NYC Rebuilding Delegation to Europe
By Erica Pearson
Members of the New York City rebuilding delegation to Europe leaned forward in their seats. A Berlin city planner was explaining how the German metropolis developed its own Ground Zero, a swath of barren land in the middle of the city. The wall dividing East from West that ran through the area came down in 1989, and the land, called Potsdamer Platz, was rebuilt to become the center of a unified city.
Many in the delegation had traveled to Berlin hoping to be inspired by the city's massive rebuilding project, carried out on land so full of historical significance. But Potsdamer Platz' sterile buildings and empty streets left them with a negative first impression, and worries about rebuilding their own city.
The Berlin planner's comments didn't help matters. "It could have been much worse," he said.
"In New York," Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, couldn't help replying, "We are trying to go for a higher standard."
Berlin's massive rebuilding project was just one of many stops on the New Yorkers' tour, as the 52 member, privately funded delegation - among them architects and planners, victim's family members and activists - looked at Europe's reconstruction projects, development plans and memorials with New York in mind.
After several days in Berlin, the delegation split into three groups, one visiting Barcelona, Spain, the other Copenhagen, Denmark and the third making stops in Munich, Germany and Bologna, Italy.
Berlin's Ground Zero
Berlin's Potsdamer Platz was built following an international architecture contest with stipulations that sound familiar to anyone following New York's rebuilding; create a mixed use, 24-7 community, with shopping, business and office space, that also serves as a connection to surrounding neighborhoods. But to the visiting New Yorkers, the completed Potsdamer Platz looked empty, and rather characterless. "It reminded me of Houston," said Yaro.
Part of the reason Potsdamer Platz, a large development designed for two major corporations - DaimlerChrysler and Sony - is so uninspiring, said Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Design and the trip's organizer, is, well, because it is a large development designed for two major corporations.
A better example for Ground Zero, which has its own two developers, leaseholders Westfield and Silverstein Properties, can be found closer to home. "I can't think of any large, mono-development that has captured the public imagination," said Shiffman, "save one in New York called Rockefeller Center. It works partly because its scale is small enough to relate to city blocks, and because it created a really wonderful and open public space."
The New York delegation did, however, find direct lessons for New York in the way that Potsdamer Platz was rebuilt. Instead of simply using trucks to haul away debris and bring new construction materials into the site, the Berliners cut a canal into the site and used barges, thus avoiding traffic jams and added air pollution.
Many Memorials, But No Hope
While in Berlin, a small group of the New York delegation, many of them family members who are working on the beginning stages of planning for the World Trade Center memorial, spent an afternoon visiting a number of the city's recent memorials to the victims of the Nazi era. Many are built into the city's neighborhoods, in subway stations and along sidewalks, making sure that the terrible history of certain places is not forgotten. While they appreciated the way the memorials were a part of the city's daily life, some in the group said that they want to make sure that the World Trade Center memorial has a very different emotional impact.
"What I would like to see us show is hope, and I didn't see that. I just saw a lot of torture and sadness," said Jackie Mardikian, whose son died on September 11. Nikki Stern, a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's family advisory council, agreed. "The memorialization does not have to be depressing."
A Pedestrian Mall
As rebuilding officials back home revealed plans to build more than twice as much retail space at the World Trade Center site than existed before the attacks, a group of the New York delegation visited one of Europe's most successful retail shopping areas. Munich's downtown pedestrian mall, built as part of the city's development plans for the 1972 Olympics, was packed with a throng of afternoon shoppers.
Mercedes Narciso of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Design and other members of the delegation suggested that a similar project might make sense for lower Manhattan. The Munich mall's mix of international chains and locally owned stores, a local official explained, was guaranteed by a sliding scale rent.
A group of the delegation met with local economic development experts and toured a center near Bologna, Italy, that works to introduce the latest technology and ideas to small manufacturing companies in the region, keeping them competitive. The Italians' success may have some lessons for rebuilding Chinatown and New York City's economies. In New York, said Bruce Herman from the Center for Workforce and Economic Development, "we need to focus on working with what we have instead of throwing resources at what we don't have."
Planning with the Public
In design-conscious Copenhagen, a group of New Yorkers visited with the city's chief city planner, who described the Danes' involved public planning proeces, which often takes as long as two years. "We think that the public know much more about the problems than planners do," the official told the delegation. "You can always change the plan." These words stood out to many in the group who are anxious to see another Listening to the City-type public meeting after the agency in charge of lower Manhattan's rebuilding releases the next round of plans for the World Trade Center site.
Building a Connected City
In Barcelona, Spain, members of the delegation examined ways that new development can be connected to an existing city. "This is particularly important for lower Manhattan, where we have to figure out how the new streets should intersect naturally with Battery Park City, which is not a grid, and the Financial District, which is not a grid," said Shiffman. Members of the delegation found Barcelona's Olympic Village to be so well integrated that it felt just like any other neighborhood of the city.
In Barcelona the New Yorkers also visited an eternal flame dedicated to those who died on the day that the city, part of independent Catalonia, was invaded by the French and Spanish. The date: September 11, 1714.