Issue of the Week

The Six Rebuilding Plans

By Mark Berkey-Gerard and Erica Pearson

22 July 02

Scott Durin, a 32-year-old architect from Brooklyn who was one of 5,000 people attending "Listening to the City" -- an event designed to give the public a chance to respond to the six plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center site -- did not know how to respond.

Sitting at one of the hundreds of tables at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, each table holding up to a dozen participants, Durin stared at the diagrams of the plans -- the different colored shapes representing office space, apartments, museums, underground tunnels, and a memorial.

"They all look basically the same," Durin said to the others at his table. "It's hard to say what to like and what not to like."

The basic designs did not show enough detail, he said. There were no projections for the cost of different elements or explanation for why planners had placed certain aspects in specific places. But his main problem with the plans was trying to comprehend why each one called for over 12 million square feet of office, retail, and hotel space on the site.

"If someone had a lease on buildings on the San Francisco and there was an earthquake and the buildings just fell into the bay - would they still honor the lease?" asked Durin. "The buildings on the World Trade Center site don't exist anymore and maybe the lease shouldn't either."

It is safe to say that most of the public reaction to the six designs officials unveiled last week, has been negative. Newspaper editorials, elected officials, and everyday New Yorkers have questioned not only the specific elements of the plans, but the planners' basic assumptions.

Officials say they are legally required to build office space that is the equivalent of five and a half Empire State Buildings, at least 600,000 square feet of retail space, and an 800-room hotel - which does not leave much room for anything else.

"The site is not a blank slate," said Frank Lombardi of the Port Authority, which owns the site. "Things would be much easier for the planners if it were."

But a trained architect like Scott Durin is not the only one who wants to know more. Many New Yorkers are asking: Is there room for these legal requirements, and also a memorial, a transportation hub, great open spaces, and cultural and residential areas? How inflexible are these plans? Are there any solid differences among them? Will the public reaction to them make a difference? What happens now?

LISTENING TO THE CITY?

The "Listening to the City" event - just the latest of hundreds of rebuilding events over the last months - brought together people with diverse and passionate ideas.

Elsy Devito of Staten Island said she wanted the twin towers rebuilt exactly as they were. Krystyna and Julia Boryczewski, who lost their son and brother in the terrorist attacks, wanted to make sure that the planners do not build on the footprints where the towers once stood. And a group of lower Manhattan business owners who are upset with the inefficiency of government grant programs wore matching shirts that read, "I lost my business at Ground Zero and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Many of the participants came because they had been moved or personally affected by the events and wanted to be part of the rebuilding process.

They sat at tables equipped with laptop computers and wireless keyboards, and were peppered with questions -- some multiple choice, some essay questions Š which were quickly tabulated and then flashed onto giant video screens. The majority rejected all six plans as poor or simply adequate. When the thousands of participants were asked for their greatest concerns about the plans, the giant screen read:

  • Too much commercial space.
  • Include more non-office uses, including residential and cultural - these schemes will not produce a 24/7 community.
  • "Nothing here is truly monumental." "Looks like Albany."
  • Seek new ways to solve the leasehold requirement. "Start fresh."

But many participants wondered if the event was little more than a dog and pony show, to offer the appearance of public participation, without the public's opinion counting for much. Just ten percent of those who attended said they were "very confident" and 23 percent said they were "confident" that what people said at the hearing will be taken into account by rebuilding officials, while 22 percent said they were "little confident" and 45 percent said they were "somewhat confident." When the moderator summed up the results by saying that nearly 80 percent of the people in the room were confident they would be heard, the audience booed.

But after the event, Alex Garvin, a chief planner for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, said they had indeed been listening. "We put out plans that obviously need a great deal of change," he said.

THE ELEMENTS OF THE SIX PLANS:

MEMORIAL
Planners say that all six designs for the 16-acre site began with two basic requirements: a memorial, and office and commercial space equal to that lost in the attack on the World Trade Center.

Each plan has the word "memorial" in the title, and includes between five and ten acres of memorial space. Three of the plans, Memorial Square, Memorial Park and Memorial Promenade, build on the "footprints," the physical space where the Twin Towers once stood.

The families of the victims have called for the footprints to be preserved as hallowed ground for the memorial. Governor George Pataki echoed this last month, when he publicly promised the families the footprints would not be developed.

"The footprints are not negotiable for most families," said September's Mission founder Monica Iken, who lost her husband in the attacks. (Read her article on Gotham Gazette). She said that the families had originally wanted all of the 16-acre space for a memorial and had already made a large compromise in contrast to the Port Authority, which she said, "can get what they want in every option."

"I believe that since there are no bodies left on the site, the footprints are in some way symbolic," said Madelyn Wils, member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and chair of community board 1 in an online chat on Gotham Gazette. "I believe in my heart that it is more important to design a space that can hold a great memorial, than it is to necessarily not build on the footprints."

At the Listening to the City event, most of the participants felt that the memorial space -- whether it preserved the footprints or not -- had been poorly integrated into the designs.

COMMERCIAL AND OFFICE SPACE
The basic requirements for the office and retail space and a hotel came from the Port Authority, which owns the land. The Port Authority has an obligation to honor the agreements with Silverstein Properties and Westfield America, which hold the 99-year leases on the office and retail space. The two leaseholders have made it clear that they want to rebuild all or more of the commercial space that was in the World Trade Center before September 11.

The contract guarantees that the Port Authority earns about $125 million each year in rent from Silverstein and Westfield. September 11 has not changed this; Silverstein is still paying the Port Authority rent, about $10 million a month (paid for by his insurance), for the barren 16-acre site.

The total amount of money Silverstein wins from his insurers could be from $3.5 to $6.7 billion, depending on whether a court rules that the terrorist attacks are a single or two separate events. Development officials have been reluctant to talk about actually breaking the lease, at least before they find out how many billions are at stake.

All six of the plans also show five or six office buildings ranging from 32 to 85 stories. None of the proposed buildings would be as tall as the World Trade Center towers because officials said they doubt anyone will want to work in such a tall skyscraper given the previous terrorist attacks. All of the plans include a tall tower with a spire reaching into the sky, but just one plan, Memorial Promenade, includes two towers with spires.

Real estate experts question whether so much office space is needed, since ten percent of the office space downtown is vacant, which is nearly twice as much as it was just a few years ago. Port Authority spokesman Allen Morrison said that no commercial space would be built on the 16-acre site until there is a market for it, but Silverstein and Westfield have made it clear they want to build as much as possible.

"Larry Silverstein has a leasehold interest on the site that requires him to build what was there," Joseph Seymour, executive director of the Port Authority told the New York Times. "We all know that's impractical for many reasons. It means there has to be a negotiation, but now is not the time to do that."

TRANSPORTATION
All of the designs also have a single location for an underground transportation hub that would connect ferries, Path train, and subways; a Port Authority official called it "a Grand Central Station for downtown."

Another common element is rethinking West Street, which runs north and south between the Hudson River and the site. Four of the designs put West Street underground, which would create space for a pedestrian promenade leading down to Battery Park and help reconnect Battery Park City with the rest of lower Manhattan. One design, the Memorial Promenade would create a walkway that is wider than Paris's Champs-Elysˇes.

The plans also call for reopening some of the street grid to either cars or pedestrian traffic. Greenwich Street is reopened in the most plans.

CULTURAL AND RESIDENTIAL
Most of the designs include a museum or cultural space somewhere in the 16 acres. One of the plans, Memorial Triangle, has a cultural institution or indoor memorial built on one of the footprints. Memorial Square builds an opera house and a museum south of the site, near Albany Street.

Just what kinds of museums and institutions will be built downtown has not been decided. Some of the ideas include an international art museum, moving the Museum of the City of New York downtown, or a cultural institution that would focus on democracy and tolerance.

None of the designs include residential buildings on the 16-acre site, but most suggest creating housing south of the site, below Liberty Street. Residents of lower Manhattan have had a mixed response to the idea. While many call for more affordable housing downtown, residents say that city services such as increased trash pickup, more police, and more schools and libraries must accompany any new residential development.

Also it is unclear how well a block of housing south of the World Trade Center site that would be surrounded by mostly office space would be able to connect to the other residential areas like Battery Park City.

THE POWER OF PUBLIC RESPONSE

A New York Times editorial called the plans the "downtown we don't want." The Daily News said real estate money, not the memorial, was really driving the proposals. An article on Slate.com said that the designs represented the "shopping complex that ate the World Trade Center memorial" Only the New York Post found something to admire, but even that was based more the idea that the 16 acres might someday be "surging again with life and commerce," than the actual plans themselves.

Local politicians and civic groups have had similarly tepid responses. "I think that we've been given one concept with six variations of that, and asked to respond to that," said Manhattan Borough President Virginia C. Fields.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the plans were designed to get people to think, and that he would submit his own ideas.

"There is no soul, no sense that this is a special place that moves you," said Eva Hanhardt of the Municipal Art Society, which organized Imagine New York, which collected over 18,000 rebuilding ideas from people around the world, including from hundreds of workshops.

Response has been so unenthusiastic that several theories have sprouted about how and why planners could come up with such a set of plans. Some think that the officials knew the public would not go for restoring all of the commercial and office space and it was a way to put pressure on the leaseholders to compromise. Others offer the notion that by beginning with mediocrity, the corporation is better able to absorb criticism and win greater support for later designs.

Whatever their real or imagined motivations, just what the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority can and will do with this public response will not be clear until the next round of designs are released.

The timeline calls for the information gathered from the public to be integrated into three new designs by September. These would then be narrowed down to one plan by December. But given the response to the initial plans, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation president Lou Tomson said that the timeline may have to change.

"We have to see if that next phase of the timeline is realistic," Tomson said. "We have to make this work, and if it takes a month or two in a different direction, then it takes a month more or two, or three."

When Lower Manhattan Development Corporation head John Whitehead released the plans, he hinted that they might be scrapped to create a scheme for downtown that does not fulfill all of the Port Authority's requirements.

"If we do conclude differently that it is not possible to rebuild and still meet those requirements and have the beautiful center that we want this to be," Whitehead said, "then we will change our plans."

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