The World Trade Center: A mini-history of a major monstrosity
April 19, 1973
Governors Rockefeller and Cahill came together to congratulate each other, themselves, “the people,” David Rockefeller, the Port Authority, the business community, and everyone else remotely involved, and to officially dedicate the World Trade Center, the twin towers of which impress beholders both as a testament to man’s technological and engineering skills and as final evidence that Nelson Rockefeller intends to methodically transform the entire landscape with concrete-and-steel proofs of his personal potency.
Whatever our opinions, we have spent the last couple of years learning to live with the long shadows cast by the towers and with the alteration of the skyline which we once swore we could never get used to. Whence and whither this extravaganza?
Whither is, of course, difficult to determine, as whither always is. The ecology-minded and those among us who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down — or at the very least abandoned — on that not-too-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves. But of course energy conservation wasn’t even a consideration when the building was planned pre-1965. Between the conception and the realization has fallen a shadow which may render the structure obsolete even before it is completed.
Whence is easier to deal with. The World Trade Center was conceived by vested interests, promoted by pressure groups, brought into being by a handful of powerful men for reasons of monetary gain or personal prestige, and indirectly subsidized by the taxpayer.
It began in 1960 when David Rockefeller, then president of the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, wrote a letter to the Port Authority asking it to study the feasibility of building a World Trade Center. The P. A. spent a year studying the proposal, and reported to Rockefeller that such a building was feasible and that the P. A., in its capacity as regulator of traffic within the ports of New York and New Jersey, should undertake the project rather than leaving it to private interests.
It is important to understand that the P. A. is a public agency with bi-state jurisdiction. Since it cannot tax, but does have the authority to float tax-exempt bonds, it claims it can only involve itself in money-making ventures (this is the rationale for refusing to invest in mass transit). However, it was chartered to go into ventures in which private enterprise had proven a failure. The question is how the P. A. could have concluded that the private sector didn’t have the resources to finance office buildings in New York.
It is obvious that building an office complex looked to the P. A. like a good way to make lots of money, even if it did require stretching the interpretation of the corporation’s mandate. The project was conceived as a get-rich-quick scheme at public expense, nothing really new to the taxpayers of New York State. But aside from a lot of vague talk about the value of “bringing world trade under one roof,” the P. A. failed to specify how such an undertaking would benefit the Port of New York.
Ten years before, in 1950, a commission created by the state legislature to determine the feasibility of a world trade center had completed a four-year study which advised that using the money to revitalize the piers would be of greater benefit to the port’s position in international trade. One can only speculate on what occurred between 1950 and 1960 that caused the P. A. to disregard this advice.
One month after the P. A. decided to build the World Trade Center, it issued another report proposing the structure be built at a specific site on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After making detailed recommendations, the report concluded that “no other single site is considered to be appropriate.” The New York state legislature approved the proposal, but New Jersey balked — naturally, it wanted the building on the West Side.
Another report was quickly issued, conveniently revealing that during analysis a new site had “occurred to the P. A. staff,” one which, it must be assumed, it had overlooked in its previous “exhaustive” study. Early in 1962, both New Jersey and New York approved the P. A. proposal to build a 72-story office tower on the present site. This, of course, was later changed to two 110-story towers, but no hearings were ever held on that change — the legislature refused to make any further study and the P. A. is exempt from City Planning Commission hearings.
Legal problems held construction up for two years. The Courtesy Delicatessen, one of the businesses scheduled to be torn down to make way for the WTC, sued on the grounds that the P. A. was using the land for private purposes and therefore had no legal right to condemn the land. The Appellate Court ruled in Courtesy’s favor, but the Court of Appeals reversed the decision by ruling three-to-two that, since the structure was being built only to provide office space for those directly involved in international trade, this for some reason constituted a public purpose and therefore the P. A. could condemn the land. Immediately after the P. A. won its appeal, Rockefeller agreed to lease approximately 25 per cent of the space for state offices. One wonders exactly what involvement the state has in world trade.
A major complaint about the building has been that, because it can afford to charge lower rents for space due to its special tax status, it competes unfairly with privately owned buildings, causing them to stand empty at indirect expense to the taxpayer. P. A. officials answer that this does not apply because the WTC is not just another office building, but one built for very special purposes.
I recently took a tour of the building with P. A. public relations man Leon Katz, and he kept stressing this point whenever I asked him about the building’s effect upon the glut of office space in New York. “You’ve got to understand that this building is special, it’s just for international trade,” he told me. “If you want to give The Village Voice readers the real World Trade Center story, you’ll tell them about all the specialized facilities we have here, and tell them that only businesses directly involved in international trade will be allowed to rent space here. That’s your real story, that’s what the public should know.”
I asked Katz why, if this were true, the state had rented out a quarter of the offices in the building.
He answered that “realistically” the P. A. could not refuse to rent to the state.
Theodore Kheel, who has been the P. A.’s most outspoken critic in recent years, dismisses these claims: “Who isn’t involved in world trade? It’s an unenforceable distinction. The hot dog man who sells to someone on the way into the building can claim he’s providing ‘sustenance for world trade.’
“Let’s face it, the P. A. has simply ignored its mandate and moved into the business of providing office space on the theory that it’s a good way to make money. All this talk about the necessity of having world trade conducted under one roof is ridiculous. First, it would take you longer to get from the 100th floor of one tower to the 100th floor of the other than to take a cab a few blocks. Secondly, who conducts business in person these days anyway? It’s all done over the phone.”
On the occasion of the building’s dedication, Kheel sent a letter to Governors Rockefeller and Cahill, condemning the project as “socialism at its worst,” and urging them to sell it to the private sector as soon as possible.
I asked him if this remark was made facetiously, if he really believes the building could be run on a private basis, without the tax breaks the P. A. enjoys.
“Something like that could be structured into the legislation that would be needed in order for the building to be sold,” he said. “Or even better, the building could be leased for operation, and then with the fixed revenue received from rental, the P.A. could capitalize and float bonds for mass transit.”
But Kheel admits such a thing is improbable. “It’s such an irony, really,” he said. “The name of Rockefeller is synonymous with capitalism, yet here is an entirely socialistic enterprise that has been enthusiastically approved by two of the brothers. When FDR tried to set up the TVA, the industrialists screamed about unfair competition, but when the Rockefellers lend their support to something that interferes much more blatantly with free enterprise, Wall Street has no objections. That shows how far this system of welfare capitalism has gone.”
Whatever the building’s dubious history, it is a fact of life now, and the question must be whether it functions and how well it serves the city. It is nearly complete; some of the top floors have to be glassed in and one of the two low plaza buildings remains to be built. The WTC has the dubious distinction of being the most self-sufficient artificial environment in New York. One worker said proudly that he never had to “set foot outdoors” from the time he left his house in New Jersey until the time he got home.
The desirability of this is, of course, questionable, especially in light of recent studies by optometrists revealing that constant exposure to fluorescent lighting causes severe eyestrain and can result in debilitating headaches, fatigue, irritability, and dizziness. Of course theoretically one can always go for a stroll during lunch hour, but the wind tunnel created by the two towers on the virtual edge of the river makes this extremely undesirable.
On my tour of the building I was taken out onto the central plaza, a pleasantly landscaped if rather barren expanse of concrete where, I was told, “workers will gather before, during, and after working hours to get to know each other and the other people in the community.” The opening was so windy that it was almost impossible to stand, much less engage in pleasant social exchange. Debris hurtled through the air and the delicate lighting structures swayed and rattled threateningly.
All the lighting in the building is controlled by a central computer that automatically switches the lights out after office hours — thus, according to the P. A., conserving electricity by eliminating the possibility that a cleaning lady might inadvertently forget to turn an occasional light switch off. Of course this means that all the lights are left on all during office hours, even if it is bright and sunny and there is no need for them, as is often the case in this many-windowed structure. This is not only unpleasant if you happen to abhor brilliantly lit rooms or dislike fluorescent lighting; it is also, despite the claims of the P. A., a terrible waste of energy. Small wonder that Con Ed took out an ad in a Sunday Times supplement “saluting” the World Trade Center and promising “more power to it.”
Mrs. Carmel Marr, a Public Service Commissioner with an office in the building, got the PSC to foot the bill to have a light switch installed in her office. “I felt it was particularly inappropriate for the PSC to leave its lights burning needlessly all day long,” she explained.
Still, however strongly one feels that the building is ill-conceived, a needless expense, and an ecological threat, it is hard not to be excited by the arrogant beauty of the towers. The concourses underneath, where most of the shopping and much of the eating is done, are typical claustrophobic subterranean malls, notable only in that so far most of the space appears to have been rented out by banks. The tower lobbies, all glass and marble, are austere and tasteful except for the fussy fluorescent imitation crystal chandeliers which also appear in the upper floor sky lobbies, ostensibly to add class to a building that doesn’t need it. The narrow windows, frustrating though they are to those seeking a panoramic view of the city, are precisely shoulders-wide and were planned that way to alleviate vertigo.
Such a building may indeed be a white elephant, but standing on the roof looking down on the city below, it is hard not to feel some sympathy with the grandiose spirit that built such a monstrosity. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2019