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Is It Too Late to Listen to the City?

by Erica Pearson, Mar 01, 2002
 

As New Yorkers prepare for the biggest public meeting on rebuilding to date and the opening of a major exhibit of ideas for downtown, it is hard for many to ignore reports that the plans being developed by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation severely restrict planning options.

Many will make sure their ideas are heard this week, even if it seems that much has been decided without them. "This is no different than election day on any given year. You don't have any guarantee that the person you voted for is going to follow through on their promises, but what can you do? You have to participate," said Errol Louis, a director at the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. Louis will be one of the up to 5,000 people at Saturday's public hearing on rebuilding.

Six Plans
On Tuesday, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will release six land use plans for the World Trade Center site. While no information about the plans has been officially released, they have already generated a great deal of controversy. Last week, unnamed sources told the New York Post that the plans are too alike. Reportedly, all of them include nearly 11 million square feet of office space, as well as 600,000 square feet of retail and an 800-room hotel. The New York Times later reported that, while all of the plans rebuild the office and retail space that Larry Silverstein and his partner Westfield America lost in the attack, none include the apartment houses advocated by many planners and residents.

According to the Times' account, each of the plans reconnect at least two streets, Greenwich and Fulton, that crossed through the World Trade Center site before it was built. They also each call for moving West Street, the seven-lane highway on the western edge of the site, underground. Because the cost to bury West Street could be up to $2 billion, some planners and politicians have questioned this idea.

Many urban planners and civic leaders, who have advocated for rebuilding options like housing and parkland, are worried that the press' rumors will hold true on Tuesday, and all of the plans will really look the same. "If the options are only different in building height or street grid type issues, then the reaction from all the civic organizations and other groups that have been looking at this will be that permutations that really don't adequately define what the differences are for consideration are not acceptable," said Rick Bell, executive director of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture.

Officials from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Port Authority and others have refused to talk about the specific plans publicly. However, rebuilding officials have repeated that the plans are not rigid, and that public input will help the groups come up with three different composite plans in Sept. If one considers the first six schemes as plans A, B, C, D, E, and F, explained Alex Garvin, head planner for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, public input on these plans will be used to create H, I and J, three completely new plans.

The six plans, drawn up by architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle, engineering company Parsons Brinckerhoff and other consultants, will be discussed at the upcoming public hearing on July 20 (see below) and displayed in the rotunda of the Federal Hall National from July 22 to the first week of Sept. The exhibition will include a way for visitors to leave written comments about the plans.

Imagining New York
A large exhibit of New Yorkers' own visions and plans for downtown will be on display at the very same time as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's official ones. On July 17, "Imagine New York: an Exhibition of Ideas" opens at the Urban Center Galleries. The exhibit, organized by Imagine New York, a project of the Municipal Art Society, will show selections from ideas and plans that people--from professional architects to elementary schoolchildren--shared at the 230 workshops Imagine New York held throughout the region.

The group, which has been working to involve people in the rebuilding efforts since March, will shift gears after the show. "This is one of the last legs of Imagine New York's initial project," said Aimee Malloy, director of the exhibition. "What we are trying to do with this exhibit is to capture not only the ideas but the project itself; the democracy and public participation in Imagine New York."

While the 19,000 ideas and proposals Imagine New York gathered certainly are a testament to civic participation, it is unclear just how much influence they will have as Gov. George Pataki, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation make decisions about the site. Holly Leicht, co-director of Imagine New York, explained that the group sent their summary of ideas to every rebuilding official. However, said Leicht, not very many people from the development corporation have asked to take a closer look at the people's visons. Members of the victims' family group advising the corporation asked to see memorial ideas, and the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, working on transportation planning for the corporation, requested transportation ideas.

Despite the rumors that all plans have similar limitations, Leicht is still waiting to see for herself how much of Imagine New York's findings were included. No matter how the plans look, she hopes that public participation after Tuesday won't now be limited to just talking about the options they contain. "It would be very premature for so many decisions to be made," she said. "What we've been told is that the six plans are really straw men, and that the three that come out in September could be very different."

Listening to the City?
Leicht also said that she hopes the six plans don't limit the discussion at the July 20 public meeting on rebuilding. Called "Listening to the City," the event will be the largest forum on rebuilding to date, open to up to 5,000 people. A room in the Jacob Javits Convention Center will be set up with 500 round tables, each with a computer so that the ideas that come up during discussions are recorded.

Each table will get copies of the six proposals, and a section of the day will be devoted to discussing them. If the official ideas are as restricting as press accounts say they are, the forum may be filled with angry New Yorkers. "People still really want an opportunity to say what they think, not just react to what has been given to them," said Leicht. Saturday's meeting will be just the second time rebuilding officials hear directly from the public.

The forum, sponsored by the Civic Alliance, the Regional Planning Association, and local planning schools, will also set aside time to talk about memorial proposals and general ideas about downtown. Louis, from the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, one of the event's co-sponsors, said that he has been working to make sure that non-architectural issues are also discussed, such as affordable housing and creating new jobs for those unemployed after Sept. 11.

That is, if it isn't too late to bring housing back into the list of possibilities for downtown.


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