The Real Reason for the New York City Skyline Gap

September 13, 2018

Why do certain areas of Manhattan have skyscrapers and some don't? Is it due to the underlying bedrock or is there an economic reason driving the architecture?


FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] New York City has one of

FEMALE_1: the world's iconic skylines and that skyline has a quirk.

FEMALE_1: There's a gap with no skyscrapers here.

FEMALE_1: Instead of one business district, Manhattan has two.

FEMALE_1: For a long time, the conventional wisdom was

FEMALE_1: that it had to do with the island's geology.

FEMALE_1: But economists have made

FEMALE_1: a compelling case that it's not about rocks but money.

FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] In 1968,

FEMALE_1: a geologist noted the correlation

FEMALE_1: between building height and the depth of the bedrock,

FEMALE_1: where the bedrock was really far below the surface,

FEMALE_1: there weren't any skyscrapers.

FEMALE_1: Once that correlation was pointed out,

FEMALE_1: it became one of the more popular bits of

FEMALE_1: trivia about the city's skyline.

FEMALE_1: This made an intuitive sort of sense.

FEMALE_1: Skyscrapers are so heavy that they

FEMALE_1: need to be anchored to the solid bedrock.

FEMALE_1: Otherwise, they could sink or

FEMALE_1: settle like The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

FEMALE_1: No one ever empirically tested

FEMALE_1: the bedrock valley idea until 2011.

FEMALE_1: As it turns out,

FEMALE_1: some of the tallest buildings were built over

FEMALE_1: some deep bedrock like

FEMALE_1: the Woolworth Building and

FEMALE_1: the Manhattan Life Insurance Building.

FEMALE_1: When you look at the skyline like an economist,

FEMALE_1: you see that skyscrapers are where they

FEMALE_1: are because of the flow of people and money.

FEMALE_1: Developers put their skyscrapers

FEMALE_1: where demand was greatest,

FEMALE_1: so they could not only recoup their costs

FEMALE_1: but also make a tidy profit on rental income.

FEMALE_1: It's good for the bottom line when you're

FEMALE_1: close to other businesses in your industry.

FEMALE_1: You're close to suppliers and clients.

FEMALE_1: Information flows more freely.

FEMALE_1: Business is conducted more efficiently.

FEMALE_1: Economists call these agglomeration benefits.

FEMALE_1: So if you're a white collar firm,

FEMALE_1: you're willing to pay a premium

FEMALE_1: for space in lower Manhattan.

FEMALE_1: If you're a developer, the best way

FEMALE_1: to maximize your profit on

FEMALE_1: the hugely expensive lot you've

FEMALE_1: just purchased is to build up.

FEMALE_1: Skyscrapers accommodate lots of tenants who are

FEMALE_1: willing to pay top dollar to be near other firms.

FEMALE_1: By the 1860s, downtown was full of financial firms.

FEMALE_1: But why didn't these firms just keep

FEMALE_1: expanding north from the financial district.

FEMALE_1: It's because north of

FEMALE_1: City Hall was the tenement district.

FEMALE_1: So, middle and upper class residents

FEMALE_1: started moving even further north.

FEMALE_1: By the 1870s, retailers had moved in to cater to

FEMALE_1: these affluent consumers and you had

FEMALE_1: a full-fledged shopping district

FEMALE_1: from Union Square to Madison Square.

FEMALE_1: [NOISE] This shopping district set off a chain reaction.

FEMALE_1: Architects, real estate developers,

FEMALE_1: newspaper publishers benefited from being

FEMALE_1: closer to where their employers

FEMALE_1: and potential customers were living.

FEMALE_1: And as Penn Station and the Grand Central Terminal

FEMALE_1: were completed in 1910 and 1913,

FEMALE_1: proximity to those transit hubs made

FEMALE_1: the neighborhood even more attractive.

FEMALE_1: These days, that hole in

FEMALE_1: the skyline is starting to fill in.

FEMALE_1: Thanks to rising land values.

FEMALE_1: We're seeing skyscrapers sprout in

FEMALE_1: what used to be the tenement district like

FEMALE_1: One Manhattan Square on

FEMALE_1: the Lower East Side and 56 Leonard in Tribeca,

FEMALE_1: definitively putting the bedrock myth to bed.