Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NYC Owes Jane Jacobs Soooo Much Money

Manhattan was supposed to have more freeways than it does.  Not only did the West Side Highway crumble and replaced by a surface boulevard (the only perimeter road around Manhattan NOT to be a highway), but there were supposed to be two cross-town connectors that never were.

Robert Moses originally conceived of the Lower and Mid-Manhattan Expressways in the 30s and 40s, but plans weren't finalized for them until the 60's.  At which point, there was a woman named Jane Jacobs living in the way (in more ways than one).

Combined the two crosstown connectors would've cost about $150 million.  Calculating for inflation, that's about $1.2 billion in today's dollars to give you a sense of what such a thing could cost today (however, as we'll discuss Manhattan property has outpaced inflation).

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fanciful belief in progress that underscored Moses and the highway builders as exemplified by the image below:

Oh yeah.  Just add the freeways and then new high-rises will spring up along the freeways.  Even showing graduated heights of buildings rising towards the edges which is the opposite of how real value and demand graduates towards centers.  Best illustrated by taxable value heat maps like below:

This is why I despise the term value-capture.  It's a meaningless word.  Had it been around in the lexicon of the day, Robert Moses surely would've used it in conjunction with this drawing and talked of all the economic benefits or "value-capture" if people would just listen to him.  And most did.  Like so much rhetoric, the term value-capture is an empty vessel for an audience to fill with their own personal meaning and happy thoughts.

To see how much value was actually spared from capture, I've decided to highlight all the properties these two highway plans would've directly affected.  I've had to leave out those indirectly affected because we just don't know how the nearby properties would've reacted despite pretty ample evidence that these properties would've been depressed and in all likelihood become the highest and best use for highway adjacent property, parking.

As you  can see the Midtown Expressway would've razed 23 city blocks and the Lower, a much more significant 51.  Those numbers may not seem like a lot given how big some freeways have expanded, but Manhattan has very large blocks.  The blue areas I've highlighted represent 90 and 118 acres respectively.  Of Manhattan dirt, that's a pretty penny indeed.

So I wanted to find out exactly how much.

The areas in question.  Picture them without buildings. Or people. But keep the cars.

So I dug up various NYC assessment maps, graphs, figures, and statistics and slowly building a database of all the properties in question.  Doing so, I've found that some of these blocks can have dozens and dozens of parcels within them, each with their own owner, assessment value, and approximate market value (which NYC keeps track of, luckily).

Needless to say, it's going to take a long time to build this database.  But one thing is clear, NYC is better off without the highways and surely doesn't regret letting a little beer-loving lady from Greenwich Village stand in the way of progress.

Here are some early numbers, having only fit a few so far into the database and then extrapolating them across the full acreage:

Combined market value of the study areas in question currently sits at $13.38 billion.

Furthermore (and again these are VERY preliminary numbers, like .1% of the total data), I'm estimating the city gets $192 million each year in property taxes from these areas.  Factored over 50 years (in 2013 dollars), that's $9.6 billion into the city's coffers.  And none of these statistics "captures" all of the social and economic exchange that occurred within these sites, how many sales, and sales taxes generated.  How many leisurely walks which might've been prevented by elevated expressways.  How many friends met.  You get the idea.  I hope.

As I have time, I'll continue to build the database and update the projected numbers.

PS Oh, and I also hope to build a formula based on the Austin data about how the negative effect of freeways on property values increases based on proximity to roughly determine how much value could've been lost within the quarter- to half-mile range (or whatever it turns out to be) of the freeway.  The numbers could be staggering.