After the 2012 shock of Superstorm Sandy, which inundated New York City and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage and economic loss—not to mention dozens of deaths—the city, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill de Blasio, promised a massive resiliency program to protect New Yorkers from future storm surges and rising sea levels. Seven years later, some progress has been made. The city has spent billions rebuilding damaged homes or buying out residential property in flood-prone areas of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. But little has been accomplished toward solidifying New York’s defenses against another major storm.
So it was surprising when Mayor de Blasio announced, in March 2019, a plan that, in the context of recent waterfront development, was staggeringly bold. The city, said the mayor, would “extend the shoreline of Lower Manhattan into the East River to protect the Seaport area and the Financial District and all the people who live and work there.” Pegging the expected costs at $10 billion, de Blasio said that his plan would involve filling in up to 500 feet of the East River through a combination of city, federal, and possibly private investment. If the project becomes a reality, it will expand Manhattan’s landmass for the first time in nearly half a century and revive a storied history of landfill, or land reclamation, long considered a low-cost, natural way to expand New York’s scarcest and most precious commodity: real estate.
Few places in the New World have been so extensively reclaimed as Manhattan, which today is 33 percent larger than it was when Peter Minuit arranged its purchase from the native inhabitants for the Dutch West India Company. “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands,” states a proverb reflecting the Dutch genius for dikes, levees, and land reclamation. New York’s plastic relationship to its own waterfront owes something to the city’s Dutch inheritance.
Manhattan’s original commercial appeal owed to its natural harbor, and the earliest days of European settlement were marked by successive improvements of the waterside. The 1686 Charter of Libertyes established New York City as a self-governing corporation—crucially, giving it control of all “waste, vacant, unpatented, unappropriated” lands—and extended municipal control of the waterfront, from high tide to low tide. This meant that the city was free to improve, through infill, its coastline.
In the late seventeenth century, the city sold “water lots” along the shore, and extending some 200 feet into the river, to speculators, merchants, and dock owners—an early example of public-private partnerships in New York. Lacking a public-works agency, the city required the purchasers of these watery parcels to “reclaim” the land and improve it with streets and a wharf to retain the island’s new boundaries. The city’s burgeoning population, as well as the concomitant increase in the construction of new housing, created a demand for the disposal of excavated earth; similarly, the gradual leveling of Manhattan’s rough topography generated excesses of stone and dirt. In a virtuous cycle, intensive development of the city’s interior fed the expansion of its borders; improvement of its waterfront fueled, in turn, the vital mercantile economy.
The 1811 Commissioners’ Plan established Manhattan’s famous orderly street grid above Houston Street. While not entirely consistent with today’s Manhattan—Broadway is not indicated on the map, and a central “Parade” between 23rd and 34th Streets does not exist—the plan nonetheless recognizably plots out the most identifiable street map in the world. The commissioners approached their task in a mathematical, almost Vitruvian mode, seeking “convenience and utility” in determining that “a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” Laying out streets miles beyond the populated core of the southern tip of the city, confident that the space would be filled, reveals the optimism of the late Federalist Era: with incredible foresight, the commissioners observed that they had “provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” As noted New York historian Mike Wallace explains: “The grid enshrined republican as well as realtor values, in its refusal to privilege particular places or parcels. . . . The network of parallels and perpendiculars provided a democratic alternative to the royalist avenues of Baroque European cities.” The centrality of commerce to the life of New York City was inscribed in its very outlines.
But another aspect of the grid demonstrated the city’s refusal to be constrained by topographical limits. Manhattan’s 1811 layout assumes not only that the city will grow to fill the borders of the grid but also that the island itself will grow to meet the expectations of the map. As waterfront planner and historian Ann Buttenwieser observes: “The plan created a rigid pattern for further east-west expansion of the island.” For instance, Avenue A on the 1811 map barely exists for great stretches, skipping along the shoreline, submerging, and reemerging many blocks later. But the assumption for the original planners was that the grid was the reality: all that was needed was to fill in the land.
The idea that making more land was a natural part of urban growth was so embedded in the municipal consciousness that it frequently went without comment, even when massive tracts of new land were being constructed from ash, stone, and earth. At the time of the 1811 Plan, for instance, and for some 50 years after that, Castle Clinton was not attached to the Battery proper but existed on a small artificial island in New York Harbor. Gradual expansion of Manhattan eventually absorbed the fort to its current position on solid land. The historical record offers little evidence that this engrossment was ever controversial, or even interesting. Kips Bay was an actual bay that, as late as 1836, cut almost as deep as Second Avenue. By 1860, it intruded only to First Avenue. Today, the NYU hospital complex occupies the former site of Kips Bay.
“The idea that making more land was a natural part of urban growth was embedded in the municipal consciousness.”
The smaller satellite islands that surround Manhattan are largely artificial, created mostly from thousands of tons of bedrock excavated to build the subway system. Ellis Island, with its perfect geometry, originally made up three of the “Oyster Islands,” joined expressly to serve as the federal government’s immigration station. The adjacent Black Tom Island, largely landfill, was a major munitions storehouse; it was almost entirely destroyed in 1916 by German saboteurs, who ignited tens of thousands of pounds of TNT, and now exists only as the end of a parking-lot pier at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park. Governors Island, a longtime Army base, tripled in size in the late nineteenth century; it is now being developed as a kind of playground for New Yorkers.
Perhaps the most contentiously debated plot of land in New York City recently has been Rikers Island, currently home to the city’s complex of jails. Rikers has expanded from approximately 100 acres in the seventeenth century to more than 400 acres today, mostly through the dumping of ash, garbage, and excavated debris. Complaints about abusive conditions in the jails led over the last decade to a “Close Rikers” movement, which gained momentum as part of the national anti-incarceration effort and culminated in an agreement to shutter the jails by 2025. The future use of Rikers is now subject to debate. Fears that it would continue to house prisoners led the city council to change its zoning designation. Officials from the de Blasio administration demand that future development of Rikers must “create broad public benefits [and] help our city meet urgent goals such as climate justice, economic equity, and fairness,” but at the same time, environmentalists such as local council member Costa Constantinides fret that the “ash and garbage that make up Rikers is still rotting nearly 90 years after it was dumped” and that extensive remediation will be needed before any new uses can be contemplated. If landfill history is the criterion for considering land itself poisoned, then New York’s problems extend far beyond Rikers: thousands of acres of the city, including areas zoned for residential purposes, sit atop the ashes of yesterday’s coal fires.
Expansion through land reclamation was such a consistent feature of New York’s history of growth that even the most bizarre proposals often received a serious hearing. In 1916, Popular Science published an article called “A Really Greater New York,” by T. Kennard Thomson, an engineer and expert on the construction of caissons for bridge-building. Thomson proposed, basically, to fill in the East River. “As a result of this construction,” wrote Thomson, “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.”
Though highly eccentric, Thomson’s proposal was not dismissed. In fact, in 1921, the New York Times devoted the center of its Sunday front page to a favorable exposition of Thomson’s ideas, which now focused mainly on extending Manhattan southward by six miles into New York Harbor, encompassing Governors Island, and leaving navigable channels between Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the so-called Manhattan Extension. Thomson got support for his plans from Judge Alton B. Parker, who had headed the Democratic ticket against Theodore Roosevelt in the 1904 presidential election; and also from Walter Russell, the artist, noted builder, associate of Thomas Edison and IBM’s Thomas J. Watson, and major proponent of the mystical New Thought Movement. “We are facing a calamity due to abnormal growth,” announced Russell. “The addition of this extension would open the greatest real estate and building boom in the history of New York, [making it] a continuous city instead of isolated in its parts by water barriers.”
The dream of marrying Manhattan to Long Island never came to pass, but the mid-1920s and the years of the Great Depression marked the ascension of Robert Moses, the great builder of parks, freeways, bridges, and tunnels in and around New York City. At the beginning of World War II, lend-lease ships brought matériel to Britain. In order to ballast the emptied ships appropriately for the return journey across the Atlantic, the holds were filled with rubble from cities bombed during the Blitz. The port city of Bristol was particularly affected by Luftwaffe bombing runs, with tens of thousands of buildings totally destroyed. Shipped to New York, Bristol’s rubble became the section of Moses’ East River Drive (now FDR Drive) between 23rd and 34th Streets. A small park at 25th Street was named Bristol Basin, in honor of the bombed city; Cary Grant, members of whose family were killed by the German planes, spoke at the site’s 1974 dedication.
Landfill for Moses was a win-win: his constant excavations produced debris and rubble that he could use to amplify his ambitions for more growth. Moses’ 1955 merger of Randalls Island, Wards Island, and Sunken Meadows Island into one mass—which served as the base of operations for his Triborough Bridge Authority, and almost as his personal demesne—took place with no allowance for public comment, though it involved damming up Little Hell Gate, a channel near the junction of the East River and the Long Island Sound. Laudatory media coverage of the plan typified the era, when the city’s papers spoke about Moses with wonderment. “Randalls Island Soon to Grow by 46 Acres in No-Cost Project Benefiting Everyone,” trumpeted a New York Times headline.
The last great landfill project in Manhattan—and perhaps in America—used the excavated rock from the construction of the World Trade Center to fill in the area a few blocks to the west, forming what is now known as Battery Park City. The Hudson River waterfront in the 1960s was derelict, dotted by rotting piers, the remnants of the city’s fabled mercantile history. The advent of containerization had changed the nature of ports and docks. No longer did the unloading of ships require stevedores to winch cargo from the hold; now, cranes were needed to hoist 20- or 40-foot containers, with access to storage and rail facilities. Manhattan was not well suited for the new age of shipping, and developers began eyeing its shores for residential purposes.
The state chartered a public authority to oversee development of Battery Park City, a 92-acre mixed-use development, almost all of it reclaimed from the Hudson River. Highly complicated negotiations over city and state ownership of the underwater real estate required consultation of colonial-era deeds and documents—and permission from Washington. The first buildings rose in 1980, and by 2013, Battery Park City housed more than 9,000 residents and hosted major office buildings, a mall, the renowned Stuyvesant High School, ample parks and pedestrian paths, and several museums and memorials.
Farther north, however, a plan to extend Battery Park City, known as Westway, fell victim to the strict regulatory climate of the post–Environmental Protection Act era. The Westway project envisioned the creation of 220 acres of landfill in the Hudson south of 40th Street, burying the West Side Highway—much in the manner of Boston’s “Big Dig”—and building parks and apartment buildings above it. The federal government agreed to cover much of the cost, but opposition grew as antidevelopment activists decried what they regarded as a massive giveaway to private developers. Environmentalists sued over the harm that landfill would cause to the local habitat of the striped bass. The city gave up on Westway in 1985, thus ending some three centuries of continuous expansion of New York’s physical boundaries into its watery limits.
Mayor de Blasio’s proposed extension of lower Manhattan around the Financial District into the East River would, primarily, serve as a kind of levee to protect the city against flooding from a storm surge. Other forms of protective building are taking place around the Battery, including bulkhead elevation, deployable barriers, flood-proofing, and other modern measures. But the 0.9-mile stretch between Battery Park and the Brooklyn Bridge is considered “highly constrained” in terms of workable flood-prevention measures, so landfill is seen as a key solution.
Legally speaking, the city is free to build out to the pierhead, 500 feet into the river. Beyond that, the Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over all waterways, under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act. In practice, “the city cannot build an inch into the water” without approval from a host of state and federal agencies, according to Roni Deitz, an engineer and resiliency expert for Arcadis, the company heading the inquiry into the feasibility of extending lower Manhattan’s shores, on behalf of the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC). But, says Deitz, “the agencies have not laughed us out of the room.” Given the concerns about climate change and the consequences of major storms in the future, no option—even one as seemingly old-fashioned as landfill—is necessarily off the table.
And given the costs that such a project would entail—at least $10 billion, and probably a multiple of that figure—it’s even more promising that the city appears willing to consider permitting private development on top of whatever new land is created, as a means of financing the project. “All options must be considered, given there is no funding source identified yet for this project,” says Deitz, who cautions that these are early days, with no guarantee that development will begin anytime soon.
Before his death last year, Jay Kriegel, a legend in New York City political and real-estate circles and instrumental in the development of Hudson Yards—a 28-acre platform over the West Side Railyard—remarked that this could be the first century since its founding that New York City would not grow, geographically. Certainly, landfill has its detractors: some suggest that artificially narrowing riverbeds speeds up water flow, hastening erosion. Others point to the high-water mark of Superstorm Sandy and suggest that the rivers were only taking back the land that the city had claimed from them over the centuries. But it’s hard to look at how New York City has wrested productive, valuable land from beyond its shores and not dream of a more expansive, truly greater city of the future.
Top Photo: New York in 1855, with Battery Park and Castle Clinton in the center (HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)