Even the best-laid plans with the purest of intentions can ignite controversy in a New York minute when the subject matter is as sensitive as the future of Ground Zero.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — which still owns the former World Trade Center site — discovered that reality on July 16 when they unveiled six options for rebuilding the razed 16-acre site at Manhattan's southern tip. Even though the joint city-state agency and its master planner, local architect Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), stressed that the proposals were preliminary, the feedback was withering from all sides.
"Significant elements are missing from the options," noted Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, which also heads "NewYork, NewVisions," a coalition of 21 local architecture, engineering and planning groups. "Missing from all six approaches," Bell added, "is the recognition that building less than 11 million sq. ft. of office space is justifiable, both from the urban design perspective, as well as from a qualitative approach."
Families of Sept. 11 victims and area residents joined the debate at two public forums held July 20 and 22, which drew more than 4,000 attendees. Several voiced fear that the proposed density of office space would overshadow any planned memorial, which former mayor Rudolph Giuliani had said in his farewell speech last January should be "soaring."
Other common themes emerged in the public debate over the concepts. "Nothing here is truly monumental," said one attendee. Offered another, "They look like Albany."
Albany's leading citizen, Gov. George Pataki (R) — who is up for re-election next fall — chimed in with his own criticism, echoing the concerns of many at the public forums. On July 26, he told The New York Times, "My view is that the centerpiece of what happens in Lower Manhattan has to be a soaring memorial that reflects the heroes we've lost and the courage we've shown."
For his part, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) also said he had other concepts of his own in mind.
Like many in the public, Pataki also has expressed a strong aversion to building on the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers. But the architects' mandate for the prized site still is to recapture the 11 million sq. ft. of office space, 600,000 sq. ft. of retail space and 600,000 sq. ft. of hotel space lost last fall. Those figures all vie with the more than 2,800 fatalities of that infamous day.
Despite the widespread criticism of its plans as uninspired and redundant, BBB has declined debate in favor of the long view. "We're waiting to hear from our client (LMDC) on what they want to do next," says a spokesman for the firm.
Of note, only two of the six plans are BBB designs. The rest came from others in the 15-member design team, which includes Peterson/Littenberg Architecture and Urban Design LLP, as well as transit expert Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Originally, team members were required to have 10 years of urban planning experience and at least three $100 million projects under their belts. On July 29, however, LMDC said it would broaden participation, to bring in ideas from smaller U.S. designers and even foreign firms. Earlier, to quell the controversy, LMDC Chairman John C. Whitehead had stressed that the six plans represent only a "starting point" that may lead to a very different consensus choice.
As it stands now, however, the following plans are the only game in town:
"Memorial Plaza" features an 8-acre plaza with a "memorial/cultural" building on its western edge and ringed by five new towers, one up to 79 stories;
"Memorial Square" would cut a 10-acre square, framed by 10-story buildings connected by rooftop gardens. Four towers would rise, one as high as 80 stories;
"Memorial Triangle" includes 5 acres of open space and six towers, one climbing to 85 stories, the rest near 60;
"Memorial Garden" incorporates 4 acres of open space and five towers, one remarkably thin structure of 85 stories, two others at 66, and two at 50;
"Memorial Park" would put a 6-acre greenspace, partially situated on a deck over West Street. It calls for five towers, two at 72 stories and three at 45;
Finally, "Memorial Promenade" also creates a park atop the West Street deck, but it connects with a grand promenade that runs to Battery Park. Six towers are featured, two as tall as 63 stories.
LMDC hopes to narrow its choices to two later this fall. But like so much in the ongoing rebirth of New York's financial district, those plans are certain to change and generate more debate.