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:

For example, New York geologist Christopher Schuberth (1968) writes, “[T]he skyscrapers of New York City are clustered together into the midtown group, where the bedrock is within several feet of the surface, and the downtown group, where the bedrock again reappears to within forty feet of the surface near Wall Street….In any event, it is readily seen how clearly the accessibility of the bedrock has, to some degree, controlled the architectural planning of the city” (pps. 81-82).

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 consciously place their analysis in the framework of other academic studies of cities with multiple business districts (noting one study that found that "that population and traffic congestion can account for close to 80% of the variation in the number of subcenters across the U.S., as of 1990") and then question one implication of the population+commuting studies ("that subcenter formation and ‘sprawl’ are post-World War II phenomena, or at least contingent upon the widespread use of the automobile"). They are intrigued that Manhattan’s skyscraper distribution and pattern of business development are much older phenomena than mid-20th Century sprawl.

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):

                                                                 Jackson (1987), for example, demonstrates that the process of “suburbanization” in New York City began in the first half of the 18th century, with the introduction of steam ferries and railroads. Our work shows that intra-city (rather than intra-regional) subcenter formation was occurring in New York City during the 19th century. As such, midtown Manhattan perhaps represents one of America’s earliest “edge cities” (Marshall, 2007; Garreau, 1991).

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.

© Sandy Mattingly 2010


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