly essential?” 

What it means for real estate is another thing entirely: a solid, concrete plan is needed. There’s a pressing need to look beyond the environmental hype. Especially for it to be a true game changer.

“The challenge is peeling away that immediate gratification mentality,” said Roberto Cabrera, a real estate broker with Brown Harris Stevens Residential Sales in New York. “In the short term, there would not be any practical effect to our daily lives, real estate values, etc. Aside from a true safety measure, I do not personally feel that any substantive change will be experienced.”

“It is the change of mindset that we need for the future, a change in the narrative of how we live our lives which will set the stage for the next generation, for a better world,” he continued. “That should be the motive for this investment. However, much research should be done so that it is efficiently executed. If not carefully planned, it could become a money drain like many other initiatives of the past.”

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