Calvin Tomkins, Esq.(1)

Proceedings of The Municipal Engineers of the City of New York for 1905: 226-237. Paper No. 19, Presented October 25, 1905.

Tomkins (1858-1921) graduated from Cornell University in 1879. During his career as a manufacturer, he served as president or managing director of the Newark Plaster Company, the Tomkins Cove Stone Company, The Bonner Brick Company, and, in Canada, the Albert Manufacturing Company. His public and civic offices included the presidency of the New York City Municipal Art Society in 1906-07, Commissioner of Docks and Ferries of the City of New York 1910-1013, and membership on the Inland Waterways Commission of the U.S. R.R. Administration in 1918. His use of the term "comprehensive plan" to guide the development of New York must be one of the early instances of this terminology. However, his definition of comprehensive, was somewhat limited except in its geographic meaning--for Tomkins regarded the area to be planned as including large parts of eastern New Jersey. Functionally, he called for plans for streets and parks, bridges and tunnels, a system of warehouses, treatment of sewage then discharged into the harbor, the grouping of public buildings as civic centers in the several major districts of the metropolis, and rapid transit systems.
The wonderful growth of New York City and the fact that the City is rapidly assuming the position of the metropolis of the world, creates interest in all plans connected with its development. By the State census of 1905 which has just come out, you will notice that we have a population within the five boroughs of four million one hundred and fifty odd thousand inhabitants. Taking into consideration the four northern counties of New Jersey and the Westchester district, the Connecticut district and Long Island, adjacent to New York, the population of the metropolitan district of New York is certainly not much under five and one-half million people at the present time. There is on.l]y one other city having a larger population--the great city of London, with six and one-half million people contained in its metropolitan district of 700 square miles--and it is to be noted that the rate of growth of New York is very much more rapid annually than that of London. Between 1890 and 1900 the City increased 37% in population, and it is estimated by good judges that during the next ten years, as a consequence of rapid transit facilities and other underlying causes, it is not improbable that the City will increase 45%. When we consider the significance of this and what future possibilities are involved, we understand how important the present planning of this great metropolis is.

The City of New York is a great city on account of its peculiar position. The great city of antiquity was Rome, as a consequence of its position in the Mediterranean basin. The supremacy passed in sequence to Venice and Genoa, and subsequently to Amsterdam and London. Now it is rapidly coming to New York. New York is situated at the mouth of the Hudson River Valley, which is backed by the Mohawk Valley, through which we reach the great waters of the West by railroad now, as formerly we did by the canoe and the canal boat. The only other cities which have any strategic position on the Atlantic seaboard are Montreal on the St. Lawrence and the city of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. The one is interfered with by the cold of winter and the other by the heat of summer. In the case of every other city along the seaboard, the trains coming to it have to climb up over the Allegheny Mountains and down again, and the expense is heavy as compared to the level haul from the West to New York. The situation of the city is such that it already commands the commerce of Europe. New York is situated in the North Atlantic Basin, that vast district bounded by the Ural Mountains on one side and the Rockies on the other--in such a way as to make it the central point of exchange for the great commercial states of modern times. The fact that the transportation of the world is coming to its gates makes New York the city that it is.

It is incumbent on us to arrange our own plan of internal city development so that it shall be commensurate with the destiny which is awaiting us as the result of our situation. The features of New York have actually been too large to have been taken advantage of until the present time. The East River on the one side and the Hudson River on the other have heretofore disadvantageously divided the city. At one time the Harlem did so, but that has been overcome by bridges. The bridges over the East River will similarly do away with the barrier effect of the East River and the tunnels which are now being built under the Hudson River will have the same effect there; so that ultimately we shall see the Long Island section and the New Jersey section connected with the Manhattan section just as conveniently as the Westchester section is at the present time, and we shall then have here a round or square city like Chicago or Paris. The water to the east and west of us will afford facilities for carrying heavy goods, and passenger transportation will no longer be interfered with by the rivers. We are only beginning to organize so as to take advantage of our natural opportunities.

I have referred to the metropolitan district about New York-- the section not alone included within the five boroughs, but comprising the four northern counties of New Jersey, Long Island outside of Queens, the Westchester and Connecticut districts, all as much a part of the social and economic City of New York as the five boroughs.

New Jersey has now under consideration a sewage plan for the whole Passaic Valley and is looking forward to its development so that it will fit in with what the City of New York does. It is looking forward to the development of its middle section in the Hackensack and Passaic Valleys, which can undoubtedly be made the greatest freight terminal in the world. The water facilities here are excellent and the opportunity for conducting factories and warehouses and steamship terminals and railroads exists here as it does nowhere else about the City of New York. Back of the meadows, back of Newark, up toward the Oranges, lies that splendid highland section, much of which has been very little developed as yet; all that country between Paterson and Morristown is almost unknown. This is an integral part of New York City, as is the Long Island district, and should be considered in connection with its development.

The present time is critical because we are called upon now to make important decisions and we have only begun to realize what the consequences of those decisions are likely to be. The public improvements in New York have not been carefully thought out in advance. You know, for instance, what the difficulties have been in connection with planning the East River bridges. I think, without exception, they have been built without regard to their approaches, I was told by Mr. Lefferts Buck that when he suggested to the Bridge Commissioners some years ago the necessity of considering this matter in advance, he was informed that they were empowered by the Legislature to build a bridge and had nothing to do with the approach. And so every bridge, from the inception of the Brooklyn Bridge down to the Blackwell's Island Bridge, has been planned without reference to its approaches, and that is illustrative of the lack of foresight in general development of the City. I think now, however, a wider view of public matters is being taken and we are not likely to make as many serious mistakes.

As far as we have had any plan of development, it has been very largely that of private enterprise; enterprising real estate operators, acting in concert with enterprising transportation speculators, have developed the City. Most cities are developed that way. This is not a matter of such relative importance to smaller cities, but with a city such as we have here it is of the greatest importance. Transportation is regarded from the point of view of the greatest immediate results in the way of railroad fares. Street and park systems considered largely as to how they can be made to fit in with little separate schemes for real estate development and the desirability for a comprehensive plan are only beginning to be apparent. One of the most notable events in recognition of this fact was the appointment by Mayor McClellan of the City Improvement Commission. Most of you are doubtless familiar with the report of that Commission, a most admirable report, recommending many improvements, some of which may now be open to criticism in view of the wider experience had, but which, in the main, is as effective and as practical as it is broad in its scope. In recommending to the Board of Aldermen the appointment of such a commission, the Mayor said--and I cannot do better than to quote his language in that matter, because it is very precise: "The great error of the past, both from the material and artistic standpoint, has been that public improvements have been undertaken only to meet the emergency of the moment and without regard for ultimate ends. Public buildings have been scattered far and wide or erected in impossible locations. Streets have been opened, bridges built and money spent at haphazard, according to the fancy or whim of changing administrations, with far more regard for the interest of individuals than for the good of the City as a whole."

Private enterprise has conflicted with public works and the good of the individual has not always been the public good, although the results are unexpectedly better than I think we could have anticipated. A plan such as I have suggested cannot be a hard and fixed plan; it must grow and change with changing conditions. But I think it is important that the desirability for, and the main features of, such a plan should be established in the public mind. My own impression is that such a plan is likely to grow largely as a result of local interest in local affairs in the different boroughs. The different improvements will be brought to the attention of the local boards and then to the attention of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and forwarded by a public opinion, first local in character and subsequently general among all the boards as the relation of local improvements to a general scheme becomes apparent. In that way they will finally become so fixed in the public mind that they will perforce be carried through by successive administrations.

The great difficulty has been that one administration succeeds another administration so rapidly, and that private interest is so constantly at work, that it is very hard to maintain a continuous policy. But if we arouse sufficient general public interest in these matters the force of opinion will compel the Board of Estimate and apportionment and changing city administrations to carry through consecutive borough plans.

As regards the practicability of specific improvements, this body of technical men in the City employ is, by criticism and encouragement, more capable of directing public opinion correctly than any other body in the City, and a correspondingly great responsibility rests upon it.

To be more specific: the general idea of a city plan includes the following subsidiary ideas:

The first matter of importance is planning for city streets and parks, first, in the outlying boroughs where the field is open, particularly in Richmond, in The Bronx east of the Bronx River, in Queens, and rearranging streets and parks in the older parts of the City. The park and the street arrangement should go on at the same time. It is impossible to plan a good street and park system unless they are planned together. Changes and rearrangements in the older parts of the City are enormously expensive. The acquisition of small parks, while very necessary, is an exceedingly expensive operation for the City, and widening or changing well-established street lines in the older parts of the City is also extremely expensive. London is feeling the great lack of City planning in this respect. There they are obliged to make important street changes at a heavy expense, and here in the City of New York we have got to do the same thing. This has been effectively done in Paris and in Vienna, and done at a time when the changes could be carried out far better and easier than they could now. In Vienna this was accomplished when they tore down the old fortifications, and in Paris they did the work under the strong hand of Napoleon III. We must widen Fifty-ninth Street when the Blackwell's Island Bridge is carried across to Manhattan. We must extend Sixth and Seventh Avenues downtown. We must make some provision, I think ultimately, for diagonal streets between the bridge terminals of the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the downtown section and the Cooper Union section, and there are numerous other street changes in addition to the acquisition of small parks. We are now paying for our lack of foresight in these respects. However, in the new boroughs, the opportunity exists and should be taken advantage of, and it will be most unfortunate if it shall be longer neglected.

The next matter is that of bridges and tunnels, including docks, ferries and warehouses. As I have indicated, bridges and tunnels will serve to connect the whole city together and make it a round city instead of a long city. Bridges are virtually sections of continuous streets and ought to be so considered.

In connection with the warehouses I would like to leave one thought with you. Many cities have excellent warehouse systems. In new York, in Manhattan at least' we have no adequate system. The sheds on the piers are virtually the warehouses and the immense rentals that they command for the double purpose of landings and storage makes the docks unavailable for other purposes. Domestic and foreign commerce is suffering as a consequence for lack of good landing facilities and this will continue as long as the docks are used for warehouse purposes, when warehouses should be provided elsewhere.

The opportunity for acquiring parks in Richmond, and seashore parks on Long Island, and an immense park on the submerged lands about Jamaica Bay and in Queens, exists at the present time, and that situation is not going to exist long. Fortunately, the Borough of The Bronx supplied itself with a magnificent system of parks some fifteen years ago, but the same judgment has not characterized the Borough of Brooklyn or the Borough of Queens, or the Borough of Richmond, and in each one of those boroughs there are splendid opportunities for the acquisition of cheap parks at the present time, which should be availed of.

The harbor is under the jurisdiction of the United States Government as regards its commerce and as regards dredging, but the matter of the pollution of the water itself is a matter that has not received the consideration that it should. The sewage from all that section back of the ridge on Long Island is coming into the New York Harbor through cross sewers; the Bronx Valley sewage will be deflected into the Hudson River; the Passaic and Hackensack sewage will be deflected into New York Harbor. The water in the upper harbor now is foul compared to what it was a few years ago, and unless some purification system is provided for the increased drainage which runs into our harbor, the conditions will, before very long, be as bad as they are in the Passaic Valley now. They are unbearable there at present, and the harbor should not be converted into a cesspool.

The matter of the grouping of public buildings and of the development of sections of a city so that there shall be uniformity of character is a matter that should receive attention. Cities are beautiful just about in proportion as their public buildings are effectively grouped about centrally located public squares. That constitutes the great beauty of the City of Paris and Vienna--the two finest cities of the world from an aesthetic standpoint. Many of you remember the wonderful effect that was created at Chicago during the World's Fair by the grouping of buildings. We have neglected this in New York City. I had a map made some time ago showing the public buildings in the City of New York and I was surprised when the map came out to see how dotted it was with the parcels of property belonging to or leased by the City of New York scattered all over the lower part of Manhattan. If those buildings, fire engine houses, school houses, court houses, libraries, department offices, etc., were properly grouped at centrally located points the effect would be very different from what it is now. The important site in connection with this matter now is City Hall Park. If we lose the opportunity of making a civic centre and a beautiful square out of City Hall Park, we shall have lost the greatest aesthetic opportunity in the city. The new Hall of Records on Chambers Street is the key to the situation there; the north side of Chambers Street should be taken by the City and the Hall of Records extended along it to Broadway. The antiquated United States Post Office Building should be taken out of the southern extremity of City Hall Park, where it is now located. Many people do not know that it is standing in the original park enclosure, but such is the fact, and the land was deeded to the United States Government for a nominal consideration. It should be taken out and the ground returned to the City. With that share in front, with an adequate bridge approach at Park Row, City Hall Park would compare favorably with some of the beautiful European squares which will be shown on the screen later. It is a matter of convenience to have public buildings grouped in places where they can be conveniently reached. Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and Buffalo, and particularly the City of Washington, realized this, and all of them planned elaborately for the future and particularly with reference to this matter of the placement of public buildings effectively and so as to create grand effects. Architects have very properly stated the matter in this way: That two public buildings properly grouped are far more effective than half a dozen separate buildings, although each better possibly in individual design, but scattered. Anybody who has the opportunity of noting the effect at Washington, for instance, or the effect in any European cities, realizes the importance of massed public architecture.

Lastly, and most important of all, there is the question of transit. The transportation of the City, particularly its passenger transportation, constitutes the circulatory system of the City--the very life of the City. The problem in all cities is to provide for expansion without congestion, and that is the problem we have to face here in New York. In the vicinity of Sixtieth Street, on the West Side, and of Hester Street, on the East Side, we are housing a denser population than any city in the world permits. Conditions are uncivilized in those sections. Subway transit will take the people out of New York on a low rate of fare and give them opportunities for sunlight and decency outside of the crowded sections. Cheap rapid transit is the solution of the problem of the slums. Just as the City has grown up by transportation to its gates, so must it look to developing its own transportation if it expects to take advantage of its opportunities. The City will become a civilized city just in proportion as it shall provide adequate transit. In The Bronx it has always seemed to us that the problem of transit consists in continuing the subways right up to the city line so that there shall be only one fare. It would seem unfortunate if the lines should stop after going into The Bronx a short distance only; and is it not a fair criticism to make against the plans as they are at present proposed, that they do so stop and that they are not extended to the north? As regards the Long Island section and the New Jersey section, it seems important that the lines of communication east and west, should be so organized that transfers can be obtained between lines of transportation north and south on Manhattan Island; that the north and south Manhattan lines should be directly under the surface; that the east and west lines to New Jersey and Long Island should be directly under the Manhattan lines, and that a transfer station should be established at each intersecting point, so that any person coming from Brooklyn or the New Jersey section can transfer north or south on any avenue in New York City, mined by a subway, and that any passenger traveling north or south on Manhattan will have a similar opportunity of transferring east or west on the transverse lines. Again, it seems important that these lines of congested traffic, at least in lower Manhattan, should remain under municipal control. I do not know that I can do better than to read a brief extract from the report of the Board of Trade and Transportation of New York, which will indicate what I mean:

"The fundamental mistake has consisted in treating franchise grants as contracts, unalterable without the consent of both parties, like ordinary contracts concerning property. Governments, like individuals, may properly enough enter into contracts relating to property, and such contracts when made should be respected; but governments ought not by contract to divest themselves of governmental functions as they do to an extent when they surrender partial control of the public streets, by giving to private interests definite term structural rights therein. The City can control completely only when it is in a position to terminate at any time the right of use claimed by any person or corporation that may choose to defy the will of the City in any respect. In other words, the grant terminable at the will of the governing authorities is the only kind under which the City can be sure of its ability to dominate the situation at all times."

Private corporations are organized primarily for dividends and, in the nature of things, they cannot provide the service necessary for the growing needs of the City. In order to obtain that service, in order to avoid going back to such conditions as prevailed two years ago on the elevated railroad and on the surface roads, the City must itself keep control of its transit system. We think very properly that the City should not attempt to operate at the present time. The City is not prepared to do this nor are the roads themselves organized sufficiently to be taken over. But in order to provide good service, and more important even than that, in order to provide control so as to be able to take care of extensions and improvements and not find ourselves handicapped by what we want to do in the future on account of what we have permitted in the past--the City must keep itself in continual, constant, effective control of the transit grants it gives out hereafter. These transit lines under the great avenues will control not only the future subway traffic of the City, but they will control the elevated and surface traffic as well. To whatever arrangements are made for conducting those lines, other transportation lines will have to conform. If these franchises are given out so that the City can recover them on the payment of indemnity at any time, it will keep itself in control. If the attempt is made to give them out under contractual provisions for extensions, service, etc., the result will be flat failure as heretofore. You cannot hold a public service corporation to a service contract. The only way you can provide for good service and needed extensions is to place the City in a position to take back what it has given and then the City will be able to exert its authority, otherwise its authority amounts to nothing and vanishes in words and legal contests.

The question of the use of the subways by the steam railroads is a very interesting one and is beginning to attract attention among trolley railroad men and among steam railroad men. There is no reason why the subway system of the City should not be used by the trains of the steam roads. It is desirable that the steam road system of the country should have the same degree of elasticity in collecting and distributing passengers that the trolley system has now, but it is of the greatest importance to the City that if this is permitted the City shall keep control of its transit so that local transit may not be made subordinate to the interests of the steam roads. In the city of London extensive street improvements have been made as a result of the City's taking large areas of adjacent land in addition to the lands actually required for the specific improvement, then making the improvement and selling or renting this excess land after its enhancement in value as a consequence of the improvement and so recouping, in large part, or in whole, for the expenditure incurred. That has been the custom in European cities and I have no doubt we have got to come to it here. The City Improvement Commission have recommended resort to the principle of excess condemnation, and a most opportune occasion can now be found for its application in connection with the acquisition of a court house or other public building site on Chambers Street opposite City Hall Park, the land condemned to include the entire section back of the tall Broadway buildings and between Leonard Street, the Park and Park Row, a section which must soon be reorganized in any event. Why should not the City itself reap the principal benefit of the improvement?

I believe that we will have, at least as regards our transit, to eliminate it from the debt limit- restriction. The City is restricted in the amount of debt that it can incur to 10% on the assessed valuation. Water is excepted, but dock improvements should also be excepted and transit improvements should be excepted as well. I notice such conservative organs as the Record and Guide are now beginning to advocate that idea.

In regard to co-operation of officials: In the Art Society we have secured co-operation as far as we could get it, and when we did not get it we did not scold too much. We recognized the fact that city officials are limited in three ways,--their term is short to begin with; they have very little money to spend; and lastly there is a natural and very proper tendency towards conservatism on the part of any prominent city disinclination to try new things. Then they are hampered by the counterclaims of private interests, which seriously interfere with their ability always to do what the City's interest demands. The Society has found it far more effective to build up a public opinion through the newspapers and through Boards of Trade and local civic associations and by so doing trusting ultimately to overcome opposition.

There are many other things that I could refer to. I should: like particularly to go into the recommendations of the City Improvement Commission, but I will not undertake to discuss these here to-night. The hour is late and before closing I will throw a few pictures on the screen in illustration of what I have said.

1. Former President of the Municipal Art Society. . 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
To Top of Page
To Homepage