A Public Vision for Ground Zero

In 1993, Adam Honigman was working at the World Trade Center when a truck packed with explosives exploded in its basement. On September 11, he watched the towers collapse from his office in Greenwich Village. "One job more or less," he writes, and "it could have been me there this time." Now, he’d like the City to memorialize its dead by not rebuilding the towers. He writes of the joke about how the Twin Towers were built of the boxes the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building came in, and he pleads that we not "dishonor the dead, missing and this city with ugly, rectangular crates."

His comments can be found, along with hundreds and potentially thousands of other, on www.downtownnyc.org, a website launched on May 20 to host discussion among the public on the redevelopment not just of ground zero and the surrounding areas that were physically damaged, but of all of Lower Manhattan from Houston St. down. Now that the last of the rubble - a thirty foot steel column - has been removed from ground zero, the redevelopment game is officially on; the website is an effort to assure that the public becomes a player.

To address the expanse of Lower Manhattan, the site’s bulletin boards are grouped into fifteen topics. Each of these topics is devoted either to a specific place, like the World Trade Center, or to an issue, like the future of Arts & Culture in Lower Manhattan. Within each there are further categories, and as the website evolves there will be further still, but the structure and design of the site remain simple. You click on one of the topics, choose from one of the sub-topics on that page, and then, as the bright red link says, "Read Comments and Add Your Own."

Appropriately, for a site dedicated to incarnating the will of the public, the ownership of www.downtownnyc.org is unclear. Its main sponsor, the source of its legitimacy, is the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown Manhattan, the largest of the many non-profit coalitions and alliances that have formed in the last eight months to influence the course of the redevelopment. The producer and manager of the site is the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York-based non-profit urban planning firm.

Ownership aside, the purpose of the website is clear, and it is driven by a simple philosophy, that the people who live and work in a place - the stakeholders, in urban design vernacular - are best equipped to manage its development and future. It is these stakeholders, according to PPS’s recent book How to Turn a Place Around, who "know from experience which areas are dangerous and why, which spaces are comfortable, where the traffic moves too fast, and where their children can safely walk or bike or play." And it is the hope of the project that their website can become a place where the public goes to articulate its expertise.

Public participation has been an avowed goal of the parties involved in the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, but the public’s response has proven more passionate than anyone anticipated. When the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the state/city group chartered to coordinate the rebuilding, held the first of its public hearings on May 23, the crowd was hostile. "We don't feel the Lower East Side is represented in the process," said Margaret Hughes. "The LMDC talks about being open but so many decisions have already been made." And there were further complaints: Chinatown was being ignored; the issue of affordable housing hadn’t been adequately addressed; no one seemed interested in rebuilding the towers. "It's absolutely inconceivable to me," said Louis Epstein, "that they would rebuild without rebuilding the towers. It's like deserting your dead in the battlefield." *

"The LMDC needs us," said Harriet Festing, head of Marketing for PPS. "They don’t know any more than we do, than the public does, about how this thing should go, and I think they realize that. I was at the meeting, and I felt badly for them. They don’t really have a mechanism for incorporating public opinion, and there’s no way they can process, in a meeting like that, a thousand people with a thousand different opinions. "

One of the services the website can provide, argues Festing, is a structured, continuous source of opinion from the public. Though the site has only about one hundred and fifty registered users at the moment, they are shooting for twenty thousand by the end of the year, and Festing believes if they can attract that many people then those in charge - the LMDC, the Port Authority, the Governor, the mayor, the developers - will have to take notice, and will want to take advantage.

So far, most of discussion on the website has been about the future of ground zero. Eileen Shay, who lost her younger brother Robert on September 11, writes of taking an out-of-town friend to see the towers on September 7, four days before the attacks. "He looked up in amazement at the Twin Towers," she writes, "and I looked up with him and simply stated that ‘New York is the greatest city in the world.’" Eileen is pragmatic on the issue of rebuilding: "We should definitely put office buildings on the site," she writes, but "not as high because I believe we would have a hard time finding people to occupy the area."

The challenge for the project, assuming they are able to solicit comments from thousands of Shays and Honigmans, is how to sell the information, how to package it. When I asked Festing what PPS would do with twenty thousand people with twenty thousand different opinions, she acknowledged that she didn’t know. "We’ll do an analysis, a report, but I can’t tell you what exactly it might look like." Nor do the people at PPS know what the site would even look like with that many comments. "Maybe we’ll do it like Amazon does," said Julie Caniglia, the web producer, "with a few comments on the main page and a link to the rest. I don’t know yet."

Some of their uncertainty is a consequence of the speed with which the redevelopment is progressing, a speed they’ve had to match in the construction of the website. The rest of the uncertainty, however, is an expected product of their philosophy, that the public should create the narratives that define what a public space - in this case a virtual public space - becomes. The site, therefore, is designed precisely to encourage the formation of these narratives, with maps; suggestions collected from workshops; links to other urban design websites; slide shows with images of what other cities have done with similar types of places. "We have already divided the space up into topics and issues," says Festing, "and within the comments we may begin to see patterns emerge. We may even see people connecting there and then organizing on their own. A body of individuals can cohere, can coalesce into a group that might actually get something done."

Everyone whom I spoke to at PPS was up front about the fact that their motives in developing the site are not disinterested; they too are trying to sell something. Though they are not being paid for their work on www.downtownnyc.org, what they learn from this project will help them pitch the service to their paying clients, and the press they get - this article, for instance - won’t hurt either. But nobody in New York is disinterested; it wouldn’t be the city it is if its people were. What gives the website its credibility is precisely that the interests of PPS and the Civic Alliance and the public coincide. Information if what they all have to sell; it’s all that they have to sell.

If the LMDC and the Port Authority have political capital, and the survivors of those killed have moral capital, and the private developers have capital, the public has what one might call stakeholder capital. And though the degree of public participation in the redevelopment will not be determined by the success of one website, it will be determined by the extent to which someone or something can find a way to channel the city’s millions of voices into a collective voice. The expertise is there; the question is whether the women and men with the money can be made to listen.

Sally Ionidies used to take the A/C train to the Chambers St. stop. From there she would cross over West St. - "awful to cross," she says - and head to Hudson River Park, often picking up a jug of apple cider at a farmer’s market along the way. The last time she went, the entrance to the park was closed, and she wants to know why there were no signs indicating when or if it would re-open. Jesse Marsh says of Fulton St., which runs into the former World Trace Center plot, that it should become a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. "Allow Street Fair vendors," he writes, and "charge $20 per day or $100/week." Eric Wallach wonders "about the abandoned theatre that sits unused and falling apart less than a quarter-mile south of Houston Street on the East River?" He would like to see it restored and asks, into the digital ether, to no one in particular, to everyone: "Can I help?"

Dan Oppenheimer is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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