The Manhattan Street Grid Plan: Misconceptions and Corrections (a blog series)
By Jason M. Barr with Gerard Koeppel
In 1894, noted architect Ernest Flagg voiced a popular belief about Manhattan’s lot sizes: “The greatest evil which ever befell New York City was the division of the blocks into lots of 25 x 100 feet... for from this division has arisen the New York system of tenement-houses, the worse curse which ever afflicted any great community.”
Flagg was lamenting that builders chose not to erect housing on larger lots, which, he argued, would have alleviated over-crowding and disease. While he was not commenting on the grid plan per se, it is easy to see how people have come to confuse Manhattan’s small lots as emanating from the plan itself. Flagg’s strong implication was that there was a direct attempt by city leaders to divide lots into regular configurations. Today the common perception remains that the small lots were a result of the plan. But, in fact, the grid had nothing to do with it.
The ubiquity of the (approximately) 25 x 100 square foot plot size was a mainstay of land subdivisions long before 1811, when the grid plan was created; it was the de facto standard from the earliest time of settlement and never existed in any legal statutes. Contrary to popular belief, the grid plan said nothing about the size of the lots, only the size of the blocks. Rather, the demand for 25 x 100 square foot size was based on social and economic considerations during the colonial period.
The lot size norm emerged because there was never a city plan by the Dutch when they took control of the island in the first half of the 17th century. Rather decisions about lots and blocks were made on an ad hoc basis based on the incentives of the residents. 25 x 100 square feet represented the best balance between several competing considerations. A two or 2.5 story house with say a 20 to 25 foot length and a 50 feet depth would be a reasonable size, and would include a 20 to 25 x 50 square foot backyard, with space for a privy and a cistern for rainwater. Technologically speaking, the wooden joists used to support the floors could not be longer than 25 feet without having to add internal columns to support the floors. If a family wanted a house larger than 25 feet across, it would have added a new expense. For most homeowners, the additional space was not worth the cost.
When the Dutch settlement began to take on an urban form, and land values rose, it was natural that buildings in the densest and most valuable parts of the city would “shrink” to the smallest possible size. Higher land values would motivate people to use less land. Residents from Amsterdam were comfortable living in the narrow townhouses along the canals; this form was naturally recreated in New Amsterdam.
Evidence for the preference for the 25 x 100 square foot lot becomes clear if we look at the process of subdivisions before 1811. First, the map of New Amsterdam circa 1660 (below) shows Manhattan below Wall Street having around eighteen distinct blocks with a total of roughly 130 different plots (including the fort).
Going south from Wall Street toward the fort, there is a distinct pattern: the average property size of the blocks becomes smaller and smaller. The lots closest to the tip were the most valuable for commerce, and the only way to allocate space for the demand was to subdivide them into the greatest number possible. The block that is today bound between Whitehall, Bridge, Pearl and Broad Streets was less than an acre and had 16 different lots; this roughly corresponds to the standard 25 x 100 square foot lot.
In fact, a statistical analysis demonstrates the relationship between the sizes of the granted lots and how far they were from the fort as of about 1660. On average, lot sizes each tenth mile further from the fort increase by 2.7%. For those parcels adjacent to the fort, the median size is estimated to be 1,850 square feet.
Another example can be found by the actions of a group of landowners during the British colonial period. They collectively owned a sixteen-acre area—known as the Shoemakers'Pasture—bound by Broadway, Maiden Lane, Gold, and Ann Streets. In 1696, they subdivided the land into 164 lots (see below). While the lots with frontage on Broadway are large, 160’ x 160’, the vast majority of lots are roughly 25’ x 100’. A large block, bound by Nassau, John, William, and Fulton (then Fair Street) Streets was too large for the standard lot sizes; in the middle sits “a vacant piece of ground.” The existence of this vacant ground suggests that it was not marketable to those who preferred the standard lot sizes; otherwise, it is likely it would have been subdivided and sold.
As noted in a previous blog post, the 1807 commissioners borrowed liberally from Casimir Goerck’s plans for the old Common Lands in the central spine of Manhattan. Goerck paired a 260-foot north-south dimension with a 920-foot east-west dimension to (roughly) meet his 5-acre lot mandate, with sixty of those north-south feet claimable by the city for future cross streets. The commissioners did just that, creating 60-foot streets and 200-foot blocks that landowners conveniently divided into two urbanized rows of their familiar 100-foot-deep lots.
Over the course of the 19th century, as the streets were laid out and the blocks constructed and subdivided, developers readily preserved the lot size form, especially for tenements and brownstones. The norm has proved so enduring that even today some 56% of lots on the island are between 15 and 30 feet wide (see below).
So, once again history has given too much credit the creators of the grid plan; in this case, the small lot sizes emerged from a tradition that began when New York City was small Dutch, and called New Amsterdam.
Jason M. Barr is a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author most recently of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers. Gerard Koeppel is the author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, Water for Gotham: A History, and Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire.
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