A Conversation With Lou TomsonOn Wednesday, July 24, Gotham Gazette held a live chat with Lou Tomson, President of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Find out what he said during our conversation as Tomson fielded questions about the six plans for the World Trade Center site.
Gotham Gazette: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming to Gotham Gazette’s live chat event. Our guest today is Lou Tomson, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which last week released six plans for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.
Lou Tomson: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us today. I look forward to answering your questions.
RESPONSE TO THE SIX PLANS
GG: Thank you, Mr. Tomson. Our first question: You have said that public response to the six plans is important to you. What do you make of the response in the past week?
LT: I think the input has been very helpful in charting where we go from here.
GG: Much of the response seemed to be negative. The New York Times, to quote just one critical editorial, called them "dreary and leaden." The majority of people at Listening to the City, Saturday’s public town hall meeting with 5,000 at the Jacob Javits Center voted that all six plans were poor or merely adequate. Did this surprise you?
LT: I think the plans were a reaction to the program and the massing structures neccesitated by the amount of square feet required. I was not surprised because as far as I know, the process we are pursuing is unique. I took the comments to be very constructive. People were supporting the process and supporting the effort it took to get to where we could discuss the plans. I think I would be dissapointed if we did not make significant progress based on the comments.
GG: PeterCaine88 asks, What is your feeling regarding the general feeling that the 6 new designs lack inspiration?
LT: I think we can be more bold and innovative as the participants at the forum wanted. And i expect that we will be.
GG: Can you say now that the plans have definitely been scrapped?
LT: The plans were always important for the various elements they contained not for the plans as distinct wholes. So as we have always indicated we are working on extracting the best elements from the plans and using them again. For example, the promenade. For example, the strong preference not to build on the footprints. For example, the preference for a number of small parks rather than one large park.
GG: Are there other elements that the public seems to like?
LT: Yes, the public seems to be in favor of the street grid. And the public seems to be in favor of removing westway as a barrier to pedestrian access.
GG: Has the deadline definitely been extended?
LT: The deadline has not definitely been extended because I need to consult with our partners and the board, but I am ready to recommend an extension of one to three months for this phase of the planning process.
GG: When is the deadline to decide when the deadline will be extended?
LT: Very soon because we want to keep the public apprised of what our schedule is. We want people to understand when they can expect results from us and the general nature of the result.
THE PORT AUTHORITY AND THE LEASE WITH LARRY SILVERSTEIN
GG: Earlier you talked about the program and massing structures. The New York Post today quoted a Silverstein representative as saying, "Larry has no intention of backing out of this." What options exist if Silverstein is unwilling to renegotiate his 99-year lease on the property?
LT: I never assume that people will be unreasonable or act against their own interest.
GG: Margaret P. Stix asks: Why can't the Silverstein/Westfield lease be terminated and/or the site condemned with the Port Authority then using the insurance proceeds for rebuilding?
LT: I think you have asked an insightful two part question. Basically, I infer from the first part of your question, you are asking, 'Why can't a deal be negotiated with Silverstein/Westfield and if a deal can't be negotiated, then can the powers of condemnation be used?' I think it is too early in the process, as I said in answer to the preceeding question, to assume that the current parties, can't reach a good resolution of the issue.
GG: George M. Bulow asks: What is the exact legal relationship of your organization to the Port Authority? What does this allow you to do? What doesn’t it allow you to do?
LT: The exact legal relationship of our corporation to the PA has never been precisely defined. One reason we entered into the collaboration agreement with the PA is to avoid questions concerning whether the Port or LMDC has ultimate decision power but roughly, I believe, the Port has ultimate legal authority over the site. And we, in conjunction with the City, have the power off the site.
One more thing...I might add that who has power depends on location. For example, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority owns the Brooklyn Battery tunnel. As has the city and the port, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority has been collaborating in the process because all of the agencies involved want to reach a resolution that will serve the needs of the city and are not interested in testing their ultimate legal authority.
THE ROLE OF THE GOVERNOR AND THE MAYOR
GG: Some have suggested that neither the Port Authority nor the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will have the ultimate say. Gov. Pataki is ultimately in charge of what happens at Ground Zero. You have worked for and with Pataki for many years. How much control does he actually have over this project? What can we expect from the governor in the months to come?
LT: I think the governor is interested, as he should be, in the project. I also think that he is comfortable with the process developed to consult the public. I believe he will continue to be deeply interested in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan. The mayor has the responsibility of rebuilding and as you know, this is a joint city state corporation. We take our mandate from both the mayor and the governor, trying to plan and stimulate redevelopment that will serve the city well into the next century.
GG: eastvill asks, Why has the mayor been cut out of the process?
LT: The mayor has not been cut out of the process. Through his staff, the Mayor has been an active participant and a source of many good suggestions, beginning with the location of the temporary memorial. We expect to work more closely with the city's agencies as we go forward. This is a learning process for a new corporation. We are exploring how to access the city's resources to help us produce a better product.
GG: Both John Smith and "Lil’Bowwow" ask, Who has the final say?
LT: Thats a very good question. I hope the final say will be a consensus. It's the LMDC's ambition to achieve collaborative results. To do that, it is important to focus on transparency and honesty. And not who has the final say.
MEETING PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS
GG: Several participants have asked a question that is in essence the following: How can we trust that the public’s opinions and ideas will be taken into account, since the six plans did not meet public expectations at all?
LT: As we used to say in the legal business, you are assuming a fact not in evidence. But, the major thrust of your question is still critical. I said Saturday that the public should judge our responsiveness by whether they could trace their questions through our process to an answer. The answer could be yes or no, but they should know what it is.
GG: minime asks, "Why is there only the one firm that is submitting concepts for the development of ground zero? It seems that diverse input would increase the odds that a design would wow!"
LT: The ideas for the six plans were drawn from several firms... But we have to look at how to address the public's concerns that our ideas were not sufficiently bold and ambitious. We will do that.
GG: A lot of questions are concerned with why the public should trust the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Why wasn’t it made clear to the public earlier that the six initial plans for downtown would all include rebuilding everything that was lost, including the 11 million square feet of office space?
LT: This is a learning process and we will put the lessons we learned here to use in the future.
PUBLIC CONCERNS VS. PRIVATE INTERESTS
GG: The New York Times reported today that up to two thirds of the large downtown companies are not willing to commit to stay in lower Manhattan. Chris B asks, Does it really make sense for New York City to build more office space, faced with this exodus?
LT: That's a very good question. New York City is a city of cycles. I think we are in a down cycle now. We have to be prepared for up cycles.
GG: Are public concerns and private interests at odds for rebuilding lower Manhattan? Is there room to fulfill the Port Authority’s legal requirements, and also build a memorial, a transportation hub, great open spaces, and cultural and residential areas?
LT: That is the challenge facing the LMDC. We hope to meet it, but it is a significant challenge.
GG: What are the specific plans to overcome that challenge?
LT: First, collaboration, second, having sufficient resources which I believe, thanks to the president, we will have. Third, using them wisely. Fourth, not being afraid to use good ideas, just because they didn't originate with us. Fifth, making sure we use the wisdom of our partners. Sixth, consulting the public and our advisory councils on the progress we are making.
GG: When you say our partners, who precisely do you mean?
LT: The Port Authority; the City of New York, and it's agencies; state agencies; state-city agencies, like the MTA; the public. I'm sure I'm leaving some out, but this is an inclusive process.
GG: TribecaDesign asks, How much influence does New Jersey Governor McGreevey have over the site?
LT: The State of New Jersey and the State of New York have equal rights in the Port Authority.
THE SKYLINE AND THE FOOTPRINTS
GG: Many people, including Robert Scheib and Etan Haarwayne-Gidansky, asked the following: "Sir, do you oppose the rebuilding of the World Trade Center the way it was on September 10, 2001 and extending the height of the towers to the height taller than any other building in the world? I believe this would be the ultimate memorial to the thousands of victims."
LT: There is widespread support for making a significant statement on the skyline in the rebuilding effort. How to capture that statement is one of the issues to be settled as we go ahead with our planning process.
GG: September’s Mission founder Monica Iken and other victims’ family members strongly oppose building on the "footprints," the space where the towers once stood. New Yorkers are evenly split about this, according to a poll released last week.. Have you decided to rule out building on this space?
LT: Our forum on Saturday indicated a strong preference for not building on the footprints.
GG: Yes, but have you ruled it out?
LT: As Ms. Iken said, the process has many stakeholders. The preceding question asked us would we rebuild the twin towers. I assume they meant, where they once stood. So, my answer is, we have a strong preference not to build on the footprints. Perhaps at some point a compelling argument will be made to the contrary, but that has not yet happened.
GG: Dave Lopez asks, "Who has been more annoying in this redevelopment process, the pro-memorialists or the pro-rebuilders?" What we believe he’s asking is, how can you reconcile the starkly conflicting views on what to do on the site expressed by people who are so emotional about it?
LT: I think by being an honest broker, by soliciting people's views, by telling people of one view...the views of those who disagree, by encouraging them to speak to one another. This is a process that takes time.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND TRANSPORTATION
GG: One of the issues raised at the first Listening to the City event was affordable housing. However, the Labor Community Advocacy Network reported that the first use of government bonds to build housing downtown "designated only 5 percent of the units as affordable – and affordable was defined as $1,700 per month for a studio and $2,500 for a two-bedroom." Do you have any specific plans for bringing more, truly affordable, housing to the area?
LT: The Mayor has asked us to review how to create more housing for all income levels in downtown manhattan and we will pursue that.
GG: Is there any timeframe for that?
LT: It will be done concurrent with our planning phases. It is not just a question of housing, but all of the services that go with housing, such as schools, medical care, fire, etc.
GG: "Robert Moses II" asks, "Is there a current date set for the rebuilding to begin?"
LT: The rebulding has begun. There is currently underway the reconstruction of the 1/9 and the Path, the winter garden... Con Ed substation, and 7 WTC. Roads have been repaved and reopened, like West Steet...and many other improvements.
GG: Edward Powers asks: "When will the preliminary plans for the transit hub be available on-line? This transit hub is very important, especially since it will be the first thing to be built on the site."
LT: First, it would be important to locate the transit hub - will it be on the PA site or at Fulton/Nassau? Then, the process of developing a program and plans could begin. The PA...presented a conceptual plan for a hub at the forum saturday.
GG: To follow up on that: Why aren’t there different choices for where the transportation complex will be located? All of the six plans put this "Grand Central for downtown" at the same place.
LT: There are actually three potential sites.
GG: In the six plans, there are three sites listed?!
LT: Two locations on the site: present path configuration, path at church street, one location off the site at nassau/fulton.
GG: Carmen asks, "Do you support having large organizations that once occupied the WTCs to move to the outer boroughs to spur economic growth there as well?
LT: Our mandate is the redevelopment of Manhattan south of Houston Street. That is what we concentrate on.
GG: Last question: CPW asks, "How will history - and future citizens of Lower Manhattan - judge these efforts?"
LT: Good question. It depends on how good of a job we do. We hope they will judge them well because we did a good job.
Thanks everyone for joining us today. We appreciate the input. For more information, visit our website at www.renewnyc.com.
GG: Thank you very much, Mr. Tomson.