Friday, September 5, 2003

The Battle for Ground Zero

The World Trade Center disaster siteThe view from Church StreetThe new Lower Manhattan Rail station1.6 million tons of debris were removed from the site during the clean-up and recovery effort which concluded at the end of May 2002, three months ahead of schedule. The rail lines have been cleared, the fires have been quenched, and the titanic slurry wall, braced against the weight of the Hudson River, has been reinforced and repaired. The site of the World Trade Center disaster has been cleared and prepared.

Now what?

It seems that question is still in the proverbial lurch. A week before the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a group of victims' families protested at the construction site in Lower Manhattan, railing against plans to rebuild on the foundations of the collapsed towers – a sacred cemetery for more than 2,800 people. Meanwhile the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, charged with redeveloping the site, has intensified their drive to move ahead with Daniel Libeskind's proposed commercial/memorial development (see this month's review for more on his design).

The design, overtly symbolic and patriotic, was initially very popular. Since it was selected, however, the plan for the site has clashed with the commercial demands of prime real estate – the site is widely seen as one of the most important urban redevelopment sites in the world – and the memorial demands of what is commonly perceived to have become sacred ground.

But regardless of the passions involved, and the myriad interests placing economic or emotional claims on the site, final responsibility for the site is divided between the governors of New York and New Jersey, who own the land through the Port Authority, and Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder who controls the right to redevelop the office space. Silverstein made waves in the days immediately following the collapse of the towers when he vowed to raise replica towers in the place of the fallen 110+ story megaliths.

Silverstein has now openly questioned the wisdom of raising Libeskind's proposed replacement tower, a 1776 foot tall "Freedom Tower" and construction of a sunken memorial garden – ideas welcomed by victims' relatives. With local business groups, Silverstein has asked whether companies would want to lease space in such a tall building – it would be the world's tallest when completed. Silverstein has also criticized the expense of the design's symbolic spiral at the tip of the Freedom Tower and the location of the tower on the development site – a criticism which directly conflicts with complaints by victims' families that construction be prevented on top of the original tower foundations.

And while Silverstein has no legal authority to approve or reject construction plans he has much financial and political clout. He is paying rent on the site and his multi-billion-dollar insurance claim is paying for the rebuilding.

Perhaps the largest bone of contention in the redevelopment plans is the preservation of the World Trade Center footprint – foundation – and slurry wall. Libeskind has imbued the original foundations with heroic status but Silverstein and business groups have argued that it would inflict a perpetually open wound on Lower Manhattan and provide a negative reminder of the attacks for future trade center tenants. Even the gardens envisioned at the base of the 70-foot deep footprints – a featured welcomed by victim's families who view this lowest level as the final rest place of their dead – have been targeted. Commercial developers would like to see a subterranean mall instead while downtown residents would prefer a more navigable ground-level park.

In the thick of all this argument the voices of the victims' families may have been drowned out. Few would debate the need for commercial development on the site. Few would debate the need for a memorial. And while extremes from both sides have pressed the abolition of the other, the unfortunate truth of design – commercial or memorial – still applies. Design by committee almost always fails. It results in base watered down concepts, unfulfilled needs, and spoilt ambitions. Replete are examples: '96 Olympic mascot Watizit, the Bradley fighting vehicle, the Space Shuttle, and anything done by the UN.

Future generations will look back on how New York and Silverstein redevelop and commemorate the site in much the same was that we acknowledge the sentiment and practical needs answered by memorials at the USS Arizona/Pearl Harbor and in Oklahoma City. fb

No comments: