A case of deja vu hit the City this week thanks to the New York Times. Jason M. Barr, a professor of economics at Rutgers University, provoked the fuzzy vision during an op-ed called “The Big Apple Could Get A Little Bigger.” If Eric Adams intends to leave “a legacy of making New York safer and more affordable,” he wrote, the new Mayor should “expand Manhattan.” That’s right: expand Manhattan. The new section should stretch 1,760 acres (or 2.75 square miles) south into the harbor. It would be “New Mannahatta” and look like this:
(1) The New York Times, 2022.
The peninsula would be built from landfill and claim Governors Island for the center of its scheme. Once complete, it would sprout ferry piers, the street grid, a 1 Train annex, and presumably scaffolding piled high to the sky. The G Train from Red Hook might even connect. But the “New” in the moniker wouldn’t be right. What Barr didn’t mention and the Times didn’t say is that his Mannahatta is borrowed from the past.
Back in November 2011, the plan was dubbed “Lower Lower Manhattan” — or “LoLo” for short. Compiled by a research group at Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE), the idea was first proposed during the Department of City Planning’s big “Zoning the City” conference. If Manhattan were expanded with a “land bridge” to Governors Island, CURE suggested, the City could “generate billions of dollars in revenue.” Here’s what the group had in mind:
(2) The New York Times, 2011.
Like New Mannahatta, the land bridge would be assembled from landfill and envelop Governors Island. LoLo was smaller — only 452 acres (0.71 square miles) — but could handle a lengthening of the 1 and 6 Trains. CURE imagined an “elevated pathway,” similar to the High Line, snaking above some streets. A new bridge — the “Buttermilk Bridge” — would link LoLo to Red Hook.
But neither proposal rivals the scope of a predecessor.
A Really Greater New York
By 1911, T. Kennard Thomson (1864-195) was well-known engineer. He had not only been recognized as an expert in designing pneumatic caissons, but had also applied his trade to several City landmarks. In particular, he worked on the teams that brought the Municipal (1 Centre), Bankers Trust Company (14 Wall), and Singer (149 Broadway) Buildings to life. But now, his mind turned to a different type of project all together: “A Really Greater New York.”
In April, he shared it with the media. The Los Angeles Examiner ran with this:
(3) The Los Angeles Examiner, 1911.
The City needed more room, so he’d take it from the harbor! By making Manhattan a full mile wider and four miles longer, Thomson would add 2,560 acres (or 4 square miles) to the City’s surface.
“This new-made land would work wonders for New York and the surrounding territory in a thousand different ways,” he promised the Examiner. “Only a Jules Verne could foresee all the possibilities of this plan!”
And, boy, he had plans! “Immense docks and piers, each 2,500 feet long” would be festooned to his Greater New York. He’d provide space for five new subway lines, foundations for coming skyscrapers, and then something to stitch the nascent island to the old.
“It is purposed to build a six-track subway all around Manhattan,” he explained. “This subway would be built underneath the present day dock line of the City.”
More papers caught the Thomson fever. The New York World was particularly taken by all the skyscrapers and zeppelins. But that new bridge to Brooklyn was just the artist’s fancy:
(4) The New York World, 1911.
On April 5th, Thomson sent the specifics to the Mayor, William Jay Gaynor (1849-1913). Imagining the Mayor reading such a thing, Popular Mechanics wrote that he was “probably the most astonished man in New York City” after finishing his review. But echoing the sentiments of the Examiner and World, Mechanics agreed that the blueprint was “audacious” and “daring.” This was the image the magazine drew:
(5) Popular Mechanics, 1911.
But where the outlets disagreed on points of the plan — that bridge to Brooklyn, for example — there was one they conceded: the cost.
According to Thomson, “The entire scheme could not be accomplished for less cost than that of constructing the Panama Canal — about $500,000,000.” (Adjusting for inflation, that’s $14.7 billion today.) But placating the Examiner, he said, “Even if the work cost twice as much as that of the Panama Canal, it would be well worth while.”
How the Mayor processed the math is anyone’s guess.
A Really Greater New York — The Sequel
In spite of the cost, Thomson pressed for his plan. As the Times recorded, he showed it to “engineers and business men,” and even “got a hearing” with the City Board of Estimate. But it wasn’t all roses. He received “enough objections” to convince him to quit. Yet instead of retreating, he did something unexpected. He “got to work on a [much] larger scheme.”
In 1913, it was ready to go.
“The present plan,” he raved to the Times, “which [I just] submitted to [Mayor Gaynor] and a number of companies interested in shipping, is meant to meet the objections and to add a great many new points of advantage.”
Here’s what he pitched them:
(6) The New York Times, 1913.
Manhattan would grow six miles south to within a mile and a quarter of Staten Island. From the Battery to Bay Ridge, he’d outline his extension with a seawall and have it filled in with sand. More astonishingly, he’d banish the East River entirely. From the Battery to Hell Gate, he’d dam up the waterway and have it drained down to the bedrock. Once barren, he’d allow for apartments to be built on its “ready-made foundation.”
And he didn’t stop there. To replace the old river, he’d acquire a new one. Thomson would cut a “New East River” between Jamaica and Flushing Bay some 40 feet deep. It would provide wharves for large ships and the “free flow of traffic in the stream.”
But to restore Brooklyn’s waterfront, he’d move it to Staten Island. By strategically placing landfill between Tottenville and the Atlantic Ocean, Thomson would form a “New Bay” to accommodate ocean liners. They could drop anchor at any of the piers jutting from “New Land.”
“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks,” he tasked Popular Science. “The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!”
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, though, would have to leave Brooklyn. It would go to Bayonne, New Jersey. By positioning it on “Reclaimed Land” between the Hudson River and Newark Bay, Thomson said the naval base would have more “elbow room” there than it had in Brooklyn. Plus, “This would make the station less accessible to a foe,” he assured the New York Sun, “easier to defend, and yet almost as near the open sea.”
But not everyone was keen on eviscerating Brooklyn. The borough’s Daily Standard Union, for example, scoffed at his call to fill in the East River.
“A time-worn proposition which never fails to amuse has been revived again,” the paper wrote.
Thomson’s “scheme” both slighted the borough and ignored the River’s import on Brooklyn’s economy.
“[Brooklyn] would never have been what it is nor have such a bright future,” the Union declared, “if this highly important waterway did not give it the sea borne commerce it has and will yet secure.”
Back to the Drawing Board
So to soothe his detractors, Thomson made a change. Brooklyn would get its waterfront back from Bay Ridge to Red Hook. The green arrows show his revision:
(7) The New York Public Library, 1914.
Then he had another idea.
In January 1916, while discussing his proposal in Popular Science Monthly, he deferred to Brooklyn again. The borough could have more of its coastline back, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Red Hook. But all his lost landfill would have to go somewhere.
What if it were thrown in the Harlem River?
Why not round out the bottom of the Bronx with the top of Manhattan? A “New Harlem River” could be cut across 131st Street instead. It would run rather neatly from the Hell Gate to the Hudson:
(8) Popular Science Monthly, 1916.
But for all these distractions, Thomson kept focused on the crux of his plan: extending Manhattan. And by 1918, he released more figures.
The island would now stretch a 1/2 mile wide and 4 1/2 miles south of the Battery. The landfill would measure 1,400 acres (2.25 square miles) and add 9 miles of dock room to the City. The price was still $500,000,000 (about $14.7 billion today) and require 10 years to complete.
The World dubbed it “A Super-Greater New York.” If his plan were reality, the paper determined, the City “would enter upon an era of material growth which would enable her to outstrip herself and become indeed the Empire City which men of vision have pictured.”
Louis Biedermann (1874-1957), the celebrated illustrator, encouraged the hysterics:
(9) The New York World, 1918.
That’s when things got serious.
A Super-Greater New York
From 1918 to 1921, the Board of Estimate considered the plan. Thomson even presented his sketches to Mayor John F. Hylan (1868-1936). And, in 1921, the plan itself was incorporated as an entity called “Manhattan Extension, Inc.” Walter Russell, president of the organization, lobbied groups across the City, eventually gaining support from the powerful Broadway Association and Real Estate Board of New York. He even rallied the famous to his cause.
Thomas Edison (1847-1931), the inventor, speaking publicly from New Jersey, remarked, “[Thomson’s] extension of New York is bold and seems practical so far as engineering is concerned.” And Judge Alton B. Parker (1852-1926), the 1904 Democratic candidate for President, confirmed, “The public benefit from it will be enormous.”
By 1922, Russell was appealing to the highest of powers. On back-to-back days in January, he presented “A Really Greater New York” to the Port Authority and then New York State Governor Nathan Miller (1868-1953). “The Manhattan Extension Plan,” he told Miller, “will be carried out by a people’s corporation and not by a municipality. It will be financed by baby bonds and the people themselves will own the equity in the new section.”
But perhaps that was the plan’s undoing.
By claiming the project for private enterprise, Russell may have alienated the very public officials he needed for approval. After all, why would the governor or mayor support such a plan neither could take credit for?
Besides, the enterprise itself invited scrutiny. Apparently its benefactors were cloaked in secrecy.
The New York Sun discovered the arrangement. Suggesting a swindle, the paper wrote: “If [the City] wants about four more square miles of territory…then, says T. Kennard Thomson, all New York City has to do is to give 200 business men whom Mr. Thomson will not name the necessary rights to do the work proposed.”
Even the City’s development bible, The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, turned against Thomson and Russell. In late 1921, it reported that “Realty experts declare there is room enough on [Manhattan island] for one hundred years of expansion without making new ground in the Upper Bay.” So another Manhattan wasn’t “necessary.”
Whatever the reason, neither the City nor State would green light the plan.
The City of New Manhattan
But Thomson, per usual, wasn’t dissuaded. Like he had done after previous defeats, he got back to work. Manhattan, he decided, could stretch much more. So he tugged it to the Narrows, six square miles south of the Battery. Manhattan would now begin between Brooklyn and Staten Island:
(10) The New York Times, 1921.
His new peninsula was now at its apex, as large as the area between 42nd Street and the Battery. Thomson even crossed it with 10 new tunnels. Walter Russell, selling it to the Times, explained, “It would make New York City a contiguous city instead of isolated in its parts by water barriers.” More importantly, “It would open the greatest real estate and building boom in the history of New York.”
But, after 10 years of talk, these proclamations weren’t fruitful. Thomson wasn’t any closer to realizing his dream. So, to coax more support, he began targeting a group of people he hadn’t previously courted: the City’s women.
In 1924, the New York Telegram and Evening Mail found him sharing his plan with the New York League of Business and Professional Women. “Relief for all of Manhattan’s [troubles] is in sight,” he announced to the crowd, “but only if the women of New York City put their hand to plough and help.” The Evening Mail said Thomson, apparently fed up with the City’s male leadership, reached out to the League “because he believes that women have a vision that men do not have” and “hope of their co-operation.”
But in seeking partners elsewhere, he made perhaps his fatal blunder: He gave a piece of Manhattan away.
No, not to Brooklyn or Staten Island. No, not to Queens or the Bronx. In what could only be called “the cardinal sin of topography,” he gave it away to New Jersey.
Apprising the Times of his latest brainchild, he marveled, “Think of the value…to New Jersey to have Manhattan moved down to close contact with [it] in the upper bay.”
So, in 1926, he added three square miles to his plan and marked them for Jersey. The other six were left for the “City of New Manhattan”:
(11) The New York Public Library, 1926 Plan, 1930.
His appeal to the Garden State was costly. Both Liberty and Ellis Islands would have to be obliterated. The price of the project would swell to $1.5 billion (about $32.3 billion today). And, after ceding a part of this future Manhattan to Jersey, New Yorkers were apparently done with him. Sure, the papers continued to print tales of his “Super-Metropolis Plan” (the Daily Star) and visions of a “2,000-Ft Skyline” (the New York Evening Post), but elected officials don’t seem to have taken him seriously again. The Depression and World War II didn’t help his cause either.
But Thomson was relentless. For the rest of his life, he worked “nearly every day” to complete his plan. He lived in Yonkers, but commuted regularly to his office in Manhattan at the Engineers Club near Bryant Park. When he died on July 1st, 1952, the phrase “A Really Greater New York” was a feature of the obituaries. The Yonkers Statesman may have described him best: “[He] Dreamed of a Super City.”
All images edited by Rick Stachura.
(1) “New Mannahatta” by the New York Times. From the Times. January 14, 2022.
(2) “Lower Lower Manhattan” by the New York Times. From the Times. November 23, 2011.
(3) “Shaking a Reef Out of Father Knickerbocker” by the Los Angeles Examiner. From the New York Public Library. April 20, 1911.
(4) “Stretching Out a City” by the New York World. From the New York Public Library. Circa 1911.
(5) “A Really Greater New York” by Popular Mechanics. From the New York Public Library. August 1911.
(6) “Fill Up the East River to Solve Port Problems” by the New York Times. From the Times. August 21, 1913.
(7) “A Really Greater New York” by T. Kennard Thomson. From the New York Public Library. Circa 1914.
(8) “A Really Greater New York” by Popular Science Monthly. From the Monthly. January 1916.
(9) “A Grandiose Project for a Super-Greater New York” by the New York World. From the New York Public Library. Circa 1918.
(10) “Plan to Extend Manhattan Island Six Miles Down the Bay” by the New York Times. From the Times. October 30, 1921.
(11) “City of New Manhattan” by T. Kennard Thomson. His 1926 Plan. From the New York Public Library. Circa May 1930.