Uncanny Valley: The Real Reason There Are No Skyscrapers in the Middle of Manhattan

downtown midtown skyline Uncanny Valley: The Real Reason There Are No Skyscrapers in the Middle of Manhattan

Twin peaks. (Jason Barr)

Among the reasons New York has the finest skyline in the world—consider that a statement of fact, not opinion—is not simply the skyscrapers bounding up the island of Manhattan but also their unusual arrangement. Like a great mountain range, the city is arrayed around the twin peaks of Downtown and Midtown.

Perhaps the appeal is Freudian.

It has long been believed that New Yorkers could thank God for their unusual agglomeration of buildings (or, for those on the Upper West Side not believing in His good work, eons of geological development). It turns out that Manhattan has a bedrock unusually suited to the construction of very tall buildings, in many cases just a few meters below the surface. But that solid land drops away in the gooey middle of the island, long limiting the heights of buildings in the city.

Or so the aphocraphists have been passing down for decades, at least since noted geologist Christopher J. Schuberth released his seminal The Geology of New York City and Environs in 1968. Therein, he posited his belief in a correlation between bedrock and big buildings, and like the Empire State Building, it has stood the test of time. But like a bad retaining wall, it all came tumbling down last month.

“Everybody is looking at this backwards,” Jason Barr, an economics professor at Rutgers, told The Observer in a phone interview. “It’s not an issue of supply, of where you can build. It’s an issue of demand, or where you want to build.”

screen shot 2012 01 18 at 9 07 45 am Uncanny Valley: The Real Reason There Are No Skyscrapers in the Middle of Manhattan

Location of Manhattan skyscraper, 1890-1915.

Mr. Barr, along with two colleagues from Fordham, published a study in December issue of The Journal of Economic History debunking what he calls the Manhattan bedrock myth. Using 173 random core samples from the Battery to Central Park South, Mr. Barr, Troy Tassier and Rossen Trendafilov were able to show that there was no correlation between the depth of bedrock and the likelihood of a skyscrapers construction—in the case of their study, a building at or above 18 stories, which was tall for the time when the city’s two business districts developed between 1890 and 1915.

What the economists found was that some of the tallest buildings of their day were built around City Hall, where the bedrock reaches its deepest point in the city, about 45 meters down, between there and Canal Street, at which point the bedrock begins to rise again toward the middle of the island. Indeed, Joseph Pullitzer built his record-setting New York World Building, a 349-foot colossus, at 99 Park Row, near the nadir, as did Frank Woolworth a decade later.

By studying historical construction data, the researchers were also able to determine that at the extreme, the most a deep bedrock could add to the costs of a building is about 7 percent, and therefore negligible when it comes to the economics of construction. “Compared to the cost of land in Manhattan, that amount is miniscule,” Mr. Barr said.

screen shot 2012 01 18 at 9 08 23 am Uncanny Valley: The Real Reason There Are No Skyscrapers in the Middle of Manhattan

Probability of skyscraper locations.

Mr. Barr has carved out a niche as a skyscraper economist, studying issues such as the economic determinants of a skyscraper’s height in Manhattan—often bigger than they should be—and whether the world’s tallest buildings can be used to predict a coming economic calamity. “These things tend to get built, and then people go looking for the crisis,” Mr. Barr.

Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, Mr. Barr said he used to be scared of the big city, but after he started hanging out here on weekends, coming down from Cornell to visit a friend at Columbia, he fell in love. Still, he stumbled onto his specialty the way most of his colleagues do. “As an economist, you’re trained to seek out unusual data sets,” Mr. Barr said. “No one else was really doing this, so I decided to.”

So why the Midtown migration? Like cavemen following mammoth across the Bering Strait, early developers were following their prey. “Who’s moving north?” Mr. Barr said. “It’s the wealthy and the middle class. If you’re an insurance salesman, do you really want to be traipsing through the slums of Five Points or the factories of Soho to get to work? That land was cheap, but the location was worthless.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

Comments

  1. minanyc says:

    What on earth does the “uncanny valley”– a psychological phenomenon having to do with artificial humanoids– have to do with architecture?

  2. “By studying historical construction data, the researchers were also able to
    determine that at the extreme, the most a deep bedrock could add to the costs of
    a building is about 7 percent, and therefore negligible when it comes to the
    economics of construction.”

    I strongly disagree that 7% is negligible when it comes to construction. 7% could make or break a deal!

    1. 7% of construction costs.  Not 7% of project costs. 

  3. Halweiner says:

    I just looked at the skyline. WHAT are we talking about? There are plenty of skyscrapers all over the place.

    1. Bob says:

      Look again.

  4. This reminds me of the old joke about a sociologist being someone who comes into a new city and studies all the demographic data to predict where the most likely house of prostitution will be, whereas anyone else would just ask a cab driver.  Of course bedrock has nothing to do with skyscraper location and with the fact that Manhattan has two business centers. Neither does the movement of the wealthy. It’s transportation. Nowhere in this article does anyone talk about Grand Central Terminal and the fact that in the late 19th century pre-electric trains were banned south of 42nd Street, which is why GCT was built there, and why the midtown district developed around there. Lower Manhattan is a product of history; midtown a product of transportation access. When GCT was electrified and rebuilt in 1913, then midtown’s growth, relatively modest up to that point, truly exploded. 

    1. Wayne Rosen says:

      Yeh, Paul. But after all that technology and history determined (pinpointed?) where the sites for Manhattan’s  two main business centers should be, if the land couldn’t support the skyscrapers, then something would have had to give.

      Smaller buildings, greater dispersion, conscious, alternative placement,
      where the geology was more conducive, I don’t know what.

      But I do know that bedrock plays something — not nothing — of  a role on the island of Manhattan for skyscraper placement.

      It’s not either/or, it’s both!

      Full discourse: I don’t know if Scuberth is even still alive, but as a young
      student at Hunter College in the early 1970s, i had him as a professor of
      geology. 

      1. Anonymous says:

         I think it’s not presence/absence of bedrock; rather, it is how much you must excavate to get secure footings for large structures.  You could build a big building in the middle of the valley but you would pay extra for excavating to or driving pilings down to substrates that could support the building.  7% amortized over the length of the financing of the building is probably not a deal breaker compared to real estate, materials, and labor costs.

    2. Revelation1 16 says:

      Very interesting- could you give any more context as to why trains were banned south of 42, or point the interested to other good/related sources of this part of NYC history?

    3. Revelation1 16 says:

      Very interesting- could you give any more context as to why trains were banned south of 42, or point the interested to other good/related sources of this part of NYC history?

    4. King Vladimir says:

      Paul is absolutly correct. Overlay subway station locations w building density. The two are directly correlative.

  5. Carol Krinsky says:

    Just to supplement Paul Goldberger’s accurate point: the NY Central had development rights almost to Madison and Lexington Avenues. The railroad developed its midtown land  with hotels, restaurants, bars, apartment houses, apartment hotels, and office buildings. It was easier for executives to commute from Westchester to midtown on one train than to Wall Street on train plus subway. The present GCT also incorporates several subway lines for use by the office staff.  What came next? More growth—even men’s clubs, the best men’s haberdashers, then other shops and services and office buildings once the advantages of using GCT and its related facilities became obvious.

  6. Valiantskipper says:

    Define aphocraphists, please.

    1. Revelation1 16 says:

      Matt Chaban probably means “apocraphists.” It’s a misspelling of a made-up word- “apocrypha” are non-canonical books of the Bible, or any folklore or other unauthorized information.

  7. wmpetitt says:

    Think the graph would be more intuitive (easier to read) if it was “upside down” with the deeper bedrock shown at the bottom and the shallow bedrock towards the top.

    1. Poop says:

      That is an excellent quibble.

  8. I think this discussion is incomplete without a thorough consideration of current and historical zoning regulations . . . .

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Mordechai…yes, zoning regulations must be studied…notice that you are the only
      one who commented on this.Elizabeth

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