Under the terms of the Dongan Charter of 1686
the little English colonial city of New York that then occupied only the southernmost tip of Manhattan became the governing authority for the entire island. Equally important, the Charter conferred on the new municipality ownership of all land in Manhattan that had not previously been granted or sold to individuals
. Most of this enormous public domain -- probably several thousand acres -- lay north of what is now 23rd Street and included the central spine of Manhattan Island.
From time to time during the next century the city sold parts of its public domain to raise funds for municipal purposes while keeping taxes low. New York faced new needs following the Revolution. At that time at least 1300 acres of municipal land remained of the so-called Northern Commons whose irregular boundaries lay between the modern Third and Seventh Avenues
. In 1785 the City Council ordered its surveyors to divide this tract into plots of 5 acres to be sold at auction. Middle Road, now Fifth Avenue
, provided access to these parcels.
It was the time to buy real estate in Manhattan. In 1789 nine purchasers bought just under 200 acres for about $70 an acre. One of these areas was bounded by what are now Broadway, Lexington Avenue, and 32nd and 42nd Streets. Another occupied the rectangle formed by the future Third and Fifth Avenues and 42nd and 48th Streets.
The city changed its policy in 1796, directing its surveyor, Casimir Goerck, to locate two additional roads -- now Park and Sixth Avenues -- parallel to Middle Road. Additional five-acre parcels were laid out like the first in long rectangles with their narrow ends fronting the north-south roads
. Half of these were put up for sale, and the other half--arranged to alternate with the parcels for sale--were made available for 21-year leases.
While the city's jurisdiction over the Common Lands was absolute, its powers to determine street alignment and widths where private ownership prevailed were less clear
. Several maps recorded the existing street pattern early in the l9th century and included unofficial proposals for how new streets and squares might be developed. Evidently these suggestions created a good deal of controversy.
Finally, in February, 1807 the Common Council asked the state legislature for help in planning future streets
. In a memorial sent to Albany the Council set forth its ultimate goal as "laying out Streets ... in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit and in particular to promote the health of the City
...." They described their difficulties. One was the lack of authority of the Council to bind its predecessors to follow any plan. Other problems they stated were:
"equally palpable and of very considerable magnitude.
The diversity of Sentiments and opinions which has
heretofore existed and probably will always exist among
the members of the Common Council, the incessant
remonstrances of ... [land owners] ... against plans
however well devised or beneficial wherein their
individual Interests do not concur and the Impossibility
of completing those plans thus opposed but by a tedious
and expensive course of Law are obstacles of a serious
and very perplexing nature."