I love this modest proposal so much I am making an exception to my no-New-York-Times rule, and split it off from what was going to be a bonus section in the weekly Covid post. Time to think big.

Both Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg offered climate-change plans that included extending the shoreline along the East River in Lower Manhattan. But these proposals, while admirable, would be small steps and would hardly make a dent with problems of such big scale.

This new proposal offers significant protection against surges while also creating new housing. To do this, it extends Manhattan into New York Harbor by 1,760 acres. This landfill development, like many others in the city’s past, would reshape the southern Manhattan shoreline. We can call the created area New Mannahatta (drawn from the name the Lenape gave to Manhattan).

It quickly became fashionable to mock this proposal. This is a sign of civilizational decline and inadequacy, because we used to do this kind of thing all the time and (unless there’s some logistical problem I’m missing that on one is talking about) it’s obviously insanely great.

The objections seem to be:

  1. Ha ha.
  2. Get a load of the nerd.
  3. Who thinks America can do things, like, ever.
  4. New York, in particular, ha ha.
  5. Also, how would more housing help with a shortage of housing?
  6. And how dare you build things when climate change is coming?
  7. Evil bunch of idiot nerds.

I volunteer to be the mayoral candidate of the New Amsterdam (which is the obviously correct neighborhood name if we’re not making a multi-billion-dollar endorsement deal) party. My other platforms will include free and expanded subway service paid for at least in part by a 3%/year property tax surcharge on vacant apartments and houses, ending rent control on all new or vacant apartments, approval of all new construction everywhere, permanent outdoor dining, and ending of all city-based occupational licensing requirements. Construction costs will be paid for temporarily by a bond issue, then repaid with interest by a 100% tax on the unimproved value of the newly created land.

This was a proposal in The New York Times, so of course it was necessary to lead with talk about protection against climate change. That did not of course stop stupid people from saying how stupid it would be to build things at sea level, no matter how much this was used as part of a project to protect the city, because guarding against climate change doesn’t involve the proper moral repentance, so it doesn’t count. The link is a New York Post article where this is the best objection they could find.

Not everyone is on board, however.

In a response piece for Curbed, writer Willy Blackmore pointed out that the “closest counterpart” to Barr’s New Mannahatta are the landfill-based neighborhoods that Robert Moses constructed along the Jamaica Bay waterfront.

“How have those fared over the years?” Blackmore quipped. “Queen’s Broad Channel — with its houses on stilts extending over marsh-grass-dotted shallows — is arguably the most flood-prone neighborhood in the city, and has the highest proportion of repeat flood-insurance claims.”

Did you know that you can use better designs instead of worse designs, and you can be more compatible with life in your creations than Robert Moses? Literally the previous sentence is this:

“Building the land at a higher elevation would further improve its protective ability, 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,” he said.

Ah, indulgences and offsets that make it clear that people’s true objections always lied elsewhere.

Urbanization looks like humans doing useful things, so even though it is in many ways the actual greenest thing you can do, so in a calculus like this that also counts against you.

The real reason to do this is of course because more land in Manhattan would be insanely valuable and would enable a bunch of people to live there in newly constructed housing, which they very much would like to do, and also to work there. Which would be good for them, good for the city, good for the country and the world.

The proposal says it has housing for 250k people by duplicating the density of the Upper West Side, but that not only punts big time on the potential density – surely we could echo what we’ve done with Hudson Yards and use this opportunity to build much higher – it comes from only 180k housing units. That’s four people every three housing units. Is that our reality? Google says we currently have 2.56 people per rental apartment and 2.9 per owner-occupied apartment in NYC, so something weird is going on here.

It’s also an illustration that this subway extension is pathetically inadequate to the task at hand. Only six subway stations in the entire new area bigger than the Upper West Side? That’s less than half of what the Upper West Side has. At a minimum, we’d want the W and/or E trains to be extended south to meet up with the extended G line, two or three avenues east of the new 1 line, and we’d want to bring back the 9 so we could have an express on the 1 line south of Chambers Street and probably have about 2 more new local stops than the map suggests, and I’m guessing we can do better than that. Subway costs should be vastly lower in a new area, so we should build vastly more trains and throughput capacity here than normal rather than less, and do more rethinking of existing lines.

I’ve love to also get us a new football stadium so the Giants and Jets can actually play in New York, potentially conditional on much needed new ownership, but that’s at most only a nice-to-have. As would be another bridge or tunnel across the Hudson River, including a new PATH line, it’s a critical choke point in America’s supply chain that’s fallen into disrepair, and there’s constantly too much traffic at the tunnels. Now’s our chance. And there should definitely be a new bridge into Brooklyn where the G-line is crossing into Manhattan.

We also should talk about why there isn’t a highway extension on that map. I don’t know that we need an extension on both West and East sides, but it should be value-enhancing to do at least one of them. Probably the West side if we get another way to cross the Hudson to hook it up, the East otherwise.

Anyway, yes, we should absolutely do this or a better version of the same idea, great idea, not kidding.

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I wish you well and I hope you win (ed, here I mean I hope the proposal is approved)

I am pessimistic though. I don't think people really understand how much current homeowners do not want additional housing to be built. It makes sense if you consider that the net worth of a typical homeowner is very substantially made up of a highly leveraged long position in real estate. If that position goes south - because of an increase in housing supply, or because of undesirable new people moving into the neighborhood - the homeowner's net worth could be decimated.

Now, most people will not come out and say directly that they are opposed to new housing for the obvious economic reason, because they don't want to seem selfish and greedy and maybe racist. So they have to find a socially acceptable cover story to oppose new housing - environmentalism, concerns about safety, etc etc.

I don’t entirely disagree with you, but I find this explanation confusing. Take an urban homeowner in a single family zoned neighborhood.

They paid a large premium to buy it, and they must not like that. And if the land were up zoned, their property would suddenly be worth a lot more.

If land gets upzoned (or in this case built) in a faraway location, it doesn’t particularly effect them.

So I’m left to conclude, tentatively, that homeowners resist development for the actual reasons they give. They’re personally attached to their neighborhood. They don’t want to move. They like the way it looks, like the feeing of safety and intimacy, and don’t want to see that change too much. When they moved in, they were paying not only for the plot of land, but for the atmosphere of its surroundings, the local amenities, the view. They care about the environment, and don’t think we have adequate appreciation for its importance, or caution in appropriating it or tampering with it.

Now, maybe they could get all that and more at the price of some short-term disruption that would, in the long run, make conditions better for almost everybody. But they don’t want to deal with that disruption, to the tune of quite a lot of money.

It’s fine to say that the law is not an appropriate mechanism for enforcing the coordination feat of environmental protection or urban planning, or that you think these people have wrong opinions. But if you’re trying to model their true worldview, it seems more plausible to me that they’re revealing their honest preferences.

The selfish interest of homeowners and landowners is generally to prevent the creation of new homes and new land.

The selfish interest of renters and businesses is generally the opposite.

I suspect that New York City has an unusually high ratio of the latter to the former (in terms of political power).

Obviously, people frequently vote against their selfish interests. But it's at least slightly relevant. Anyway, you brought it up.

That did not of course stop stupid people from saying how stupid it would be to build things at sea level, no matter how much this was used as part of a project to protect the city, because guarding against climate change doesn’t involve the proper moral repentance, so it doesn’t count. The link is a New York Post article where this is the best objection they could find.

The New York Post article sounds to me overall positive but the journalist wasn't allowed to write a one-sided article so they had to bring up some bullshit argument given that the argument has been made by other people. 

One of the key questions here is how you would actually go about making this a reality. I imagine that if you make it a completely public project there's a good chance that the whole thing fails and becomes a political liability for the major that approved the project. It takes likely a decade to build and has the potential to produce political trouble in between.

There's no Robert Moses around to run the project. In the absence, it's worth thinking about how you would actually structure such a project and make it good politics.