Even readers who have never been any where near New York probably know that Manhattan is a long skinny island running roughly North to South, coming to a V-shaped point at the Southern tip known as the Battery. Lower Manhattan then has two distinct waterfront districts, one running up the Lower West Side, and the other running up the Lower East Side. In Manhattan's heyday as a port, both the Lower East Side and Lower West Side waterfronts were lined with piers. The first couple of blocks inland were devoted to uses related to the port: warehouses, factories, freight-handling facilities, and low-rent housing for sailors and dock workers.
Today the port has long since disappeared. As I have said multiple times on this blog, there is no longer any active freight pier in Manhattan, and there hasn't been for decades. Both the Lower East Side and Lower West Side waterfront districts have been redeveloped in the years since the port went away. But the two districts have taken completely different paths to redevelopment. On the Lower East Side, governments at all levels (federal, state and local) followed a socialist model of government redevelopment, building dozens of government-owned "projects" that line the waterfront for almost three miles. On the Lower West Side, the government mostly left things alone. Today, the Lower West Side waterfront has become some of the most valuable real estate in the world. And the Lower East Side? I would say that it is an unmitigated disaster. It's not just that the buildings are hideous, although they are. But it's also that what should be equally valuable real estate is instead completely valueless, and the people who live there are considered "poor" even as they occupy what would be multi-million dollar apartments in any rational world. Am I wrong? You be the judge!
The port had gone into serious decline at least by the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. By the 1950s, large portions had been abandoned, and the abandonment was complete by the 1970s. When I moved to Greenwich Village in the mid-1970s, the local waterfront (West Side) was lined with abandoned piers, while the first couple of blocks inland featured lots of underused factories and warehouses, mixed with a few early residential conversions. Here is a 1978 picture looking across the decrepit Charles Street pier and toward the Bethune Street pier, which had just suffered a collapse:
On the Lower West Side, with a couple of notable exceptions (West Village Houses, Westbeth), the various governments left the situation alone to lie fallow. Not so on the Lower East Side. There the governments (federal, state, and local were all involved) leapt into action to fill the vacuum with the trendy thing of the day, which was low income public housing. Beginning in the late 1930s, and continuing into the 1960s, they took the stretch of waterfront from the Battery to East 14th Street -- about 3 miles in total -- and filled about 80% of it with "the projects."
Today, all of those projects are still there, one after the other: Smith Houses, Vladeck Houses, Baruch Houses, Wald Houses, Riis Houses, and I'm sure I've missed some. All are of the brutalist "towers-in-a-park" style, totally without ornamentation of any kind. If there is anyone alive who actually finds these things attractive, I have never met the person. I'll give you a couple of pictures for flavor, but don't feel that you are missing anything because I have not provided a picture of every project. They all look exactly the same. This is one of the Baruch Houses from the waterfront side:
Do you like those big stretches of blank wall in what could be somebody's waterfront view? Hey, this is the government at work! Here's a picture of Riis Houses from the inland side:
On a Google Maps view of this area, I count just under 100 of these buildings in the projects lining the Lower East Side waterfront. At an average of about 200 apartments per building, that would be around 20,000 apartments. The value of these 20,000 or so apartments is precisely zero dollars and zero cents. Nobody can sell them and nobody can buy them. Tens of thousands of people who live in them are officially designated as poor, despite living in waterfront apartments on what ought to be some of the most valuable real estate in the world. And did I mention that the rents in these buildings only cover about a third of their operating costs? And that they have billions of dollars of deferred maintenance waiting to be done with no money to pay for it? Yes, it is classic socialism.
How valuable could this real estate be in a private enterprise model? We can get a very good idea by looking at the Lower West Side, which, one would think, would be highly comparable in every way. But the governments took a different tack, and that has made all the difference.
Over on the Lower West Side, when the governments mostly didn't try to do anything, not much happened for decades. In the early 90s the state government announced the intention to clear out the abandoned piers and build a park that would include some rebuilt piers plus the narrow strip of land about 100 feet wide along the water. Construction of the park began in the late 90s and has continued since -- it's still not done.
Here is a relatively recent (2014) view of the Greenwich Village waterfront. At Bethune Street, they removed the pier shed and nothing remains but a field of piles. The Charles Street (shorter) and Christopher Street (longer) piers have been redeveloped into recreational green space.
Construction of new privately-financed housing did not really get going until around 2000, but is now really reaching its peak. I'll give you some examples of the buildings that have gone up, or soon will go up, on the Lower West Side waterfront, and of their values. Among the first top-end buildings to get built were twin towers designed by Richard Meier at 173 and 176 Perry Street. They were under construction in 2001 when the much taller twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. A third building, just across the street at 165 Charles Street, designed by the same architect, was added in 2005. These three buildings replaced (1) a vacant lot, (2) a one-story metal garage, and (3) the "Pathfinder" book warehouse, long known as the storage place for communist tracts. The three Meier buildings appear in about the center of the picture above. Here is a view of them from across some water:
Just to the North at 400 West 12th Street is a building built in 2009 designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern. It has the name "Superior Ink" because it replaced a prior abandoned ink factory by that name.
A 1400 sq.ft. two-bedroom apartment in this building is on the market for $5.5 million, almost $4000 per square foot. That apartment doesn't even face the water!
Farther South, below Canal Street, multiple waterfront buildings are currently either under construction or about to begin construction. Just today, the most recent entry had renderings posted on the YIMBY website. This one is to be built at the corner of Vestry Street. Robert A.M. Stern is again involved as architect, this time along with Ismael Leyva.
Without doubt the developers will be expecting to achieve values comparable to their now-established companions on the Lower West Side waterfront, namely $3000 per square foot or more.
When you compare the Lower East Side to the Lower West Side, it is clear that government policy has intentionally destroyed tens of billions of dollars of real estate value. Worse, it has trapped tens of thousands of families in poverty even as they receive an annual gift from the taxpayers of at least $100,000 per family as measured by the rental value of comparable real estate. Actually the $100,000 per family assumes a value of about $2000 per square foot, well below the $3000 to $4000 per square foot that is becoming standard on the Lower West Side. So maybe the annual taxpayer gift to each family in the projects is as much as $150,000 to $200,000. Only to see the families trapped in "poverty" and their buildings crumbling. It is almost impossible to conceive of such a huge disaster.
So what is the take of the New York Times on this? It's not too hard to guess. From a May 26 editorial, commenting on Mayor de Blasio's new plan to "save" the New York City Housing Authority:
Of all the monumental tasks that Mr. de Blasio has set for his administration, none may be more important than saving the New York City Housing Authority.
OK then, let's throw away a few more tens of billions in our unending striving to keep the poor poor!