Land Ho!

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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28 Responses to Land Ho!

  1. Dan Goldberg says:

    My reaction was along objections 3 & 4. It’s an obviously good idea (versions of which have been proposed in the past:, but the political obstacles seem so immense it’s hard to get excited about it.
    I’d love to be persuaded otherwise, and if someone thinks there’s a path to overcoming the inevitable opposition please do share. I think environmental opposition is surmountable, and the thing should pay for itself, which is huge. NIMBYs are a harder problem, especially those with properties near the current waterfront.
    The biggest problem, though, is that it would successfully accomplish its goal of reduce housing prices. Everybody agrees this is good until they realize it would also reduce the price of the housing they own.

    • TheZvi says:

      You can literally buy the properties on the waterfront at market, or offer to do so, and still be very easily in the black, in fact buying them makes your life much easier in many ways, and it’s not that many people relative to the size of the addition, so if it’s pure NIMBY I’m not that sympathetic.

      Also, while I want it to reduce housing prices, I don’t expect that big a drop from this alone because I expect the population in NYC to expand largely to match, and NYC to become a better place to live, so it should be measured relative to a much higher base population. And also, increasing the tax base of NYC lets us cut taxes otherwise, which raises housing prices.

      I mean, I’m not saying this has a high probability of happening, but man we gotta try at least a little.

    • hello_there says:

      I agree that obstacles 3 and 4 are the biggest problems. It’s a good idea, but there are a lot of interest groups who are very motivated to either block this entirely, or to charge immense amounts of money to make it happen. And not very many people very motivated to make it happen at an appropriate price point.

    • Dan Goldberg says:

      I think a sea level rise mitigation argument is actually the best way to sell this. If you can convince people that they will lose their homes if they DON’T expand the island, they might actually go along with it. Especially those near the waterfront.

  2. oskar31415 says:

    Denmark has a similar project
    (obviously the land value is likely to be smaller)
    My biggest question is how fast it can be done, as the danish plan is disappointingly slow

  3. Basil Marte says:

    Excellent proposal! Unordered responses:
    > 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
    1. Higher-frequency, heck yes. Zero marginal cost, yes please. Zero fixed cost, I’m more cagey about that.
    2. Why is an additional tax on vacant units necessary at all, above the counterfactual income?
    3. I was under the impression that popular figures for “vacant apartments/houses” came from sources that count not just units already offered on the market, but those sold/rented but not yet moved into, those that are regularly rented to students and/or seasonal tourists but the censustaker happened to come out of season, etc.

    > a bond issue, then repaid with interest by a 100% tax on the unimproved value of the newly created land
    1. Gotcha: Georgism says the filling is an “improvement”, there is no such thing as newly created land, the plots should be taxed as though they were still underwater. The more serious relative of this argument is that if permanent-enough improvements are taxed after all, then any landowner other than the taxing organization — i.e. not just people and companies, but also levels of government below the one administering the tax — will have no incentive to improve their land.
    2. Single-fact: if a municipality does serious Georgism, its incentive will be to oppose most transportation improvements, because those create more land in the important sense (which is, to a first approximation, land at/within T travel time of the CBD). Ceteris paribus, packing the same economic activity into a smaller area yields more total rent, because the demand for land is inelastic.

    > Subway costs should be vastly lower in a new area
    Er, objections 3&4 (at least, as I imagine them) are exactly that even when adjusting for PPP and the kitchen sink, American passenger rail construction in general, and NY projects in particular, are counterintuitively expansive even in comparison to the broader Anglosphere, never mind the rest of the world.

    > highway extension
    One of the better justifications for highways falling out of fashion is that they take several times the area to provide the same transportation capacity as rail-based alternatives.

    • TheZvi says:

      So I agree that transportation and construction will be relatively expensive versus other areas, but they’ll be vastly cheaper than e.g. the 2nd avenue subway that has to go under existing streets, I’d presume.

      I agree you can’t do ‘pure Georgeism’ because filling it in is ‘improving it’ but you can absolutely do something different and say it starts after the filling-in process, because improvements provided by the state are the same as providing improvements surrounding you – you didn’t do it, so you don’t get a tax exemption. Anyway, I’m flexible on details (and I think that 100% is actually somewhat too high and also unnecessary).

      I agree that this will make people will oppose transportation more, but only to the extent that they improve the unimproved land value, which should at worst render them indifferent (e.g. they capture the gains and pay the cost) and if you have improvements that also increase in value you should still profit. But more than that our plan is to do all that work up front anyway.

      As for the highway extension, I am open to arguments it’s not efficient here, but I think if you don’t do it in favor of rail you need to be doing a lot more rail than this, which might be good.

      Subway fixed cost as non-zero does four things I think? One, it imposes a de facto head-tax on NYC, which seems regressive for no good reason. Two, it imposes friction on enter/exit and requires us to carry around cards and deal with such requirements, and especially imposes friction on tourists that we’d like to avoid. Three, it allows people to opt out and not take the subway and save the money, but it’s not clear to me that letting them not get taxed here accomplishes anything, and it tempts some low-frequency riders to opt out which is bad. Four, it lets us tax visitors, which I’m not excited about. What am I missing?

      The vacancy thing is where people buy NYC apartments as investments (e.g. rich people from Russia/China often do this) and then leave them vacant, because tenants would complicate liquidity concerns, and this is a substantial number of apartments, and in general tenant protections mean if you don’t have a long-term plan to let someone stay forever, it’s dangerous to rent at all. And also people try to reside elsewhere legally to avoid the city income tax. In general, we can free up a bunch of housing de facto that’s currently sitting idle, and I’d rather have a tax on idle places and use that to lower general property/income taxes (or in this case, to operate the subways and buses).

      • Basil Marte says:

        Non-zero fixed cost: I cut the explanation as too long.
        I meant that a fare structure very common in continental Europe (including Budapest, where I live) makes monthly passes the most popular choice among residents, but single tickets are obviously still available, as are more niche options like day passes. Thus neither low-frequency riders nor tourists are taxed/inconvenienced.
        On non-subways (trams, frequent buses) there is no friction to speak of, roving inspectors conduct checks occasionally. (Buses with peak 10 minute, off-peak 15 minute headways or worse do have front-door-boarding-only instead.) Only large subway stations are good fits for faregates (Bp regularly deploys inspectors at their entries, occasionally exits, as “meat faregates”, but rarely at small stations). Technologically, the pass may be a card (common in the Anglosphere) or paper (common in Europe, including Bp). (Caveat: a decade ago Bp’s agency was reorganized in the mold of London’s TfL, and has since then launched a project (“Rigó”) to move over to cards and faregates. However, the project seems to have failed.)

        I’m confused. A large enough fraction of units that it’s worth going specifically after them, because their impact on the market (and/or the surplus tax revenue) would be large enough to outweigh the …irregularity, dishonor… are used for pure bubble-speculation (highly liquid “investment” with no yield outside appreciation, indeed negative because it’s taxed)? And furthermore this is so “sticky” that popping/deflating/alleviating the bubble by upzoning or zoning abolition or transportation-based land creation (i.e. digging subways into NJ, fixing LIRR-NJT-MetroNorth turf wars and stupidity, etc.) or infill-based land creation wouldn’t bring those units onto the market?

        • alexhutcheson says:

          > large enough to outweigh the …irregularity, dishonor…

          What do you mean by this?

          In my head, implementation would be pretty simple. If no one filed an NYC resident income tax return with their address listed at a given property, then a surtax would be added to their property tax bill.

      • Lambert says:

        Oh, is the idea that charging for the subway would cause a corresponding decrease in the amount of LVT revenue?
        So faced with the prospect of spending $x per anum on tickets, people would be willing to spend $x per year less on rent.

        • TheZvi says:

          I mean there’s that point too, but I’d be doing the free Subway city-wide. I think free is magic, and dealing with the fare is stressful (e.g. in European trips I often found this stressful trying to sort out what to do, and I spend brainspace tracking metrocards that I’d rather not spend) and a remarkably large trivial inconvenience, and charging is regressive, so how about we simply don’t do that.

    • alexhutcheson says:

      > Why is an additional tax on vacant units necessary at all, above the counterfactual income?

      If you assume that housing supply in the city will continue to constrain the number of people that live in NYC (a condition that definitely currently holds, and would likely to continue to hold even with the large expansion of the housing supply proposed here), then every unit left vacant displaces one or more people that would otherwise be NYC residents, be paying state & city income tax, be contributing to the agglomeration economy, etc.

      The displacement effect is a bit indirect, but goes something like:
      1. Hedge fund PM would buy in a super-luxury condo, but is outbid by foreign money that keeps it vacant, so they go buy a prewar unit on the Upper West instead.
      2. Mid-career professional couple would have bought the Upper West unit, but settles for a place in an East Village tenement instead.
      3. Recent grad tech worker would have rented in East Village, but gets priced out and rents a place in Bushwick instead.
      4. New accounting grad would love to live in New York, but looks at prices and decides that even Bushwick is too expensive – takes a job in Atlanta instead.

      Having non-residents buy up property, pay property taxes, and not consume any services is a great situation *if you’re willing to build enough housing to satisfy that demand, on top of your city’s organic demand*. If your city has a price elasticity of supply for housing of ~0, then they just outbid potential residents, and it’s not clear that you come out ahead, especially when you factor in hard-to-account-for factors like how much each resident contributes to the liquidity of the local labor market, etc. Also, the property tax system in NYC is a huge mess and it’s likely you’re not even getting as much in property taxes from the owner of the vacant unit as you might expect.

      • Basil Marte says:

        (Folding both responses)
        My question wasn’t on how such foreign “investment” would impact the housing situation/market conditional on it happening; sorry if this wasn’t clear. I was questioning whether it happens to a meaningful degree, since it’s such a terrible idea from the investor’s point of view. I’m still surprised that Zvi seems to think that lots of units are held in this way.

        > large enough to outweigh the …irregularity, dishonor…
        The easy way to explain what I mean is that doing so would plaster “here be dragons and/or regulatory risk” on everyone’s maps. As far as LVT is concerned, in a hypothetical infinitely-liquid world if people’s “cost of doing business” — including their estimated value of regulatory risk — goes up very slightly, they are willing to pay correspondingly less rent, overall leading to some deadweight loss. Politicians can swear up and down that they don’t intend to do anything similar in the future and therefore people shouldn’t react like that, but people will react to that with “you say that now, but since you did this thing, I’ve come to expect that your intentions are going to change because decision theory”. (To the extent that people parse the politicians’ swearing as an honest declaration of intent in the first place.)
        Now, this drawback would be small in the case of a vacant-unit surtax, but given that I think the benefit of the surtax would also be small, it seems to me that this effect can eat up much of the benefit (including “more than all of it”).

  4. Alex says:

    Granted I have not looked too much into the reactions, but all objections that I have seen talked about how the Hudson river is relatively fast and deep (compared to other similar projects) and doing this would cause problems with erosion, etc. Basically, yeah, it would be nice to just say “make better design”, but some things ARE prohibitively expensive to do right. I’m not an expert and have no idea about validity of these concerns, but I also have little faith that the people who have come up with this specific proposal have thoroughly thought about it either (just based on prior expectation from a random proposal published in NYT), so there is that.

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  6. bugsbycarlin says:

    This proposal passes a boldness test, call it the Jesus Test. When I saw the map, I said “Jesus Christ, that’s a lot of Manhattan!”

    Whoever made this proposal is not a dead player.


  7. thechaostician says:

    This seems like a great idea ! If there’s not enough land in big cities, why not make more? Especially if it allows us to bypass some of the restrictions that make building new housing / transportation / ,,, so expensive.

    Do you know why it’s built as an extension of Manhattan instead of a new island? This would dramatically reduce the disruption to the current Manhattan waterfront and limit NIMBY challenges.

    For highways, 478 currently goes through / under this area. Do you know what would happen to it?

  8. Alex says:

    > We also should talk about why there isn’t a highway extension on that map.

    Highways are a really suboptimal use of waterfront land – people’s implied willingness to pay based on their behavior around toll roads implies that highway users wouldn’t value the highway nearly enough to offset the reduction in amenity value at the waterfront for residents, workers, etc.

    If the highways aren’t on the waterfront you can either tunnel, build them at grade, or elevate them.

    Tunneling is attractive given you’re already building the site out of landfill – in principle it wouldn’t be *that* complex to add some cut-and-cover tunnels to the design. The problem is access – you need a lot of land at grade to handle getting cars in and out. Every additional tunnel (whether for highway, subway, water, etc.) also makes any tunnels it crosses more complex and expensive because one needs to be deep enough to go under the other.

    At grade or elevated would significantly decrease the value of the land around it. At-grade highways are a noise disamenity and create a barrier to pedestrians that breaks up neighborhoods and office clusters. Elevating it partially fixes the pedestrian barrier problem (you’ve still created a long “dead space” with no destinations for them to walk through), but increases the “blast radius” of the noise and light disamenity effect.

    A couple of wide boulevards would be enough to provide quick access for taxis, Ubers, deliveries, emergency services, etc. and Singapore-style congestion pricing would be sufficient to make sure that they are always clear enough for those use-cases to move at a reasonable pace.

    • Alex says:

      The Battery Tunnel runs right through the new land, so we should definitely either:
      1. Add some exits and entrances (maybe not feasible, given tunnel design and depth)
      2. Dig a new tunnel to Brooklyn, that lets out next to the existing tunnel portal in Red Hook and continues onto the same existing access road (definitely feasible)

      #1 would have the advantage of adding a quick road connection to the downtown and the existing highways, but #2 would at least add a road connection to Brooklyn so everyone isn’t driving up to the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges every time they go to Brooklyn, the airport, etc. It would also allow a bunch of the NJ transit to use the Verrazano.

  9. Alex says:

    Yes, and… build Alon Levy’s proposed cross-Harbor tunnel connecting the Staten Island Railway to Metro North:

    The new land would make the required underwater tunnel ~35% shorter. We could also build the connection from the LIRR Atlantic Branch to NJ Transit in Newark via the new landfill area and a stop in Jersey City.

  10. Men literally want one thing and it’s a way to cross the Hudson from Brooklyn in a car without going through TriBeCa and hitting downtown traffic for no reason. How about a bridge/tunnel from New Amsterdam to Jersey City with an exit to Liberty Island?

    • Alex says:

      Even if we were able to achieve the much lower tunneling costs that are typical in other countries, a new road tunnel under the Hudson would be extremely expensive, especially when you include the approach roads on either side. Expensive is fine as long as people actually *value* it very highly, but the evidence based on behavior around toll roads suggest that they don’t. Look at how many people willingly drive Brooklyn->Tribeca->Holland Tunnel->Jersey City every day to avoid the ~$7 toll on the Verrazano bridge.

      If we could credibly commit to setting tolls high enough to cover servicing the construction debt (borrowed at low muni bond rates) and ongoing maintenance and operations (non-trivial), and the project still penciled out, then I think it would be a great move.

      You could also argue that it increases property values and justify using some of the property tax revenue towards the project, but I think that’s more tenuous for an area that will (presumably) have low car ownership rates.

      • TheZvi says:

        I’m actually against tolls for exactly this reason – people hate them so much they tie themselves in knots avoiding them. The exception is where the road/tunnel/bridge would otherwise be over-used, so the toll is rationing by price. But if we had the capacity, I think we’d get a lot more good travel between NY/NJ a lot faster if we took down the tolls and replaced them with other taxes.

        If the tolls could fully pay for the tunnel, it means the tunnel is ludicrously over-the-top valuable, because most people who pay are getting a LOT more surplus than the amount they pay in tolls.

        I thought I did mention the extra tunnel across Hudson plus a bridge into Brooklyn as part of the deal, the question being the other roads to support them.

  11. Alex says:

    That’s a fair point – people’s (seemingly irrational) aversion to tolls makes them a lot less useful as a way to provide a price signal than they could be.

    That being said, I think any road infrastructure in the core of the NYC region (tunnels, highways, and even parking) that isn’t subjected to congestion pricing is doomed to be over-used until it’s painfully congested. Pricing it gives you a way to allocate the scarce resource to users (e.g. trucks delivering to grocery stores, etc.) that value it the most.

    • TheZvi says:

      Aggressive congestion pricing is certainly eligible for the New Amsterdam Party platform, as another way to fund our expanded free subway and bus service. We’ll also be printing taxi medallions to demand at $25k each.

  12. thechaostician says:

    While looking into this more, I happened upon a gorgeous plan to build an artificial archipelago and seawall for Jakarta in the shape of a bird:

    Indonesia clearly has problems (Jakarta is 40% below sea level and sinking), but is capable of thinking big about ways to solve them.

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