At the northern tip of Manhattan, east of the thriving, overcrowded neighborhood of Inwood, lies a large peninsula called Sherman Creek, named for the inlet that once ran across most of the top of the island.
In stark contrast to the beauty of the Harlem River, which curves beckoningly at 207th Street, Sherman Creek is dominated by a desolate, low-rise jumble of subway yards, ConEd substations, garages, auto repair shops, and parking lots. More than half of the land appears to be unused or underused. A chain-link fence cuts off access to the river, though locals crawl through regularly to fish from the rocky shore. On a recent morning, no one bothered a huge chicken drinking contentedly from an open fire hydrant, perhaps the pet of a man living in a nearby tent.
Neighborhood activists have worked for decades to get the peninsula rezoned to allow residential and commercial development. "Sherman Creek has been lying fallow for better than 40 years, without much activity, and certainly with no manufacturing," neighborhood organizer Walther Delgado, executive director of the Audubon Partnership for Economic Development, said. "Here's an entire site where 50% of the land is vacant, with no development on it. This is a community with high needs for everything, and yet this property just sits there."
Many New Yorkers think that the city is running out of land. But a new study prepared for the Manhattan Institute by economist Regina Armstrong of the research firm Urbanomics contends that all five boroughs have plenty of developable land. The land is just zoned incorrectly, restricted to uses - particularly manufacturing - that are no longer economically viable, at least on their former scale.
Sherman Creek's forlorn industrial spaces, alongside Inwood's booming residential market, are all too typical of many of the city's older industrial neighborhoods. Indeed, the five boroughs have so much land zoned for manufacturing that there is space to accommodate 500,000 more manufacturing jobs than actually exist.
Despite the relentless decline in manufacturing jobs since World War II, New York continues to reserve some 22,500 acres for industrial development, even though industry only needs a fraction of that property. According to Ms. Armstrong's study, "Up from the Ruins," 15% of all parcel-land area in the city is set aside for just 6% of the city's economy.
This beggars the communities around them, and in Inwood, the needs of the community are substantial, according to the Department of City Planning. The median household income is $21,110, far below the city median of $38,293. Unemployment is 17.8%, more than double the citywide rate of 8%. Home ownership is only 2%, versus 30% in the city as a whole. And 32% of Inwood apartments have more than one person per room, more than double the 15% rate in the rest of the city.
Overcrowding is a neighborhood theme - and a problem unlikely to be eased soon. According to Developer Paul Travis, principal of Kingsbridge Associates, Inwood is pretty much built out, with so little supply available that there's really no market.
"This is one of the city's most underserved markets right now," said Mr. Travis. "The neighborhood has no rental units available, and almost nothing to buy. Yet current residents have rising incomes and increasing numbers of people want to move here. But there's no place for them to live. And there's no vacant land. Sherman Creek is pretty much it - the only possible place to build."
That there is an excess of industrial space in the city has been apparent for years, particularly on the untold miles of derelict waterfront, like Sherman Creek. But the glut didn't matter so much in earlier times, like the 1970s, when people and businesses were fleeing the city and real estate was depressed in value.
But that's no longer true. New York is booming, and will probably continue to as long as people keep coming. Already by far the largest American city, New York is projected to grow to 8.5 million people over the next 30 years. But where will they live?
Even as manufacturing demand has declined, residential demand has soared and residential vacancy rates have hit historic lows in many neighborhoods. Just to provide enough housing to match its projected population growth, New York will have to continue the current rate of construction of 25,000 new housing units a year for two decades, Ms. Armstrong writes. But residentially zoned land can only fill half this demand. To meet the rest, the Bloomberg administration will need to rezone large swaths of property - or decide to forego new residents and their tax dollars.
Just by rezoning one area in each borough, Ms. Armstrong argues, the city could release enough land for residential development to yield up to 86,000 housing units. (An additional benefit would be an increase in property tax revenues of about $1.1 billion over existing taxes.) She is not proposing that manufacturing be barred in these areas - just that residential development be permitted.
The fate of some of Ms. Armstrong's proposed sites will be bitterly contested, with industrial retention advocates arguing that any rezoning will kill jobs. But her proposals are welcome in northern Manhattan, in part because they fit with earlier analyses.
Mr. Delgado's group, the Audubon Partnership, released a study in January 2003 that proposed building four- to six-story residential buildings on Sherman Creek, similar to residential development in the rest of Inwood.
Architect Warren Antonio James, who conducted the study, said, "Inwood is a Latino neighborhood. So I drew on lessons learned from 500 years of Caribbean urbanism, which appreciates public walkways, access to the water, low-rise buildings facing the waterfront."
Ms. Armstrong suggests options that include buildings of 12 to 15 stories, which Mr. James feels might be too high, though he calls her study fascinating. "This is innovative thinking. It's the only study I've ever seen that looks at the neighborhood as it is and asks, how can we fuse in housing without costing jobs? In today's world, people want to live where they work - showrooms, offices, design studios, photo labs. It's the old English model: You live over your shop."
Besides developable land, Sherman Creek offers a great deal of natural beauty. Like the East River, the Harlem is actually a tidal estuary, and the most astonishing birds appear on its shore. Teacher Obed Fulcar, who oversees an after-school environmental program monitoring the Harlem River's water quality, said the Sherman Creek inlet is the last wetlands in Manhattan. He's identified over 10 bird species, including black herons and white egrets, which like to feed in the low tidal mud. He regularly exhorts the adjacent garage owners to keep foul discharges from running into the creek, saying, "I'm trying to preserve some wildlife in the hood."
To the south, beyond the lovely Swindler's Cove, stretch the trio of Harlem River bridges made famous by postcards, including the majestic High Bridge. On the far shore are Fordham Landing and University Heights in the Bronx, surrounded by lush greenery.
Many neighborhood residents spoke in favor of higher buildings on the site at a community forum held in the spring of last year. The community has had a lot of practice in building consensus and agreeing on development, such as the shopping mall Mr. Travis developed north of the University Heights Bridge at 207th Street, which most residents seem to praise. For one thing, it keeps the local dollars home, said Mr. Delgado. "People no longer go out to Westchester, Cross County, or malls in New Jersey."
But the next step for the community involves waiting, as the Bloomberg administration decides how it wants to proceed. It has set up an interagency task force to address the area's many needs and figure out how community-supported development can move forward.
"This is the first administration that has actually paid attention," said Mr. Delgado. "They're not just talking. The mayor came to our community summit and referenced it in his State of the City address. I don't remember Sherman Creek ever appearing in any mayoral address before."
Still, the elephant on the site is Con Ed, which owns about a third of the property. "We need them to step up to the plate and work with the city to reach consensus on where their facilities need to be," the chairman of Community Board 12, Martin Collins, said. "They've been stalling."
It's Con Ed's last waterfront property in New York, and it's not about to hand it over without proper compensation - and probably also another site in exchange. After all, those hundreds of thousands of people wanting to move here will need electricity every bit as much as they'll need housing.
The city will have to negotiate well with Con Ed to free the neighborhood from this stalemate. Worse, as Mr. Collins notes, property values have jumped 35% in Inwood over the last 18 months, making negotiations both urgent and more difficult.
Mr. James has another solution: build on top of the substations.
"Con Ed says it's willing to move if it gets paid $100 million per substation. Why not build on top of them instead?" he asks. "No. 7 World Trade Center is being built on top of a substation."
This much is clear: Inwood residents want access to their now blockaded waterfront, and they want compatible housing and commercial development for themselves and for newcomers. They are well organized, and represented by an activist, sophisticated community board that knows how to negotiate with both government officials and private developers. And they have a head start, having studied and debated development issues for years.
The resolution to the battle for Sherman Creek may hold the key to New York's future.