A great deal of public discussion about how to rebuild the World Trade Center site has taken place in recent weeks. The immediate impetus for it was the unveiling of plans submitted by six designers to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. About 5,000 New Yorkers had the opportunity to assess those designs at a July 20 meeting called “Listening to the City.” They expressed little enthusiasm for the designs, and a number of concerns. Chief among them:
- All six designs would allocate an overwhelming proportion of the space to commercial use, to the exclusion of virtually everything else.
- Alternative ways should be found to satisfy the requirements of the 99-year lease on the site.
- There was general dissatisfaction with the memorial aspect of plans for the site, especially its poor integration into the overall designs.
- Relatively little space is set aside for residential or cultural uses.
Press reactions, too, have been generally negative. The Gotham Gazette, an online publication which I used as a primary source of information on this topic, cited a number of examples: “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.'”
The Gotham Gazette cited “similarly tepid responses” by local politicians and civic groups: “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. “There is no soul, no sense that this is a special place that moves you,” said Eva Hanhardt of the Municipal Art Society.
The real sticking point is undoubtedly the obligation of the Port Authority, which owns the land, to honor its agreements with Silverstein Properties and Westfield America. They are paying rent on the site, and they’ve made it clear that they want to replace all of the commercial and retail space contained in the World Trade Center before Sept. 11. To meet this requirement, all the plans include five or six office buildings, ranging from 32 to 85 stories.
Given the high vacancy rate for downtown office space, many people are questioning whether that approach makes sense – especially given the limitations that creating so much commercial space would place on the rest of the project.
The Gotham Gazette outlined a number of theories that have been developed to explain why the planners came up with such lackluster designs. “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.”
Public input is supposed to be integrated into three new designs, scheduled to be completed some time this month, which would be narrowed down to one plan by December. That schedule may no longer be realistic, given the negative reaction to the first set of plans.
Residential space is not contemplated, even though this would seem an opportunity to build affordable housing – housing that working people would find attractive. An immense amount of grassroots pressure would be needed to change this.
Some cultural space is included in most of the designs, although in vague, non-specific ways. (My uninformed but instinctive reaction to a first look at the plans was that any cultural inclusion is pre-designed to get lost along the way.) One design, Memorial Square, would have an opera house and museum built south of the site. There has been talk of the New York City Opera moving here but, to the best of my knowledge, it is no more than talk.
The inclusion of cultural and residential space would accomplish several desired objectives. It would turn lower Manhattan from a neighborhood that, to a great degree, shuts down after five o’clock in the evening and on weekends to one that is vital and alive continuously. It could provide badly-needed economic diversity to the city in the form of good jobs other than the finance jobs that existed prior to 9/11 (and should continue to exist).
The “cultural industry” is, after finance, the principal economic and social engine moving this city. Its presence could serve both to memorialize and invigorate this area. Finally, the presence of a vibrant cultural center would provide the spirit so sadly lacking in any of the plans so far contemplated, and so necessary if the project is to have real meaning in our lives.
These points are stressed in many of the most thoughtful proposals developed by civic groups and coalitions since Sept. 11. For example, Imagine New York calls for the creation of new arts and cultural facilities in Lower Manhattan, as part of efforts to promote vitality downtown. “A cultural center should be created as a hub for all forms of artistic creation and expression. This center would help establish the area as a 24-hour community, promote public participation, and stimulate the economy and the growth of satellite arts communities. Multicultural and socially – and economically – inclusive public cultural activities, including arts festivals and performances, should take place in a variety of venues and locations to attract international participants and audiences.”
New York New Visions outlines a central role for cultural institutions in developing a flexible mixed-use future for lower Manhattan, and calls for the development of “one or more major institutions or public attractions downtown as catalysts for economic redevelopment as well as cultural activity.” They note that “cultural activities are instrumental in defining New York’s character. Whether world-renowned or community-based, cultural activities lure people to the City and make them stay. Any successful new development of Lower Manhattan must include them…
“The city and state should also offer incentives for the design of spaces that promote a variety of arts activities. Rehearsal spaces, studios, galleries and performance venues, together with new libraries and public spaces, must be included in the development of both old and new buildings, ensuring that reconstruction achieves its goal of generating a vibrant urban environment.”
Proposals that would “reignite the cultural scene by building on downtown’s distinct mix of large and small arts organizations” are outlined in considerable detail in the Civic Alliance’s “Planning Framework to Rebuild Downtown New York.” They include the creation of a comprehensive marketing plan for “the complex network of small and mid-size arts organizations and larger cultural institutions” that already exist in Lower Manhattan; the development of major new institutions, along with investment in existing arts and cultural groups; and the creation of programs in existing pavilions, outdoor performance spaces and schools, “which can be done now without waiting for facilities to be built.”
Many of the proposals that these and other groups have put forward display great creativity in re-imagining lower Manhattan. They understand the vital role the arts play as an engine of economic development. And they recognize that it will take a combination of new construction and support for existing cultural groups and facilities to realize the area’s potential. These qualities are sadly lacking in the six official proposals. Hopefully, it is not too late to remedy that.