no skyscrapers in Manhattan loft neighborhoods, but why not?
[UPDATE 1.18.12: this topic is ‘news’ again because the Working Paper I talk about below has just been published in an academic journal, which got some press through the New York Observer, Uncanny Valley: The Real Reason There Are No Skyscrapers in the Middle of Manhattan, on line last night. Same paper, same issues, same conclusions. I could not get the link in the Observer piece to work, perhaps because it is a paid journal; the link below to the working paper pdf does still work. One author restates the conclusion for The Observer in colloquial terms: “It’s not an issue of supply, of where you can build. It’s an issue of demand, or where you want to build.” Nicely put; details below. I fixed some of the awkward formatting in the original post. ]
the bedrock principle, or not?
Anyone who has looked at a large scale photograph of the Manhattan skyline has noticed the clusters. Most people who wonder why the distribution of very tall buildings has this huge gap from about Chambers Street up into the 30s are satisfied with the claim that the famous Manhattan bedrock is closer to the surface in midtown and near the Battery. Let’s take a mild diversion from the focus on Manhattan lofts heading into the holiday weekend to consider the work of a couple of academics who, bless their hearts, not only wondered "why?", but came up with a way to answer the question.
Their 38 page (very) academic paper, “Bedrock Depth and the Formation of the Manhattan Skyline, 1890-1915″, comes up with a different answer than you think you know. They start (p. 3) with the lore:
Their conclusion (at pp. 5-6) is introduced in the dialect known as Academic English:
Overall, our results suggest that bedrock had, at most, a small effect on the formation of the skyline. Rather, developers were most affected by the other economic factors, such as agglomeration economies in the already established centers, the distance to public transportation, the desire to avoid being near slums and manufacturing districts and to be closer to upper- and middle-class citizens in Manhattan. That is to say, the evidence strongly suggests that the polycentric nature of Manhattan was driven more by the demand for skyscrapers and agglomeration beneﬁts in particular neighborhoods rather than the inability of
suppliers to provide skyscrapers in other places.
They reference The Great Jackson (Kenneth T.; here cited for the 1987 Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, he’s "great" in my book for his 1995 The Encyclopedia of New York City):
cutting to the chase
I read the whole thing, so you don’t have to (unless you want to, of course).
They make a convincing case that it is not the soft(er) earth in Tribeca, Soho and Greenwich Village that accounts for skyscrapers having "leaped over" that part of town, but two other things: a high concentration of tenements and factories (to be avoided by a business district) and the political decision in 1871 to require the NY Central Railroad to terminate its route at 42nd Street, to reduce pollution and congestion downtown. (See p 9.) There’s a lot of math involved in eliminating (accounting for) cost and technical issues, as well as varying bedrock depth (I admit it: I skipped the math), but that is the gist of it.
For me, a nice diversion to head into a holiday weekend and "the end" of Summer. It is also nice to discover an Urban Myth that is so very urban.
a tip of the Manhattan Loft Guy hat
I just love people who ask "why?", and "is there any data for that proposition?". That group certainly includes Matt Yglesias, who gets today’s Hat Tip for having flagged this study on his blog (a blog on which he frequently wonders "why?", and "is there any data for that proposition?").
Watch out for today’s wind gusts.