NYC developers and planners are excited about the idea of Rikers Island closing. It would be a dream opportunity for urban planners. This 400-acre tract of land features skyline views of the beauty of Manhattan, could be transformed into just about anything.
Imaginations are flowing wild thanks to the potential closure of Rikers Island. Everyone has dreams for the property, including park advocates, city planners, transportation experts and developers.
Slate Property Group development firm co-founder, David Schwartz, says that the possibilities for the land are truly endless:
“You really have never had a piece of property in New York City that is this large that you can do almost anything with. This is as blank a canvas as you get.”
However, it must be noted that this Queens remote land is not the ideal lot for a residential community. Transforming it into something like that would come with a lot of challenges.
Its proximity to LaGuardia Airport means skyscrapers would be off the table. Because of flight paths over the island, buildings would be restricted to no more than 15 stories inland and five stories along the eastern and southern edges.
A developer would also likely need to install double windows to deaden the sound of the jets roaring overhead.
The island’s soil presents even more pressing — and expensive — problems, according to experts tasked with analyzing the land.
Because Rikers was built on a landfill, some parts of the island are unsteady and others contain significant amounts of toxic methane gas.
Experts say that building on top of the contaminated soil would be a costly and challenging endeavor that would require installing a vapor barrier to block the methane and anchoring the foundation into solid ground beneath the waste.
“The cost of building a residential unit on Rikers Island would be roughly double a comparable unit elsewhere in the city,” said an urban design consultant who’s been examining the site.
Jim Venturi, a self-taught urban planner, believes Rikers’ proximity to LaGuardia makes the decision over what to do with the land a no-brainer.
“We need more airport space,” Venturi said. “It’s absolutely insane we wouldn’t use it to create an expanded airport.”
In Venturi’s grand — some might say fanciful — vision, the more expansive airport would be linked to a new transit hub in nearby Port Morris in the Bronx.
The lack of transportation options is indeed one of Rikers’ major drawbacks.
A two-lane bridge connects the island to the mainland, and the closest subway station is 3 miles away.
Partly for those reasons, developer Gifford Miller agrees that extending LaGuardia offers the best way to capitalize on the land.
“Rikers Island has none of the qualities you look for in a residential community; in particular it has almost no transit access whatsoever,” said the former City Council speaker.
But some parks lovers are salivating over the prospect of Rikers’ closure.
“It’s perfect for parks,” said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land and a former city parks commissioner. “And that part of Queens doesn’t have a lot of them.”
Other ideas floated for the island include making it a mecca for solid-waste management, manufacturing or renewable energy.
Former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who is leading a commission studying Rikers, said the options are almost limitless.
“You don’t have to be a real estate person or someone steeped in the public uses of land to recognize that this is an extraordinary opportunity,” Lippman said.
Glenn Martin, who is leading an effort to close Rikers, said whatever the island becomes, a piece of the jail should remain to raise awareness of its legacy of violence.
“My hope is that there’s some recognition of the abuse that’s been caused by that place,” Martin said.