Rebuilding at Ground Zero


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.

Other ideas concern what to build. Ed Ott, director of public policy for the Central Labor Council, says it’s time to look at extending the LIRR from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, and even building a light rail that connects ferry terminals from river to river.

“A lot of what’s being considered are economic incentives for companies to stay in Lower Manhattan,” says James Parrott, deputy director of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “It would be better to use those resources for infrastructural investments in mass transit. Lower Manhattan would end up with a 21st-century mass transit system. That’s the most cost-effective incentive system government can provide.”

The block grants funding the rebuilding are usually earmarked to serve low- to moderate-income people. Clearly, if housing is built on this site, it must include a significant portion of truly affordable housing. Why not also create facilities for downtown’s embattled printing industry to regroup? It would certainly be cheaper than paying the printers to move to Queens, as the city does now, or letting them go out of business and fire their employees. Why not help independent businesses across the city get a leg up by giving them preference to locate in the new complex at affordable rents?

Critics maligned a recent exhibit of World Trade Center designs at the Max Protetch Gallery for jumping the gun and dreaming too far. One can’t help but think that some of the backlash comes from a mistaken notion that design is stupid, an extravagance, a waste of time. Architectural forms take on the status of glacial deposits in New York. The streets are “urban canyons.” The buildings are natural formations. Why fight geology? This method of thinking nicely serves the interests of those architects who love to plow the city with glass towers that coldly celebrate our diminishment, our division into little boxes.

The most wonderful part of that heroically impractical exhibit is that it imparts the opposite message: that the 16-acre World Trade Center site could look stunning. The best designs at the Protetch exhibit are barely that—more meditations, visions, rumors. One thinks of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Trade Center as meditative forest of leaning trees, or a series of slender towers bounded by a band of public space. While the orphic egg for global conflict resolution doesn’t stand a chance of being built, the point is that the new site’s looks should be as meaningful as its content.

Similarly, at a recent hearing on the Trade Center site, New Yorkers offered a variety of ideas to bring the oxygen back downtown, from turning West Street into a landscaped boulevard to building renewably fueled green buildings on the site. For the memorial, they said, plant 11 trees; have a thin layer of water washing over the names of the dead; use the footprints of the original towers for reflecting pools. “The memorial should be as multicultural as the people who worked in the World Trade Center,” said a former Windows on the World manager.

And it could be. Funded by $20 billion in federal money, it should be extraordinary and encompassing. Thus far, the LMDC has restricted itself to the role of military provisioners. They will decide how much of what will go where, hand a shopping list to Silverstein, and then hold a broader, open competition for only the memorial part of the site.

This is not what we need. And public officials surely don’t need to be doling out huge grants and tax incentives to beg big businesses to hang out for a few more years, returning nothing to the commonweal except their shopping dollars, until they can wring more free money from us the next year.

One example of the fruitlessness of these sorts of endeavors occurred just last week, when Goldman Sachs decided to abandon New York City in its time of need. Sachs announced plans to ferry its equity trading department to a new $1 billion complex the company is building in Jersey City that will alter the Jersey skyline with the state’s tallest skyscraper and help secure the Garden State’s fiscal future for years to come.

You would think the leader of the authority fighting to keep companies from fleeing the city would at least be able to keep his own former employer here. But as we learned during the last fiscal crisis, just because bankers can’t see fit to invest in New York by no means assures that they won’t continue to run New York on their terms. Reverend Peter Laarman of Judson Memorial Church said it best at a fall conference called Rebuilding New York for All New Yorkers: “We need to be rebuilding with equity and imagination.” Amen. Now is the time for watching out. The LMDC is in “listening mode” until March 15. Then they act.