“Buy land,” said Mark Twain. “They’re not making it anymore.”
Oh yeah? Watch this, chimed in Mayor Bill de Blasio last week. The mayor proposed expanding Manhattan Island 500 feet into New York Harbor with a $10 billion investment in bulwarks, berms, and other barriers meant to protect the city from another Hurricane Sandy. De Blasio, according to the New York Times, wants to “use landfill in front of the financial district and South Street Seaport to extend the coastline of the island by as much as 500 feet into the East River—creating a rising berm that would, at its highest point, be well above future sea levels.”
“It will be one of the most complex environmental and engineering challenges our city has ever undertaken,” wrote the mayor for New York. “And it will, literally, alter the shape of the island of Manhattan.” And not for the first time, he might have added. Virtually everything that de Blasio proposes, according to him, is “transformative.” And just because most of his schemes—the ones that actually come off—turn out to be mega-expensive boondoggles is no reason not to keep trying, right?
The thing is, this scheme’s not crazy, and should it go forward, it would be only the most recent alteration of the shape of the island. Much of modern Manhattan is built on landfill. The process began around 1690, when the newly arrived English began heaving trash and other material into the harbor and building piers on the fill, and essentially ended when Battery Park City was constructed on earth and rock excavated from the original World Trade Center site and then deposited in the Hudson River. The result: an island whose outline only vaguely resembles the one Henry Hudson sailed past in 1609. So there is no intrinsic reason why de Blasio’s scheme shouldn’t work, all else being equal.
But all else is never equal in Gotham. De Blasio will be comfortably nestled in the retired mayors’ home by the time the necessary environmental-impact studies are completed and the inevitable NIMBY-driven litigation has run its course. And the $10 billion price tag de Blasio hung on his proposal seems naively lowball in a town where it costs more than $3.5 billion to build a mile of subway track. De Blasio readily admits that the city lacks the money to do the job—indeed, subway reconstruction, remediating school and highway deterioration, and rehabilitating crumbling Housing Authority projects doubtless will have first claim on the city’s limited capital-investment dollars.
That doesn’t have to be the end of things, though. A combination of municipal energy, imagination, and will—plus an independent agency with bonding authority—should be enough to get the job done. For inspiration, look no further than Battery Park City. The 92-acre, largely residential and parkland site on the west side of Lower Manhattan, having replaced notoriously collapsing piers and other deteriorating waterfront properties, integrates smoothly into the adjacent Financial District and incorporates the former World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place). It’s owned and operated by the Battery Park City Authority, a Rockefeller-era inspiration that bonded construction financing, continues to carry that debt, and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars that City Hall has used for off-site subsidized housing and other municipal purposes. The cash is not land-use rent—though it might just as well be—but rather the product of a synergistic project resting solidly on the more than 3-million cubic feet of Hudson River fill dug from the World Trade Center site.
There should be no acceptable reason why the same template couldn’t be applied to the creation of storm-surge protection for Lower Manhattan. It needn’t be all barriers and berms, either: aggressive economic development could be incorporated into the undertaking, with the initial proceeds servicing construction debt and eventually providing a steady municipal revenue stream.
So what the hell, Mr. Mayor, give it a whirl—and prove Mark Twain wrong!
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