Gotham Gazette

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Rebuilding NYC

What's Next For Civic Groups

Last year, the architect and planner coalition New York New Visions created a special committee to review all of the proposals for the World Trade Center site, from the panned designs in July to the nine acclaimed designs in December. But now that officials have selected Daniel Libeskind's design for Ground Zero, the committee has no plans to disband.

New York New Visions, along with the other dozens of civic groups that have formed after September 11, will continue to keep a close eye on the 16-acre World Trade Center site and beyond, and keep working to influence how New York City is rebuilt.

Even groups that Libeskind's design would seem to make utterly obsolete, like the rebuild-the-towers advocates Team Twin Towers and the World Trade Center Restoration Movement, are vowing to keep up the struggle. "If you believe as I do that something more like the taller original Twins is better, then keep fighting to have that built instead!" posted Louis Epstein on Gotham Gazette's message board about the chosen plan.

There is also a completely new group called Voices of Lower Manhattan that is just getting started this month.

Rebuilding civic groups say that there is much more to be decided, and are gearing up for new publications and projects. Some will be fighting to protect the design that Libeskind envisions, others to influence its details, and to capture unspent federal rebuilding aid for causes like jobs and affordable housing.


With the glaring exception of the rebuild-the-towers advocates, most of the rebuilding civic groups supported Libeskind's design as the best choice for downtown. Now, said Rick Bell of New York New Visions, they will be focusing on the details of Libeskind's design for Ground Zero that remain up in the air. One major question, Bell said, is exactly how many retail stores are located underground. New York New Visions, the coalition of lower Manhattan residents, businesses and architects Rebuild Downtown Our Town and others have said that it is important that stores are not just underground in a mall, but also along the streets so that downtown becomes a lively shopping area.

Rebuild Downtown Our Town, nicknamed R.Dot, plans on fighting to preserve as much of Libeskind's vision as possible, said director Beverly Willis. "We see R.Dot as active as long as the issues that we are concerned about have not been resolved. We are incredibly concerned about the deterioration of Studio Libeskind's design," she said. "We were dismayed with the changes that were already made without public input between the original design and the one that was chosen." These changes, Willis said, include putting more office space in the 16-acre World Trade Center site itself.

One of the World Trade Center site debates that are still unresolved is whether or not West Street will be tunneled underground. In the Februrary 27 presentation of his design, Libeskind showed two possible plans for West Street. In one, four blocks of West Street along Ground Zero are brought underground. In another, the street is lined with trees, but still open to traffic at street level. R.Dot and another group created specifically around this issue, the Coalition to Save West Street, will be pushing to keep West Street above ground as a final decision is made about the road.

Residents and victims family members are also in tense debates about rebuilding officials' proposal to put a bus terminal underneath the memorial space at Ground Zero, and whether or not all of the unidentified remains from the disaster should be interned in a tomb at the World Trade Center site.


Development corporation officials have said that they plan to choose a design for the 9/11 memorial by the second anniversary of the attacks. As this decision draws closer, the Municipal Art Society project Imagine New York will work to set up meetings and forums for the public to give their input about the memorial, said director Holly Leicht. "Imagine feels very strongly that the public needs to have a part in that process," said Leicht. "We are hoping that there will be a short list of finalists that the public can weigh in on." This spring, Imagine New York will also hold workshops with the public about transportation and preserving historic buildings in lower Manhattan.

Rick Bell said that New York New Visions will also be involved in planning for the memorial, and will work to ensure that the memorial is built with the "greatest amount of public participation and greatest amount of creative splendor." Bell said that it is important that the memorial be chosen by an independent jury, but also that the jury take into account the opinions of victims families and others closely involved.

Civic Alliance, the umbrella group of civic groups involved in rebuilding, hosted a large public town hall meeting for 5,000 people called Listening to the City in July 2002. Many have called for another big public forum, but the group does not plan to hold a similar event during planning for the memorial, said Petra Todorovich of the Regional Plan Association, the organization heading up the Civic Alliance. "We still feel that public input is a very important part of the process, but aren't able to host a big event like Listening to the City. We were unable to get the support of public agencies or get the amount of funding needed."

But the Civic Alliance will continue to be involved, especially as steps are taken to implement the mayor's plan for downtown, said Todorovich. "We're in this for the long run," she said. "The more that the process itself it is successful, the less proactive we will be. but there will always be a need for people to come and reach a good portion of the civic community."


Other groups will continue to watch how what is left of over $21 billion in federal rebuilding aid given to the city after the attacks is spent. "The city is in a very serious recession, joblessness is at historic high points, and there's $1.25 billion in money sitting in the bank at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, that is supposed to be economic development money," said David Kallick, head of the Labor Community Advocacy Network, a coalition of advocacy groups. "The time has come for this to be a central point of discussion."

The coalition that Kallick heads has several suggestions for where the money should go, listed in a new report. One of the group's major recommendations, Kallick said, is that officials spend $1 billion of the federal aid that is still in the development corporation's coffers to create $50,000 new jobs. Kallick said that the federal aid was given to the city as part of an economic development package, to help New Yorkers economically recover from the attacks. However, city officials have suggested that the money be spent on downtown infrastructure or the 9/11 memorial.

The coalition will also continue to monitor how the remaining billions in tax-free bonds, called Liberty Bonds, which were given as part of the federal 9/11 aid are spent. Hundreds of millions have already gone to fund largely market-rate housing in lower Manhattan, despite calls that some apartments should be set aside for lower and middle income New Yorkers.

Although many of the federal programs to help people clean up the air and dust from the attack in their apartments are now over, groups like 9/11 Environmental Action are lobbying the state and city to fund health programs, and even planning an environmental summit.


As more and more decisions are made, civic groups are hoping that at the connections they have made during the past year and a half will pay off. The Labor Community Advocacy Network and other civic groups met with Libeskind in the months leading up to the official selection of the architect's plan for downtown, and hope that the man that the New York Observer has dubbed "Mr. Ground Zero" will continue to be so accessible. "We've already talked with them about continuing meetings. I really felt like he and his wife understood that the public needs to be a partner in the process, and treated us as representing meaningful constituencies in the public," said Kallick. "That felt very nice."

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