Rebuilding at Ground Zero

Will Any of the Possibilities Really Be Considered?

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration finally released the first $700 million for rebuilding lower Manhattan, and over the next few weeks, Governor George Pataki's Empire State Development Corporation will start disbursing money to local businesses.

Although it's now taken as gospel that Pataki possesses total control over the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, that wasn't the case before his pal, upstate Republican congressman Jim Walsh, wrote the law to make it that way last fall. Amid GOP fears that Mark Green would be the next mayor of New York City, Walsh, in his capacity as chairman of an influential appropriations subcommittee, ensured that the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) community development block grants funding the rebuilding effort would have to pass through the governor's fist.

This is, in fact, highly unusual. For big cities like New York, the grants go to mayors as a matter of course. But thanks to Walsh's political card trick, the city's elected representatives have almost no real voice in the largest public works project unfolding in the city in decades. The membership of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation looks like the guest list for a Pataki golf outing. The Port Authority, which owns the site, is a Pataki institution. The Department of City Planning has been shelved, as usual.

Developer Larry Silverstein's hired guns—David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Alex Cooper of Cooper Robertson and Partners—have completed a plan to rebuild World Trade Center 7 and have a scheme in the works for the whole site. Silverstein holds a 99-year lease, and has shown himself to be a litigious fellow, boding poorly for the idea that he and the Port Authority would ever part ways amicably and almost assuring that when a plan for a new complex is developed, he will be the one to build it.

Bearing in mind all these signs of preordination, what is notable is not that the usual suspects of the state's power elite are readying themselves to toast another profitable, publicly funded venture, while community groups, regional planners, local residents, and academics indulge themselves with another powerless pantomime of democratic participation. What is unique is that the public's engagement with the rebuilding process could actually matter.

One reason for this has to do with the wound September 11 inflicted on New York City. While our senators are in Washington heatedly arguing that the attack on New York was an "attack on America," it will be indefensible for politically connected financiers back home to be meat-axing the hopes of their fellow citizens. The ashes of thousands not only call for a memorial, but for the open airing of opinions as diverse as those who died, and for those opinions to count, as much as they did.

There is also a practical reason for people to speak out. The press has framed the debate as a struggle between before and after—office space versus memorial. But not even the city's mighty real estate interests favor the prospect of 15 million new square feet flooding a market already glutted with unrentable office space. In a word, those shadowy People in Charge—you know, them—are not yet quite sure what mix of cultural institutions, shops, condos, offices, and tourist destinations will best inflate downtown property values.

This accounts for the equanimity thus far expressed by those involved, most succinctly by John Whitehead, the former Goldman Sachs chairman and Reaganite who is leading the LMDC. "We'll all discuss the thing together, and we expect not to have a plan that people disagree on," Whitehead says. "When there are differences, we will have to be wise and work those out successfully."

But if there is one slippery shred of rhetoric to watch out for, it is the phrase "mixed use." One of those city-planning terms popularized by Jane Jacobs and since perverted beyond all measure, the phrase has become an impoverished sound bite used by big decision makers to fabricate an air of inclusiveness. One could imagine a very likely scenario where, in its name, downtown residents' demands for more spaces to live and shop and learn and play are alchemized into a federally bought, chain-store-laden Downtown Mall vertiginously stacked with market-rate apartments and some elite, expensive cultural institution.

But since "mixed use" is already here, why not reinvigorate the term with its original meaning? NYU professor Andrew Ross took this tack at a recent forum on rebuilding at Columbia University. "Mixed-use zoning for mixed incomes provides the only planning instrument that can encourage the utopian balance between residents, visitors, and strangers in free flow," he said, sounding like Jacobs herself.

His sense that the rebuilding must, as testament to a democratic city, create space for a mixed-income population is vital. Ross favors bringing back the city grid. The project should at least return human scale elements to Lower Manhattan, inviting pedestrian access and freeing us from years of overbearing towers shadowing windswept concrete plazas. The Department of City Planning could invoke its dormant progressive zoning powers to accomplish these feats.

In the days after September 11, a coalition of labor groups and advocates for the poor began to discuss Lower Manhattan's situation, and some of their ideas concern rebuilding. The Community Service Society has suggested a publicly funded jobs program, in which part of the $2.7 billion earmarked for New York would go to subsidizing wages so strapped businesses can hire the unemployed, rather than just receive one-shot grants. State Senator Eric Schneiderman wrote a bill that would give preference to locally made materials in rebuilding.

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