New York City Faces One of Its Largest Facelifts in Modern History

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Robison Wells
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Of the five boroughs of New York City, perhaps none is as infamous as Riker’s Island, a 413-acre island that houses one of the country’s largest prisons. The New York City Council has marked Riker’s Island as a target for tear down and renovation; most New Yorkers agree with this sentiment.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that Rikers was “…a stain on human dignity and decency.” At its peak, the small island housed more than 20,000 inmates. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to tearing down the prison by 2028 and relocating the inmates to smaller, borough-based jails.

While the new plan forbids the use of Riker’s Island for incarceration, other wide-open options materialize. The city imposes height constraints as the island stands in LaGuardia Airport's path; this prevents skyscraper construction.

Urban planners and architects chomp at the bit for a piece of this blank slate endeavor. New renovation could make Riker’s Island real estate extremely valuable.

Among the proposals, Columbia University Advanced Architecture Design Studio presents an option to relocate the United Nations to Riker’s Island. Their plan converts the island into an almost sovereign locale, connected to the airport, where dignitaries and diplomats can conduct business in neutrality without passing through customs or showing visas.

Others suggest greenspace projects that feature parks and museums. New York-based studioSigsgaard told Architecture Digest: “A museum could display the historic traumas and inform [visitors] about the island’s long history of human rights violations. I think it would draw a lot of visitors and hopefully put the city in a more responsible light when it comes to racial inequality.”

Others suggest a more environmentally-focused approach: the Riker’s Island jail stands on a contaminated landfill. Ben Massey of Benjamin Massey Architecture + Design suggests rebuilding the island in the same way post-Katrina New Orleans came together after the floods. Massey indicates a correction of decades-old infrastructure and environmental problems before opening plans to build a new Rikers Island community.

Whatever course of action the city ultimately takes, constructing a newly imagined Rikers Island will resume in just under eight years. New York City is currently open to proposals.

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