A Housing Plan for Manhattan’s Empty Spaces
Where could tens of thousands of new homes fit in one of the densest parts of America? One local official looks for pockets of opportunity.
By Mihir Zaveri
Jan. 31, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
In between high-rise luxury apartment buildings in Midtown Manhattan, a public university building sits vacant and boarded up. Police vehicles idle on a parking lot in the middle of a residential block in the East Village. A vacant plot between Greenwich Village and SoHo languishes just blocks away from the Hudson River.
Even in bustling Manhattan, one of the most crowded places in America, there are plenty of spaces that feel relatively empty. Now, one elected official wants to use them to address one of New York City’s most urgent crises.
“That’s a huge opportunity to put that precious land to better use: by creating housing,” said Mark Levine, a former city councilman who took office as borough president last January.
On Tuesday, Mr. Levine is releasing a housing plan that identifies roughly 171 such sites across Manhattan where he says more than 73,000 homes can be built, an aspirational vision that reflects the depths of the housing shortage in New York City.
The plan offers a counterintuitive conclusion: that even in a place where 1.7 million people lived crammed into less than 23 square miles, there are still pockets of opportunity for growth.
“Some of it is hiding in plain sight,” Mr. Levine said. “There has been a Post Office that has been closed. There’s an abandoned bus depot that is not being used. There’s manufacturing space which is empty. There are buildings that landlords surrendered to the city for back taxes decades ago.”
Mr. Levine said his team examined every lot in Manhattan. Some of the sites included in the plan were left over from previous development plans abandoned or delayed for financial, logistical or political reasons. Some are slated to be part of ongoing redevelopment plans, like a proposal passed in 2021 targeting SoHo. Others were newly identified.
Following through with the plan would require significant construction work and coordination between city, state and federal officials. It would undoubtedly generate numerous political and financial complications, particularly if the city wants the homes to be relatively affordable. But the plan comes as key leaders agree that building many more homes must be part of the plan to curb exorbitant housing costs.
The New York metropolitan area needed more than 340,000 additional homes in 2019, according to a 2022 estimate from Up for Growth, a Washington policy and research group. The vacancy rate for apartments renting below the citywide median of $1,500 is less than 1 percent, while tight supply has helped send the typical rent on new market-rate apartment leases in Manhattan to nearly $4,000 in December, according to the brokerage firm Douglas Elliman.
In his State of the City address last week, Mayor Eric Adams reiterated a call for the redevelopment of Midtown to bolster his push for 500,000 additional homes over the next decade. Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her State of the State speech earlier this month, made addressing the housing crisis one of her top priorities, unveiling proposals that she hopes could make way for 800,000 more homes across the state in the next decade.
Some neighborhood groups and members of the City Council, who in the past have been among the most visible opponents of new housing projects, appear to be warming to new development.
Mr. Levine’s plan appears to be one of the first to outline in detail where homes could plausibly be built in Manhattan. But he is not the first to be drawn to the allure of vacant or “underutilized” lots.
In his housing plan released last year, Mr. Adams said the city will identify properties owned by the government where housing can be built, citing a 340-unit affordable complex being developed on a former Police Department parking lot in East Harlem, first announced in 2021. The city says about 810 lots are under the housing department’s purview, and many are already slated for development.
In 2016, the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, released an audit that said that the city Housing Department and other agencies manage more than 1,100 vacant properties citywide he said could be turned into more than 57,000 affordable homes, a conclusion that was disputed by the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Before he became mayor, Mr. Adams, as the borough president of Brooklyn, identified in 2014 parking lots and vacant land in Brooklyn as possible sites for affordable housing. That included a former hospital in East Williamsburg currently being turned into hundreds of affordable homes, and the site of a former manufactured gas plant along the Gowanus Canal where the City Council in 2021 approved a nearly 1,000-unit development.
Mr. Levine’s plan is helpful because “he is proposing the actual sites,” said Moses Gates, the vice president for housing and neighborhood planning for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit. “It’s vitally important that you have somebody willing to say out loud ‘You can build something here.’”
About one quarter of the sites would not require a zoning change or similar public action, according to Mr. Levine’s office. More than 40 percent of the homes could be developed as “affordable” units, meaning they would target people with lower incomes, largely because a public entity, like the city or state, owns the land. Mr. Levine also said that three-quarters of the homes proposed are on sites south of 96th Street — an attempt to make sure people of more modest economic means are not shut out of wealthier parts of the borough.
Almost 27,000 homes included in the plan would require the city to rezone chunks of neighborhoods, including Chelsea, Kips Bay and Yorkville.
The path forward will be difficult. For example, the report acknowledges that developing nearly 3,000 homes on a site near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the city’s subways, would require the complicated engineering feat of constructing a deck over the tunnel’s entrance.
That could require a significant amount of public money at a time when New York City’s financial future appears precarious. The city’s housing and buildings departments are both grappling with staffing shortages that have slowed affordable housing development.
Mr. Levine’s office could not immediately provide an estimate of how much the full plan might cost.
There are also political constraints. Many of the sites need changes to zoning rules, requiring the support of the local City Council member. Council members hold enormous sway over land use decisions in their district and may push back on a plan they had less input in creating. In many cases in the past, development proposals have resulted in fraught negotiations that lead nowhere.
Shaun Abreu, a Democrat who represents Washington Heights and parts of the Upper West Side on the City Council, a seat previously held by Mr. Levine, said that local influence is important, but that his colleagues should also address the region’s overall needs.
Mr. Abreu, a tenant’s rights lawyer who was once a member of Mr. Levine’s campaign team, said he supports the Manhattan plan. He said that standing up to influential groups opposing development who are “acting in bad faith” will be crucial to the city’s health going forward.
People living next to these sites may also influence the plan’s success. Mr. Levine’s plan envisions the Police Department parking lot in the East Village, for example, could become a 70-unit apartment building, with all of the units affordable to people with lower incomes.
Melanie Montero, 48, has lived on 5th Street across from the lot all her life. She said several residents living nearby oppose the construction of housing on the site, which has been floated for at least seven years, and some prefer a park.
But Ms. Montero said her feelings are mixed. She knows the city needs more homes, and believes the apartments will ultimately be built. But she is worried about the noise from the construction, and how a new building might change the feel of her street.
“It’s tough because it’s right in front of me,” she said.
But, she added, “At least it’s not going to be a big development that’s going to be a 20-story condo.”
Mihir Zaveri covers housing in New York. @mihirzaveri