On January 1, Eric Adams was sworn in as the 110th mayor of New York. He is now responsible for the city’s response to significant and growing issues. One is the housing affordability crisis. Another concerns the ravages of climate change: rising sea levels, floods and storm surges.
There is a way to help solve both problems in one bold political move: expand Manhattan Island into the harbor.
Last September, after witnessing unprecedented flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, Mr Adams said it was “a real wake-up call for all of us on how we need to understand how this climate change affects us”. This realization should spur him to pursue aggressive action to mitigate the devastation of climate change.
Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg proposed climate change plans that included expanding the coastline along the East River into Lower Manhattan. But these proposals, however admirable, would be only small steps and would hardly make a dent in problems of such magnitude.
This new proposal provides significant surge protection while creating new housing. It does this by extending Manhattan into New York Harbor by 1,760 acres. This landfill development, like many others in the city’s past, would reshape Manhattan’s southern shoreline. We can call the created area New Mannahatta (taken from the name Lenape gave to Manhattan).
A neighborhood of this size is larger than the Upper West Side (Community District 7), which spans 1,220 acres. Imagine reproducing from scratch a diverse neighborhood that contains housing of all shapes and sizes, from traditional brownstones to five-story apartment buildings to high-rise towers. If New Mannahatta is built with a density and style similar to the Upper West Side, it could have nearly 180,000 new homes.
The climate and the world are changing. What challenges will the future bring and how should we respond to them?
In 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced an Affordable Housing Plan that would build or preserve 200,000 affordable homes. Despite this, rents have continued to rise because construction has not kept pace with population and income growth. To give an idea of the scale, from 2010 to 2018, 171,000 homes were built, enough to accommodate around 417,000 people. Yet, during the same period, the city’s population grew by almost 500,000 people.
The Covid pandemic has temporarily dampened real estate in New York, but its impact is fading and the affordability crisis has renewed itself. Rents are back to pre-pandemic levels. Mayor Adams presented his vision for affordable housing, which includes incentives for more construction in all five boroughs. New Mannahatta offers the opportunity to achieve the goal of adding a significant number of new units, many of which can be made affordable to low-income households.
Creating land in the harbor would also help New York City fortify itself against climate change. The new community would push vulnerable spots like Wall and Broad Streets further inland, and the peninsula can be designed with specific protections around its shoreline to protect itself and the rest of the city from flooding. In particular, wetland ecologies around shorelines would absorb surges. Building the land at a higher elevation would further enhance its protective capacity, and the new peninsula could recreate historic ecologies and erect environmental and ecological research centers dedicated to improving the quality of New York’s natural world.
One of the advantages of creating this new neighborhood is that it can be self-financing through sales or long-term land leases. Using the Upper West Side as a model, in 2019 average building sales were around $1,500 per square foot, while average citywide building construction costs were around $500. $ per square foot. This leaves the rest for land and infrastructure production, including expanded subway lines. New ferry routes may be created along the shores, which would contribute to the city’s larger plan to increase ferry usage. If managed wisely, the project could even turn a profit, especially if the money comes from the new federal infrastructure bill. Once the properties are completed, the city would receive new revenue from property taxes. In 2017, the Upper West Side, for example, poured an estimated $1.4 billion into city coffers.
Think big in the Big Apple
New York was once a city of big projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway system, and the 92-acre Battery Park City (largely untouched by flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012). In these times of peril, great reflection is necessary.
Mayor Adams has the chance to create a legacy to make New York City safer and more affordable. New Mannahatta can help ensure the city thrives in the 21st century.
Jason M. Barr (@JasonBarrRU), professor of economics at Rutgers University in Newark, is the author of “Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers” and the Skynomics blog.