Solving Manhattan's Space Crunch

Solving Manhattan's Space Crunch

Following a thoroughly-documented analysis, The Present Future of New York City by GSAPP students Leigh D’Ambra, Scott Hayner, Muchan Park, and Luc Wilson, proposes using dredge to connect Governors Island to Lower Manhattan.
Courtesy Leigh D’Ambra, Scott Hayner, Muchan Park, and Luc Wilson

Why not solve the New York City’s pressing housing and open space issues by growing Manhattan island? That was the proposal made in a joint studio last fall at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), run by Laurie Hawkinson, architect and professor of architecture, and Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of GSAPP’s Real Estate Development Program.

The studio, called Speculation, brought together collaborative teams of architecture and real estate students. “It was a great match,” said Hawkinson. “The architects were very articulate at creating visions and the real estate students were excellent at crunching the numbers.”

A view of Lo-Lo Ma from Manhattan shows the islands expanded skyline.

The studio was driven by two au courant themes, “density” and “speculation”—defined as a kind of amalgam of intelligent vision and risk taking—along with a mandate to “keep it real.” Otherwise, Hawkinson said, “Everything was up for grabs.”

One of the student proposals, The Present Future of New York City, has captured wider attention for its visionary plausibility. “We wanted to get at the issues of growing cities in the future in terms of environment, economy, and housing demands. And we used New York as a model with its issues and initiatives like rising waters, building performance, and PlaNYC 2030,” said team member Luc Wilson, an architecture student.

Left to right: Manhattan’s borders have been growing since settlement began; the Lo-Lo Ma proposal would be developed in phases as new land is created by dredge; the final plan connects Governors Island with Manhattan.

Developed by real state students Leigh D’Ambra and Scott Hayner with architecture students Wilson and Muchan Park, the project started with research on marine ecology and the discovery that the Army Corps of Engineers must pay to remove and ship out vast amounts of dredged materials from New York’s waterways. And so their proposal asks, why not use the muck to grow a new sixth borough off the southern tip of Manhattan and around Governors Island? Call it Lo-Lo Ma. Mindful that housing is not allowed on Governors Island, the team began phasing in buildable land by locating barrier reefs around the island. Then, based on examples in Norway, they propose sinking prefabricated subway tunnels to the riverbed and covering them with more landfill. Voila, the Number 1 line can go to sea and arrive at Governors Island for much less than it has taken to get the Second Avenue subway not to open and the Number 7 to inch its way across the West Side. With Governors Island as the new borough’s green lungs—perhaps with a campus of some sort added—the remaining dredges would continue to fill in the gaps until reaching mainland and connecting to the street grid; however, all the Lo-Lo Ma streets would be oriented to maximize solar gain.

Increasingly ambitious infrastructure improvements are made possible at higher densities.

And then it gets innovative. Using CATIA software explored in an earlier studio, the team was able to project flexible ranges for development through to 2035. According to the proposal, “Depending on the density of development, the value of the new land created in Lo-Lo Ma would pay for the costs of developing this new neighborhood, while also allowing for investment in other infrastructural projects.” Thus a build-out with a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of six could pay for a subway extension to the island, while a FAR-10 would make a bridge from Red Hook not only possible but desirable in light of the increased density. Things like 40 percent affordable housing, a waste-to-energy plant, even a field of wind turbines could be achieved in the same way. Even the worst-case scenarios are under consideration with streets and boulevards transforming into either permeable gutters or Venetian-style channels depending on storm severity. “We prepared for disaster in an optimistic way,” Wilson said.

According to The Present Future, Lo-Lo Ma could provide about 88 to 100 million square feet of developable land as compared to the 44 million square feet on offer at Hudson Yards. The PowerPoint images of Lo-Lo Ma—that Chakrabarti has shown at a 50th-anniversary Zoning Conference sponsored by the Planning Commission as well as on WNET—as a shimmery sun-catching cluster of towers, turbines, and oyster-rich soft edges have an Oz-like resonance and appeal. In late January, the students will begin presenting Lo-Lo Ma to city officials, engineers, experts, and the public to ascertain its feasibility.