The Answer is Redevelopment, Not Building Schlongs Off Manhattan
New York’s housing crisis can be addressed by developing land we already have
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Quite recently, a radical proposal to solve, or at least deal with, New York City’s rapidly growing housing crisis popped up in an essay from The New York Times. A professor contemplated ways that the housing crisis could be dealt with, and the end result was what he called “New Mannahatta”.
This idea, courtesy of professor and author Jason M. Barr, calls for a 1,760 acre, fifty-plus block expansion of Manhattan, extending it south into the New York Harbor. The new portion of land would completely engulf Governors Island and incorporate it into Manhattan proper. The plan also calls for a five-stop 1 train subway extension to the southern tip of the new land, as well as a G train subway extension to Red Hook and also to the new area of the city.
Imagine replicating from scratch a diverse neighborhood that contains housing in 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’s, it could have nearly 180,000 new housing units.
Barr ultimately calls for the plan to house nearly 250,000 New Yorkers, and the extension to Manhattan would not only address the housing crisis, but also the climate crisis. “Creating land in the harbor would also help New York City fortify itself against climate change,” he writes. “The new community would push vulnerable places like Wall and Broad Streets further inland, and the peninsula can be designed with specific protections around its coastline to buffer itself and the rest of the city from flooding.”
While the idea may not seem terrible on paper, it, of course, is one step beyond borderline delusional. Sure, it’s fun to contemplate what it could and would be like if we were to build a completely new area of our city, and it’s a process that is actually done in cities across the world, particularly in China and other low-lying growing metropolises. Manhattan itself has actually done this before, with the creation of Battery Park City, which was created in the 1980s via landfill from the construction of the original World Trade Center complex, so the idea itself is not insanely far off.
So if it’s been done before, why not do it again? Well, in terms of practicality and reason, the idea is insanely far off. To compare, Battery Park City is about 92 acres in size, as opposed to the 1,760 acres of New Mannahatta. Barr also conveniently omits any mention of price or cost from his article, and for good reason: the sheer cost of this megaproject would be almost infeasible.
In 2020, it was estimated that the cost of building four MTA subway stations for the Second Avenue Subway would be approximately $51 billion. If four (4) subway stations will cost that price, imagine how much an entire borough expansion, filled with hundreds if not thousands of new buildings, roads, pipelines and other essential infrastructure would cost. Even if the city were to receive money from the federal government for this project, citing its environmental and climate-fighting benefits, the cost would still be well into the trillions of dollars, which itself would shoot the project down immediately.
To be clear, if New York City had all of the money in the world, and could solve their current issues first, then by all means I wouldn’t mind seeing this happen (it’s practically Cities: Skylines come to life!). But the reality is that this project is, as mentioned, both impractical and unreasonable. It is impractical due to its sheer scope and cost, and it is unreasonable because there are better, cheaper and more accessible ways to address the housing crisis.
It’s easy to say, “build more affordable housing!”, especially in New York City, where housing is — let’s be real, here — unaffordable for the most part. But that isn’t to say that there are areas of the city that are ripe for redevelopment or, in some cases, development. Yes, as dense as New York City is, there are still areas of it that are completely undeveloped or are ripe for redevelopment. If we are serious about addressing the housing crisis, our first step should be to focus on developing or redeveloping these areas by building new affordable housing on them.
Let’s focus on the land we already have, before we build new land into the sea.
Arguably the most prominent of the proposals to redevelop land in New York City into more affordable housing is the Willets Point redevelopment proposal. Willets Point is an industrial neighborhood in northern Queens, located adjacent to Citi Field. It’s a swath of New York unlike anywhere else in the city, a haven for chop shops and junkyards, and a mere ten people call it home.
In the 2000s, serious proposals were brought to the table regarding the redevelopment of Willets Point. The old chop shops would be torn down and replaced with new, affordable, high rise residential buildings, which would be a step in the right direction to solving the city’s growing housing crisis. The project would also bring new life to an area currently lacking. And in the 2010s, the project was approved by the city and state government. By 2016, the last of the chop shops had closed, and demolition had begun.
However, as of 2022, barely any work has commenced on the project. Willets Point consists of over a dozen large city blocks ripe for redevelopment. For the sake of argument, let us assume that each block will consist of mixed-use buildings, with the bottom floor consisting of commercial space and the rest of the building consisting of affordable housing. Leaving adequate room in the neighborhood for park space, if these buildings were to be fifteen stories each (one floor for commercial, fourteen for residential) with ten units per floor, that amounts to 144 affordable units per building, and 4,752 units for the whole district.
Under this proposal, Willets Point could house approximately 5,000 people, and with many units consisting of more than one person, that number could easily reach 10,000. And if you bump the number of floors for each building up to twenty, which is extremely feasible, you would get 190 units per building, and 6,270 new units total. Willets Point, and area currently sitting practically empty, could add over 6,000 new affordable housing units and house nearly 10,000 residents.
Let us take another area of the city that is sitting quietly, and serving one linear purpose. The Ceasar’s Bay [sic] shopping center in Bath Beach, Brooklyn was built in the 1960s when Korvette’s, a large clothing and shopping center, opened. The area has since been home to a huge parking lot and a few large stores such as a Kohl’s, Target and Best Buy, but nothing more.
This is an area that is ripe for redevelopment. It is located right along the water with impressive views of Coney Island, the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island, and is the starting point of the Ceasar’s Bay Promenade, a place I wrote about way back in 2018. As such, land value could be much higher if the area was redeveloped. While the few stores there do serve residents of south Brooklyn, they take up huge swaths of the land and could easily be demolished, and in their place, mixed-use buildings containing affordable housing could be built.
The parking lots filling the area would also be ripe for development. The primary argument with this one would be the removal of the stores, but new stores (even the exact same ones) could be built brand-new into the mixed-use buildings. Don’t want the Kohl’s to go? A new one will be built into one of the buildings. There would be room for dozens of new shops as opposed to the few that are there now. Let’s say this time, for argument’s sake, the buildings built in Ceasar’s Bay would be sixteen stories, with the first two floors being for commercial space, and the remaining fourteen for affordable housing (again, ten units per floor).
According to calculations, approximately 22 buildings could be built on the entire space, and if each had 14 floors totaling 144 units per building, that would amount to 3,168 new units in the area. And if the number of floors was bumped up to twenty per building — leading to 18 floors of housing for each — this would amount to 180 units per building, and 3,960 units total. This is less than the 33 for Willet’s Point, as the area is smaller, but it’s still impressive.
Ceasar’s Bay could go from a dingy shopping outlet barely even recognizable by name to most Brooklynites, to a lavish new destination containing new park space, retail, and most importantly, affordable housing. Finally, people would be able to live in Ceasar’s Bay and it would become a thriving and unique neighborhood in and of itself, rather than a faceless shopping outlet.
Finally, I want to turn your attention to a huge chunk of land in New York City that’s currently sitting practically empty. I want you to take a look at a satellite map of the city — Brooklyn specifically — and guess where it may be. Once you’ve looked, if you guessed Barren Island (which you probably didn’t), you’d be correct.
Barren Island, more known as the island that houses Floyd-Bennett Field, is a huge peninsula located in south Brooklyn, off the Jamaica Bay. It is over 1,500 acres in size, and its potential is being wasted as time goes on. Floyd-Bennett Field is a disused air field which now the NYPD only occasionally uses for its helicopter fleet, but the airfield takes up a massive chunk of the peninsula, well over 1,000 acres, and is absolutely ripe for development.
Certain protected nature areas exist around Barren Island and outside Floyd-Bennett Field, so for argument’s sake, we will leave the areas outside of the airfield alone. But within the airfield, over 1,000 acres are ready to be developed. Unfortunately, a proposal to redevelop the abandoned air field have never been seriously proposed, so if you want to begin a new era for the city, even if you don’t live in New York, start by contacting city and state representatives and get them to seriously consider developing the area.
Floyd-Bennett Field is large enough that it could be its own neighborhood entirely, consisting of hundreds of new buildings, roads, and even a 5 train subway extension past Kings Plaza to the area. Additionally, the portion of land between the Jamaica Bay and the southernmost runway, the area currently containing the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Center, could be redeveloped into a new NFL stadium for the New York Giants and/or Jets, with plenty of parking and other infrastructure options still remaining (this is a topic for another article, however).
The rest of the airfield, even with the new NFL stadium, could still easily hold over a hundred new mixed-use buildings containing affordable housing. If one hundred new buildings consisting of 1 floor of commercial and 14 of affordable residential (10 units per floor) were to be built, that would equate to over 14,000 new affordable units in the area. And given the sheer scale of this area, that number would probably be much higher. It would be safe to assume that over 25,000 new residents could live in this area, which would positively contribute to the housing crisis. Not to mention, the area would also be home to new parks and green spaces, state-of-the-art schools and education facilities, and entertainment facilities such as the NFL stadium.
All of these redevelopment proposals are not even to mention the fact that there still remains actual undeveloped blocks of New York City to this day, that can be developed. A huge portion of Edgemere in The Rockaways is literally undeveloped, with the blocks filled with overgrown weeds. This area, while in an extremely flood-prone area, is located right next to a subway line and station. There are neighborhoods of New York City that are transit deserts and would kill for a subway line, and this area has it in their backyard and the area is still not developed.
The entire point here is that there are a plethora of areas and neighborhoods in New York City that are still either fully undeveloped or ripe for redevelopment. To work towards solving the housing crisis, we should focus on developing these areas first, the areas we already have, before we consider building new land into the sea to serve the same purpose. And since all of these areas are away from the city center, away from Manhattan and upper Brooklyn, the housing will be more affordable, as opposed to the New Mannahatta plan, which, let’s be real, would not contain affordable housing. There is no cheap answer here, but all of these would be cheaper than constructing a giant schlong off of the tip of Manhattan.
New Yorkers have always been resilient, but their patience is running thin. It’s time for the city and state to make the next move. Unfortunately, it feels as if everyone has been waiting forever for them to make the next move. What happens next, ultimately, is in all of our hands.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Twitter and on Medium to be informed of new articles.