Casualties of Consensus

Until a few months ago, there was still something akin to a mass grave at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. But with the human and architectural remains of the World Trade Center removed from that 16-acre, seven-story-deep wound, the site that once held the collapsed mass of the twin 110-story towers and the obliterated residue of 2,823 souls now resembles little more than a sprawling construction site. But how to contemplate building in the wake of such a catastrophe? And what to build?

There has been no shortage of rhetoric on this front. But the facts are these: Shopping-mall developer Westfield America has a 99-year lease on the retail space crushed beneath the towers. Developer Larry Silverstein holds the lease on the fallen towers themselves, and owned 7 World Trade Center, the building that collapsed late in the day on September 11. Since the fall, he has had architects on payroll at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—the firm famous for pioneering glass tower boxes—tinkering with new plans.

In addition, a number of ad-hoc groups formed in the weeks and months after September 11 to represent victims’ families, Lower Manhattan residents, city planners, architects and Wall Street interests in the rebuilding process. Forums were held, discussions and arguments had. Should the lost office space be replaced? Can the city stem the corporate evacuation to New Jersey and Westchester County? What to do about the crippled transportation network of subways and commuter trains? How should a memorial look and feel? This back and forth continues, but much of the palaver seems beside the point.

The site is still owned by the Twin Towers’ original builder, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This means that New York Gov. George Pataki holds the reins. In the fall he had the Empire State Development Corporation—empowered by law to build anything anywhere in the state with minimal concern for local zoning ordinances—spin off an entity called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). Charged with coordinating and directing rebuilding efforts on the Port Authority’s land, the LMDC, similar to the Port Authority itself, is one of those nebulous, little understood entities that determine much of what gets built in American cities. As a “public corporation,” this oxymoron is one in a long line of public-private partnerships that have remade so many downtowns across the country since President Nixon killed federal urban funding.

Combining the raw power of a public agency with corporate influence, efficiency and lack of accountability, conventional wisdom says the LMDC should have no problem getting done what it wants done. Most of the governor’s initial appointments to the LMDC’s top ranks were part of his coterie; the head is a former co-chairman of investment firm Goldman Sachs. After Pataki dispatched an upstate congressman to Washington to ensure that federal funds for rebuilding were funneled through Albany, not City Hall, it looked like the state was going to freeze the city out of the decision-making process altogether. But then Pataki’s fellow Republican Michael Bloomberg upset Democrat Mark Green in the mayoral race, and the governor threw the city a bone, giving Bloomberg four spots on the LMDC board to divvy up.

The LMDC, trying to deflect the impression that rebuilding would go ahead without any public input, went to great pains to assure the public, victims’ groups, elected officials, residents of Lower Manhattan and planners that their voices would be heard. In the spring, after months of surveying the various interests, holding forums and going about finding consensus, the LMDC issued a “blueprint for renewal.”

The LMDC’s “principles for action” name-checked all the current, appropriate planning boilerplate, laying out a process for developing “a diverse, mixed-use magnet for the arts, culture, tourism, education and recreation, complemented with residential commercial, retail and neighborhood amenities.” But plans overflowing with good intentions almost seem designed to lose their least developer-friendly elements as casualties of consensus.

In mid-July, the LMDC offered six visions of what a redeveloped site might look like. It seems that no one imagined how much would be lost, or how much the language of democratic consensus would remain merely rhetoric. The six proposals—templates for possible final plans—are uninspired and largely indistinguishable downtown-by-numbers design.

Superficially different arrays of massive towers hovering over a few acres of open space, they represent various conceptual ways of arranging the space where a memorial would be installed. None of them are attributed to any particular designers, although one is certainly based on the final product of the secret Skidmore, Owings and Merrill drawings.

Rightfully, they all restore a portion of the street grid obliterated by the World Trade Center’s superblock footprint, and most seem to call for squeezing a new transit hub beneath the office blocks. But the plans all have something else in common: They’re driven not by public needs or “mixed-use” ideals, but by real estate. All of them feature four or more office towers of between 30 to 60 stories, and a few boast 80- or 85-story giants. Two of them build over the footprint of the towers. The Port Authority apparently intends to support their leaseholders, Silverstein and Westfield America, in recouping lost investments. It’s a dismaying cliche, but the whole process has been business as usual in New York.

Yet with Pataki up for re-election in the fall, and Democratic contender Andrew Cuomo already criticizing the lack of a “big vision” in the proceedings, the story is far from over. Moreover, Silverstein is currently in a court battle with his insurers. He claims that the two crashing airliners represent two separate attacks, and that he’s owed for both. If he wins, he’ll bring too much capital to the table to be dismissed. But if he loses, the Port Authority may be able to renegotiate the terms of their lease with him, and sign on to a less office-heavy plan.

Meanwhile, public and professional outcry against the six proposals has been so great that after two giant town-hall meetings, the LMDC is already backpedaling. They’ve extended their timetable and pledged to go back to the drawing board. On the one hand, all the talk about public participation looks like so much smoke and mirrors. But on the other, the LMDC must pay at least lip-service to the rhetoric of inclusion. Continuing pressure, the election and as-yet-unforeseen court battles may democratize the plans yet.

Maybe it’s not too late to be hopeful, but what has been left out from the beginning is telling. As the planner Peter Marcuse remarks in his contribution to the new essay collection "After The World Trade Center," the process of garnering consensus, much heralded by state-of-the-art planning discourse, can too often lapse into a professional exercise in rationalizing or overriding messy conflict. Often that’s best accomplished by not recognizing the conflicts in the first place; indeed, the LMDC’s consensus is not so much made or found as it is activated. It reflects an understanding already in place shaping who the LMDC would comprise—and what sorts of findings it might make.

So perhaps it’s ridiculous for Marcuse to condemn the LMDC for announcing its intent to develop “the infrastructure improvements that will trigger…private investment.” It should be no surprise that the renewal effort will be guided into safe, corporate harbors by an elite body appointed in the name of the public weal, and empowered to direct rebuilding on land owned by a state agency. What’s galling, in the end, is that despite all the talk of “public process” and “public space,” more open, inclusive, democratic conceptions of public life don’t even make it to the table.

At times "After The World Trade Center" like any book jumping into print in the middle of an ongoing story, seems at once rushed and already too late. Some of the essays seem to be reacting to an earlier moment when it appeared the towers themselves might be rebuilt. Some feel like phoned-in, obligatory recapitulations of familiar left comment on the events of September 11. The best pieces hew close to the ground in question, surveying the history of what used to be called the Lower West Side.

Historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, for example, uncovers the “early, low-rise, mixed-use port culture” of the area when it was home to maritime pursuits, the outdoor bazaar of Washington Market, the Arab neighborhood called the Syrian Quarter, or later in the 20th century, the consumer-electronics district Radio Row. These several generations of port culture were wiped out by public-works projects and real estate development culminating in the World Trade Center.

This sort of place is, as Andrew Ross observes, an urban form distinctive to New York. And while the LMDC pays lip-service to mixed-use planning, that’s not enough to create the kind of public, democratic street life germane to the world of port culture. The problem, Ross understands, is not one of design only, but of political economy. Adding mixed-income provisions to mixed-use zoning, he observes, “is the only available technical instrument that can encourage, though never guarantee, that balance of residents, visitors and strangers in free flow which gives urban space a sufficiently public character.”

Meanwhile, the LMDC, respecting the victims’ families, has pushed the question of a memorial to the forefront of its public deliberations. Despite much armchair speculation and the fact that the six plans all feature the word “memorial” in their title, nobody can yet say what a memorial will look like, or how much of the 16-acre site it will occupy. A design competition has yet to be formally announced. The LMDC, however, has already decided how the memorial should feel. It “will stand as an eternal tribute” not only to the victims, but to “the enduring strength of democracy.” It will be “a celebration of freedom” and it “will reflect the free exchange of ideas, goods and services among diverse peoples that the World Trade Center embodied.”

The memory of the World Trade Center is up for grabs right now, and the debate over a memorial will galvanize the struggle to win the right to tell the towers’ story. Largely unloved as buildings, the twins nonetheless enjoyed familiar, comforting iconicity as a landmark, as visual reminders of New York’s continuing global sway. The towers were made to be looked at from afar, rather than lived in and around. Many New Yorkers had accepted and even appreciated them on these terms, numbed, a cynic might say, by decades spent enduring the often inhuman impact of architectural whim and fashion.

As architect Mark Wigley notes in his excellent essay “Insecurity by Design,” the towers became popular icons because they seemed to have no interior, existing only as symbols and facades. The “relentless open weave” of their ever extending surface made the World Trade Center “a pure, uninhabited image floating above the city.” When the towers came down, ironically and tragically, they could finally be seen as inhabited. And it is only after that loss of life that the buildings, the physical casings, are being celebrated as icons of “free exchange.”

Bound up in this celebration of the World Trade Center is the notion that it represents the particularly American freedom Al Qaeda wished to bring to its knees. The attacks of September 11 were certainly aimed at the United States and Western secular decadence. But as Neil Smith and David Harvey point out, they were not directed at symbols of American ideals or nationhood, but at symbols of U.S. global military and financial power. That is the indelible significance of the World Trade Center, and of its demise. Whatever else might be claimed in its name, it cannot fail to represent—in life and now in ruins—the unfettered power of American elites to shape both foreign and domestic landscapes. Perhaps no memorial will capture such a critique—nor should it necessarily attempt to do so—but the memory of all those lost lives is besmirched by the empty abstractions of the LMDC’s reflexive, free-market nationalism.

What should be remembered in designing a memorial, and in developing Lower Manhattan for that matter, is that the building of the towers did much to stamp out “the free exchange of ideas, goods and services among diverse peoples,” while the process by which they were erected, directed from on high by the Rockefellers and the Port Authority, did much to dilute “the enduring strength of democracy.” But that should not dissuade us from seeing how rebuilding might put a little democracy back into a space that for so long symbolized the lack of it, both at home and abroad. A prime virtue of "After The World Trade Center" is that it does not shy away from such connections, asking us to view the politics of globalization and urbanism in tandem.

It is possible that the Port Authority will be convinced—or forced—to give up many of its office towers. If so, the former World Trade Center site and the surrounding area might end up resembling, in look and feel, something like its neighbor Battery Park City. An engaging, attractive space, Battery Park City combines townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings with upscale offices, shops, restaurants, health clubs, parks and other amenities. It’s a model of “mixed-use” development. But as Ross notices, “BPC has never shaken off its antiseptic profile as a security enclave where the public are temporary visitors and where the sharing of public space in its riverside park and piazza, while genuinely spirited, still feels like a privilege and not a right.”

What’s missing is the sense of what Michael Sorkin calls “thick, urbane interaction” churned by “the great mixing engine of difference.” These, of course, are the age-old New York ideals. Historians and cosmopolitan idealists have evoked them for years. Politicians call upon a blue-collar version of this rhetoric to cultivate the fughedaboudit populism needed to win elections. But while there’s no shortage of talk about the “gorgeous mosaic,” Sorkin finds that it’s largely a multicultural facade. In the last two generations, the island of Manhattan has become “increasingly monochrome,” and with a few exceptions the differences in its neighborhoods “merely physical.”

There is no doubt that over the past 50 years a sense of locality has been pushed to the boroughs, leaving much of Manhattan below Harlem (the next gentrifying hotspot) and outside Chinatown a playground for the young and the rich. Yet the rebuilding process downtown remains a prime opportunity to construct a living memorial to the vast diversity of peoples who animated the worlds behind the towers’ blank facades. Will New York squander that chance, and fill in that sudden, unexpected 16-acre blankness with more of the same bland upscale theme-park urbanism slowly eating away at the rest of Manhattan?

One could imagine, with the help of "After The World Trade Center," something entirely different. The final blueprints won’t be in for some time, and there will be more forums and opportunities for “public input.”

What might a real public landscape look like? Couldn’t a little piece of “port culture” still be planned back into the Lower West Side? How about zoning for light industry, craft workshops and a bustling open bazaar near the proposed new train station? Couldn’t a sublime memorial share the restored street grid with nearby guaranteed low-income housing, rather than merely the vague housing for “a wide variety of income levels” now on offer? What about small independent businesses and shops rather than the “galleria of premier retail offerings” now under review? What about real public space? More parks, sure, but also meeting halls, community centers, a public library? Restore some of the unpredictable, spontaneous world of mixture that the World Trade Center finished off. Why not?

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