World Trade Center Burlesque

Now that the digital ink is dry on the six plans released July 16, 2002 for the benighted World Trade Center site, perhaps it is time to draw a few preliminary conclusions while rehearsing some recent events and possible future history. Any surmises at this point are purely conjectural because it is in the nature of a master plan that everything will change several times before the first new buildings are actually assigned a footprint.

The plans were initiated by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a recently created quasi-public agency within the Empire State Development Corporation. The master plan was awarded to the New York City firm of Beyer Blinder Belle after an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) was released earlier in the year. Beyer Blinder Belle is the firm that gave us the renovated Grand Central Terminal, and is a highly capable, if dull architecture and planning firm. The fact that Grand Central Terminal is now a shopping mall on neo-classical steroids is not their fault.

The LMDC was created by Governor George Pataki and ex-Mayor Rudolf Giuliani. The race to complete the planning phase of the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan (“everything south of Houston Street”) has a great deal to do with Pataki’s 2002 re-election campaign, now underway. As a result, this thing has to be ‘perceived’ as placating everyone — with the exception perhaps of architects. But that is a matter that we will get to in a moment.

The WTC site is one of several big opportunities in NYC right now for very big, very lucrative design commissions. The run-up to this master plan was such a horrendous insult to the public, insofar as everyone with or without a shred of design sense seemed to have a plan. Plus, and perhaps more interesting, there were visions and prophetic dreams … Anyway, late last fall there was an incredible surge of self-interest and grandstanding in the architectural community best typified by an exhibition in early 2002 at Max Protetch, a Chelsea art gallery, of ad hoc proposals for the site. This was orchestrated by Architectural Record, the big trade magazine for the architecture world and also the house magazine for the American Institute of Architects. This event was primarily an emotional outburst of the most hysterical type and the designs that were exhibited were almost entirely without merit. The exhibition has now been shipped to Venice for the next Biennale and its installation is being underwritten by the US Department of State.

For more than you’ll ever want to know about this subject, and for links to the WTC proposals released on July 16, see World Trade Center Burlesque.

New York City is a climate where big fish generally monopolize everything. The architectural firms that land large planning commissions have to negotiate an incredible array of flaming hoops in the form of regulatory commissions, community boards, zoning laws, etc., etc. Only the big fish can play at this game. It’s very labor- and capital-intensive. The task of developing city-owned property is usually consigned to a consortium of real estate developers, planners, and architects (plus lawyers). This process has been the preferred method since central planning fell from grace after 1960s urban renewal gave city planning in general a very long-term black eye. Today, in cities across America, the public-private development model is the paradigm. The recent makeover of Times Square is an example of a twist in this game, as it is controlled by a Business Improvement District (BID), another quasi-public authority but one permitted to solicit funds on behalf of redevelopment from businesses within its boundaries. BIDs were originally created to facilitate upgrading down-at-the-heels sectors of Manhattan. Lately, however, they have become the favorite device for businesses to take over and police neighborhoods, or, as in the case of Central Park (which is run by a conservancy), partially privatize public space. At best, city planning can lay out a template and hope it is observed. There are few enforcement options.

This is the shadow world or background animating what is going on at the WTC site. The new master plan is actually an attempt to pull together a large set of unresolved issues in Lower Manhattan by capitalizing on this high-profile project. The main issues remain: transportation, infrastructure, work/live neighborhoods, waterfront access, and everything in-between (formerly known as “public open space”). The boom was good for Lower Manhattan insofar as it drew startups to the alleyways of Wall Street, fostering what was until recently called Silicon Alley. A glut of office space in downtown Manhattan also caused a slow, but steady conversion of older office buildings to apartments and condominiums. TriBeCa became the holier-than-thou arena that it is now after SoHo became one continuous shopping experience. Now that TriBeCa is “full”, Chelsea (further uptown) has become the new hot destination for art galleries and the fashionisti.

Several major themes have emerged in the six plans for the revitalization of Lower Manhattan, and, even if the six schemes look an awful lot alike, they are different. To focus on the architecture is in fact a mistake because these plans only represent massing versus actual buildings. It is the spaces in-between that ought to draw people’s attention.

The former World Trade Center plaza was a disaster. It was an inhospitable, wind-blown zone with the barest of amenities. Worse than Lincoln Center! The stuff stuffed below the deck was primarily shopping and dining facilities. The subway lines and PATH trains coming into the underground station were grossly oversubscribed. The one pedestrian link to Battery Park City required following a labyrinthian path through the retail complex until you located the overpass, which then dropped you into the Cesar Pelli designed Winter Garden where you were again invited to shop and dine. Once you exited the Winter Garden, to the promenade, your options were to ogle the yachts parked in the boat basin (a few years ago, one had a fake helicopter on deck) or stroll along the harbor dodging the rollerblading public. (There are a few choice eateries along the way.) If you walked all the way to the newish Museum of Jewish Heritage, you might find a few small parks fenced off and looking very spic and span. These represent the unbuilt portions of the Battery Park City master plan (from the late 1980s) and they are a means of “parking” land. They are the future footprints of yet another piece of deluxe real estate.

Thus, New York City is in a quandry. It seems only capable of building high-end real estate. Trump this, Trump that … The WTC master plan proposals all include the same amount of retail and commercial office space that was lost with the collapse of the two towers. It was required by the LMDC. The footprint of the former twin towers is now (finally) accepted as sacred ground, since it is a grave site, and nothing will be built upon this hallowed piece of ground. There will almost certainly be a design competition for a memorial, which everyone with a conscience admits must be included in whichever of the big redevelopment schemes is selected.

The six schemes have fascinating, if conservative landscape urbanistic components. The one with the most potential includes a “promenade” (a new Park Avenue) running north-south and linking up to Battery Park at the very tip of Lower Manhattan. This would at the least partially re-green another section of Lower Manhattan. But it will become primarily another congested traffic corridor (even if West Street is submerged). The fact that the promenade is presented in plan as a Beaux-Arts folly is again something that is provisional versus real. All the other schemes are primarily variations on a cluster of mid-rise towers (some with embarrassing stumps or masts attached to the top like a prosthetic signifying “higher” aspirations). In the current climate of lowered expectations the only loud noises demanding buildings as tall as the former towers are emanating from the tabloids (the aforementioned architects have mostly piped down).

New York has two other amazing things in the works that impinge on this project in subtle but serious ways. One is the Fresh Kills End Use Master Plan, the post-closure plan for the world’s largest dump on Staten Island. (Fresh Kills is also the place where the rubble from the collapsed towers was taken and meticulously sorted.) The second is the redevelopment of the West Side Railyards behind Pennsylvania Station at 34th Street. This includes the conversion of a monstrous neo-classical pile, the Farley Post Office, to a new Penn Station. The latter project is a gift of major significance to New Yorkers as the current Penn Station at Madison Square Garden is one of the most loathed structures in the city. New York’s Senator Moynihan, just prior to departing Congress, also made sure that a new train will finally link the city to JFK (and it will depart the new Penn Station). The last big deal is the 2012 Olympic bid. Yes, New York City wants to host the Summer Games in 2012 and is pushing mightily to get that plum “stealth” redevelopment opportunity. A decision from the US Olympic Committee is due in early November.

For additional details on the Fresh Kills End Use Master Plan, see Fresh Kills – Capitalism’s Golgotha.

All of these impressive activities have one thing in common: massive private real estate ventures most often using public monies, public land, and tax exemptions to proceed. The public can at best hope for a few embellishments around the edges and, in the case of the Olympics, a temporary upsurge in transportation spending (including high-speed ferries which will “go away” after the games close).

So, what might Manhattan (New York, New York, New York) look like c.2012, if the Olympic bid is successful? In-between the deluxe condominiums, the top-shelf new office space, and the astounding assortment of shopping and dining facilities we find several new temporary parks, yet another museum that cost so much to build there’s nothing in it, a renovated library or two that are closed for lack of operating funds, several City Parks Department designed dog runs with dog-styling boutiques, a tree, a slightly wider sidewalk here and there (with barriers to prevent jaywalking), very big (and pricey) parking garages, traffic jams everywhere, city-licensed kiosks everywhere selling $2 (12-ounce) bottles of tap water, air-conditioned tents for one gala event after another, a special limousine-only lane to the FDR from Wall Street, hundreds of statues of Rudolf Giuliani looking very buff, artistic renderings in bronze of homeless men and women (the real ones have been shipped out of state with the garbage), one lonely coffee shop that is not a Starbucks, a couple of newstands that have been in existence for more than two months, smoke shops with $9-a-pack cigarettes (to help pay the Olympic-size bills), another very expensive art installation by Jeff Koons and/or Louise Bourgeois, a splendid new stadium behind the new Penn Station (which will be given to the super-rich Yankees after the Olympic games), the new Air Train to JFK (already overtaxed and ill-equipped to handle baggage), high-speed and high-priced ferries (rented for the occasion), an army of policemen and women (many with two-weeks training), millions upon millions of tourists and kazillions of daytrippers from New Jersey, Upstate New York and Connecticut, and — oh yes — a handful of New Yorkers who have not sublet their apartments and fled the city.

For a bibliography examining the fascinating world of Olympic-style urbanism, including the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, see Olympic Urbanisms.

Synopsis of the Plans (The Guardian Unlimited, 07/17/02)

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. and the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.

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