Memories of Overdevelopment

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FEBRUARY 23, 2004

Memories of Overdevelopment

City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center

By James Glanz and Eric Lipton

(Times Books, 428 pp., $26)

Click here to purchase the book.

Timeless Cities: An Architect's Reflections on Renaissance ItalyBy David Mayernik

(Westview, 274 pp., $26)

Click here to purchase the book.


What happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is an
event forever fixed (or so we all must hope) in the American mind.
But the American mind has found it almost impossible to concentrate
on what has happened at the terrible site since then. While the
saga of the rebuilding occasionally makes the front pages, the
decisions that have gone into it are largely ignored, especially
outside New York's city limits. This is a shame, because contrary
to the assertions of the parties to the rebuilding that the process
has been a model of democratic participation, they have repeatedly
denied the public a meaningful role in the decision-making. As a
result, what is emerging at Ground Zero--now still on paper, but by
September 11, 2004 on the ground--is not only an insult to those
who hoped that the process would itself be an American memorial to
the attacks, but also an almost comic repetition of the planning
mistakes that went into building the World Trade Center itself.

Today, few people outside the Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey know the name Austin Tobin. But in the 1950s and 1960s, when
Tobin ran the Port Authority, he was one of the most powerful men
in New York--more powerful even than Robert Moses, the city's
fabled and feared construction czar. Like Moses, Tobin had
virtually unlimited authority to condemn, to demolish, and to
rebuild- -but unlike Moses, Tobin went unchecked by City Hall. As
the head of the Port Authority, he answered exclusively to the
governors of New York and New Jersey.

In the first decades after the Port Authority was founded in 1921 to
manage the region's shipping facilities, its mandate was narrowly
defined, and the Authority stuck to improving docks and overseeing
the movement of goods across New York Harbor. But as commercial
aviation and regional mass transit exploded after World War II, so
did the Port Authority, and it used its control over the region's
airports and bus terminals to build what, by the time Tobin came to
the fore, was a rich and vast development empire. But nothing that
Tobin--or the Port Authority, for that matter--ever developed was
as ambitious, as massive, or as disastrous as the World Trade

The World Trade Center, whose history is thoroughly documented in
James Glanz and Eric Lipton's magnificent book, began as the
brainchild of David Rockefeller, who wanted a new headquarters for
Chase Manhattan in the Financial District, one large enough to
stanch the flow of the city's financial base northward toward
midtown. From the beginning, thanks to Rockefeller's involvement,
the project was virtually unstoppable; it was, in the words of
Lawrence Wien, a New York real estate mogul who fought against the
center, "an unconquerable Frankenstein." But in truth the World
Trade Center was more like The Blob: what started as a bank
headquarters expanded quickly into an office and merchandise
mega-center, whose millions of square feet were to become home to
the region's entire export-import sector.

Rockefeller enlisted the help of the architecture firm Skidmore,
Owings and Merrill to design the center, and he located it,
originally, along the island's southeast edge, at the time the
fetid, rundown home to the city's declining fishing trade. But
clearing some twelve blocks of downtown real estate, let alone
corralling the funds for the project, was something beyond even
Rockefeller's ability. That is where Tobin came in. And from almost
the minute Rockefeller pitched the plan, Tobin was sold. A
development of such magnitude would be his crowning achievement,
and it would make the Port Authority an almost irresistible force
in the region.

All that remained was to justify the Authority's involvement; office
buildings, after all, do not have a lot to do with docks and barges.
But in a move that typified the scale of Tobin's ego, he declared
in 1960 that building a world trade center was front and center to
the Authority's interests: "The Port Authority mission always
included promotion of the port," including, he argued, the erection
of enormous office buildings to house the firms that controlled the
port's trade. Doing so, he concluded, would cement the harbor's
position in the global economy.

This pronouncement flew in the face of a McKinsey %amp% Co. report,
commissioned by Rockefeller, which showed dubious benefits from the
construction of such a massive block. To deflect such doubts,
Rockefeller simply dumped the consulting firm and asked the
Authority to commission its own study. Not surprisingly, the
Authority returned a ringing confirmation of the plan. As Glanz and
Lipton write,

Although there were sections on the geological conditions of the
site and a floor-to-floor breakout of a proposed United States
Custom House, there was not a word on any possible local opposition
to the condemnation of a vast swath of Lower Manhattan--or indeed
on potential objections by anyone at all. The trade center and its
'Multi-Lingual Steno Pool' would be built in Manhattan--a planners'

The Port Authority would use its power of eminent domain--which
allows it to condemn private property for a public purpose,
provided just compensation is paid--to get the land, and it would
issue tax-free bonds to pay for it.

In order to placate the New Jersey government, which shared control
of the Port Authority and was none too pleased with the idea of
building a massive office building in New York, Tobin agreed to
take over the ailing Hudson %amp% Manhattan Railroad (now called
the PATH system, or Port Authority Trans-Hudson), which runs under
the Hudson River. He folded this added responsibility into the
trade center project by moving the trade center to the Hudson side
of Manhattan, so that it would sit atop the rail tunnel's Lower
Manhattan station.

The only problem was that, unlike the former location, this site was
not a slum. It was a vibrant--if not exactly high- end --commercial
district known as Radio Row. Home to the world's largest
concentration of electronics stores, Radio Row ran from Greenwich
to West Streets and Fulton to Liberty Streets, and all of it would
have to be demolished before the trade center could be built. The
local shop owners, led by the gruff but savvy Oscar Nadel, became
the first test of Tobin's ability to overcome the public interest
in the pursuit of personal and bureaucratic glory. Nadel organized
marches, press campaigns, and eventually a law suit against the
Port Authority. He was able to sign up some of the city's most
powerful real estate interests, high-level operators who were
unhappy over the prospect of seeing several million square feet of
office space added to an already weak lower Manhattan market. Nadel
charged that the Authority could not exercise eminent domain,
because "the project is primarily for a private purpose and not a
public purpose."

Tobin was unfazed, and he pressed on with his plans, hiring the
Seattle architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1962 to lead the design. In
1963 a New York state appellate division court found that the
project did not constitute a public purpose, and thus could not
appropriate the land--but the ruling was overturned a few months
later by the New York Court of Appeals, which not only gave the
mantle of the public good to the project but lauded it, amazingly,
as slum clearance: "More recently the indirect benefits deriving
from slum clearance and from a 'plan to turn a predominantly
vacant, poorly developed and organized area into a site for new
industrial buildings' have justified condemnation. To retreat from
the public importance of piers, markets and slum clearance, even
esthetic improvements have been held to be a public purpose
justifying condemnation." Commerce, in league with an insulated
government bureaucracy, had defeated the public will.

But Tobin was not yet clear to begin construction. He also had the
city to deal with. The mayor's office and the Port Authority had
long been, in Glanz and Lipton's words, "like a couple whose
marriage has deteriorated so far that every conversation end s in
argument." From the start Mayor Robert Wagner had serious
reservations about the trade center planning. After all, even in
its original incarnation along the East River, the plan involved
the appropriation of an enormous chunk of city land--land that,
under the Port Authority's tax- exempt status, would no longer earn
the city money. The transfer to the west side only made things
worse, as it meant the destruction of one of the city's commercial

The mayor's office could deny access to the roads cutting through
the site, which were city property and therefore immune to the Port
Authority's power of eminent domain, but otherwise Wagner
discovered that he could do very little to stop Tobin. "It is
astounding to me," Wagner remarked, "that New York City, which is
the major unit of government involved and affected by this
legislation- -fiscally, economically and socially--should not have
been at the center of negotiations and deliberations and its
interests given paramount consideration. " Meanwhile, unknown to
the city, the project continued to grow in size, to six million
square feet (it would eventually expand to twelve million), and
Tobin and his cohorts began to envision constructing the tallest
office building in the world, a design for which Yamasaki delivered
in 1964.

By the time the Port Authority won its court battle against Nadel,
the project had such momentum that Wagner could do no more than
delay the inevitable. The pressure to cede control of a few blocks'
worth of streets, all that stood in the way of the world's largest
office complex, was too much to bear. But it was left to Wagner's
successor, John Lindsay, to take the last bow. By 1966, when
Lindsay took office, Tobin was unstoppable, and through a mix of
strong-arming and mudslinging, he convinced the mayor to step
aside--largely by promising to use the dirt excavated from the site
to build what is now Battery Park City, in effect boosting the
city's property-tax haul. Whether Lindsay saw it as a good deal or
was simply looking for a way out is not clear, but on August 3,
1966 he and Tobin shook hands at a City Hall press conference. The
city had surr end ered, Tobin had won, the World Trade Center would
be built.; The World Trade Center always had a strange relationship
to New York.

The World Trade Center always had a strange relationship to New
York. By the mid-1980s it had become a part of the city's
iconography, a pair of cold gangly giants amid its more reserved,
more proportionate brethren towers. But it also sucked much of the
life out of Lower Manhattan. It proved a sinkhole for local real
estate--especially after 1978, when the Port Authority, panicking
over its floors upon floors of empty office space, made it
available to everyone, in effect negating the center's original
purpose of housing trade-related firms. The same held true for its
commercial space, which was actually an enormous, enclosed mall
that drew in shops and businesses that once lined the district's
streets. And the superblock form and windswept plaza of the World
Trade Center also denuded Lower Manhattan culturally. While the
area was never the heart of the city, by the mid-1980s it had
become a symbol for the hollowing out of the American urban
environment, a place where people came to work during the day and
from which they quickly fled at night. Just two years after its
opening, the trade center replaced the Empire State Building in the
climax to Dino di Laurentiis's re-make of King Kong, and the shots
of terrified New Yorkers fleeing the scene captured perfectly the
anti-trade center, anti-downtown mood that dominated the city for
the next quarter-century.

All this was the consequence of a massive, unresponsive government
bureaucracy. No truly public concern, no genuinely market-sensitive
private firm, would ever dream of dropping so much office space
into a single development. But the Port Authority was different,
and it ruthlessly exploited that difference during both the
construction and the lifetime of the center. Exempt from the city's
building and safety codes, the Twin Towers' developers paid scant
heed to the risks involved in constructing two 110-story towers.
(The buildings' engineers, such as Leslie Robertson, had been very
scrupulous, but the years of neglect in the maintenance of the
place undid their precautions.) Fire safety was on the books, but
it was not up to code, and when pressed the Authority simply
trotted out its own dubious studies to justify itself. And until
the late 1990s, the center never made money--indeed, just two years
after its official opening, it was running a $20 million-a-year


So the World Trade Center, in terms of public planning, was an
unmitigated disaster. Indeed, if there is a lesson to take away
from the World Trade Center's history, it is a cautionary one about
the results of excluding the public from the planning process. Had
the Port Authority been accountable to the city, had the local
community possessed some element of control over the planning
process, the center might never have been built, or it would have
been made to heed and to enhance the public weal, instead of merely
enhancing the egos and the pockets of Tobin, Rockefeller, and the
Port Authority. And yet, as the substantive phase of the planning
process now gets underway at Ground Zero, it is clear not only that
those lessons have not been learned, but that the very same
mistakes are being made again. Private real estate and bureaucratic
power, in the guise of "public purpose," are winning out over the
explicit-- though largely ignored--interests of the surrounding
community and New York City.

Indeed, it seems that if the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation
(LMDC), the Port Authority, the lease-holder Larry Silverstein, and
the other players in the development have learned anything, it is
how to avoid the years of battling public outcry in forcing their
will on the city. They have used pretty but meaningless
architectural images (as opposed to actual master plans) to
distract the public from substantive debate about the principles of
the site's future, all the while ignoring calls from the city and
from urban planners to open the process to greater public
involvement. But in thinking about the downtown debacle, one is
inevitably confronted with a difficult question: if not this, then
what? What went wrong this time around? And what does it mean to
put the public back in public planning?

Perhaps no other conceit has been more pervasive at Ground Zero than
"democratic involvement." "There was something exhilaratingly
democratic about how ground zero's reconstruction plan was
selected," The Daily News editorialized late last year, gushing
about how "the public participated through forums and polling."
Officials at the LMDC, which is coordinating the
reconstruction--and which, like the Port Authority, gets its mandate
from Albany--have waxed ecstatic about the level of public input,
citing as evidence the public hearing at the Jacob K. Javits Center
in June 2002, where thousands of participants attacked the LMDC's
original six proposals. At the hearing, one LMDC facilitator even
urged the att end ees to "give yourselves a nice round of applause"
because "in democracy, people have a chance to speak!"

But the Javits hearing, far from advancing democracy, served, like
so much else in the process, as a clever ruse to close off
meaningful input and to manufacture consent around a narrow set of
ideas already selected by the LMDC, the Port Authority, and
Silverstein. While the LMDC responded to the public criticism of
the original six plans with a new competition, the content of that
criticism was never taken into account, and the new plans were
little more than dressed-up versions of their predecessors. All the
plans, for example, were constrained by requirements that maximized
office square footage. But the public did not want fancier-looking
buildings; it wanted (as the results of the Javits and other
meetings showed) to have primacy given to the memorial, and a
significant reduction in the amount of office space, and a design
that would weave the site back into Lower Manhattan--in sum, a
complete rejection of the World Trade Center idea itself.

And yet, in a painful irony made possible only by the LMDC's
doublespeak notion of democracy, all those priorities have been
ignored in favor of a plan that closely resembles the original six
plans--including a relatively small corner of memorial space, ten
million square feet of office space, a massive hotel and conference
center, and some eight hundred thousand square feet of retail space
(such an enormous amount of space is necessary, the agencies argue,
to prepare Lower Manhattan for what they see as a future run on
office space coming in the next decade). None of this was on the
public's mind, and yet the results are somehow being hailed as
"democratic." For the LMDC, democracy seems to mean little more
than public expression--not, as the architect Michael Sorkin has
noted, that "the people have the power to choose."

Since the LMDC was created by Governor Pataki in the weeks after
September 11, the structure behind the re-development has been
aggressively insulated from both meaningful public involvement or
the consideration of alternative conceptions for Ground Zero. The
LMDC itself is stacked with business executives and Pataki allies;
there is only one member from the community and not a single
representative from the victims' families. What's more, despite the
fact that four of the members were appointed by former Mayor
Giuliani and four by current Mayor Bloomberg, the LMDC is
completely under Pataki's control. (When the LMDC's site plan
committee voted seven to one in favor of a competing plan over
Daniel Libeskind's, the governor simply overrode it.) Worse still,
the LMDC is only one player in the process, and the only one with
even a tenuous claim to the public's stamp of approval. Neither the
Port Authority, which owns the land, nor Larry Silverstein, who
owns the lease, the legal mandate to rebuild, and the money to do
it, have any obligation to honor the public's wishes.

It is not surprising, then, that from the beginning the
reconstruction process has been so anti-democratic. Within days of
the attack, Silverstein announced his intention to rebuild the lost
office space, and ever since then that commercial priority has not
been seriously challenged by the Port Authority, the LMDC, or
Pataki. In the month that followed, two tracks of thinking about
rebuilding emerged, one within the state and private power
structure, the other outside, in the architectural and public
interest community. The former--quickly exemplified by the
LMDC--put a stress on speed and on literal rebuilding, while the
latter, which coalesced around a coterie of advocacy groups, pushed
for patience and a consideration of all alternatives.

And there were more than enough alternatives: at a public symposium
held at Cooper Union at the end of September 2001, almost one
thousand people showed up to discuss the possibilities for
rebuilding, with opinions ranging from leaving the site fallow to
building outsized replicas of the original towers. Hearings such as
this one--sponsored by groups such as New York New Visions and the
Regional Planning Association--took place throughout late 2001 and
the first half of 2002, but the general sentiment was always the
same as that expressed at Cooper Union: "Most speakers," reported
The Wall Street Journal, "made passionate bids to slow down and
rethink all assumptions about reshaping the site." But none of this
had any influence on decision-making. (To be fair, the LMDC did
host a few panels of its own and even established "advisory
councils" to "provide valuable public input," but it made clear
that it was in no way constrained by the results of either.)

Meanwhile, the real power began to coalesce behind Silverstein and
Pataki. Within weeks Silverstein had hired Washington lobbyists,
brought on a star architect (David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and
Merrill), and gathered support from local and national political
leaders for his own rebuilding plans--which, despite express public
opposition, were set to begin soon after the site was cleared. Not
long afterward, Pataki announced his intention to lay the
cornerstone on September 11, 2004, a week after the close of the
Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. And once
the LMDC was in place, there was little that groups outside this
new power structure--that even the mayor--could do. Federal
rebuilding funds were routed through Albany, and the city council
was rebuffed when it tried to gain entre to the LMDC. "Mr.
Bloomberg," reported The New York Times, "has more authority to susp
end alternate side of the street parking regulations than in
determining the course of what happens on the tract of land just
south of City Hall." By early 2002, the LMDC had largely end orsed
Silverstein's intentions, and soon afterward Kevin Rampe, its
president, declared that the office space was non-negotiable.

Perhaps cognizant of how such stridency might play to a
still-wounded public, LMDC members went to absurd lengths to
justify their rebuilding ag end a. While many in the public felt
that three thousand deaths negated the role that real estate should
play in the process, John Whitehead, who chairs the LMDC, claimed
that it is the other way around. Office space should trump memorial
space, and the new towers would themselves be memorials, he told
The New York Post, because of the victims' "loyalties" to their
former employers, as if those were the primary loyalties of the
victims in their lives. Even in Manhattan, real estate has never
been quite so sacralized. "How do you balance the value of human
lives against the value of New York real estate?" Ada Louise
Huxtable rightly retorted in The Wall Street Journal: "This is a
burial site, not a construction site." But recognizing such a
distinction--much less taking it into account--would have negated
the possibility of maximizing office space, and so the LMDC and
Silverstein simply ignored it.

This willful ignorance was made all too obvious in the six
schematics released by the Port Authority in July 2002. While they
were clearly labeled as preliminary and non-binding proposals, they
provided a first glimpse into the Authority's and the LMDC's
thinking: a constrained memorial space, maximum office space, and
uninspired public spaces. "It seems the trade center lease, more
than any other single thing, is shaping the rebuilding plans," wrote
David Dunlap in The New York Times. As Dunlap reported, the firm
largely behind the plans, Beyer Blinder Belle, was even told to
increase the office-space square footage by 40 percent.

A few days later, the LMDC, responding to an outburst of criticism,
held its infamous "Listening to New York" hearing at the Javits
Center. More than four thousand people showed up, and the revulsion
was almost unanimous. "I want to see something that doesn't fulfill
the stereotypes of what the terrorists think we are," said one
individual in att end ance. The plans, according to critics, were
uniformly too dense, too office-centric, too bland. Many said that
they wanted to see the city or the state force Silverstein out of
his lease (through a sweetheart deal elsewhere, backed by political
pressure), and almost all called for a fundamental rethinking of
the site, with the first step being a memorial. And yet there was
another telling statistic to emerge from the Javits hearing: only a
third said they were confident that their opinions would have any
impact on the process. They were right, though over the next six
months the LMDC would go to great lengths to convince them

Not long afterward the LMDC announced that the public had spoken,
and that it would go back to the drawing board, not least by
creating a competition to choose an architect and a "master plan"
for the site. But clearly the LMDC did not listen to what the
public said, because the results of its competition were nine
dressed-up versions of the same basic ideas. Many of the
competitors, such as the THINK team and Norman Foster, are gifted
and experienced master-plan designers, but they were hamstrung by
the LMDC's insistence on producing images, as opposed to detailed
plans. Worse, with only $40,000 each to work with, it was all but
impossible for the competing firms to provide the sort of in-depth
work necessary for a master plan. Not that there was much difference
between them. None of them reached beyond the site to re-think
Lower Manhattan, nor did they take into account the innovative
proposals--such as Frederick Schwartz's plan to bury West Street
and use the ground above for office space--that had emerged during
2002. Moreover, the public was given to believe that what they were
seeing were images as the site would appear when complete, when in
fact the LMDC was never constrained even by the designs it had
hand-picked to present. Ultimately, art was used to divert public
attention from what really mattered: urban planning.; The debate
should have begun at a higher level of generality and urgency.

The debate should have begun at a higher level of generality and
urgency. Should there be a tower? Should the focus be on office
space? Should the entire site be a memorial? Yet that kind of
discussion never took place, because the process left little more
than a month for the public to consider and weigh in on the plans.
"It was a distraction from a discussion that never happened," said
Sorkin. Even Giuliani weighed in, observing that the designs "put
the cart before the horse.... The first thing any design there has
to say to you is the significance of what happened, not the
significance of the office or retail space."

Since the selection of Daniel Libeskind's symbol-soggy plan--a
semi-circle of towers, culminating in the 1,776-foot "Freedom
Tower," surrounding an array of cultural facilities--in February
2003, there has been no formal opportunity for public discussion at
all, despite the fact that several decisions and deals have been
made that call into question the structural, financial, and
aesthetic viability of even Libeskind's commerce-fri end ly plan.
(Given Libeskind's lack of actual construction experience--he has a
mere three buildings on the ground-- it is worth wondering whether
he was selected to play the patsy rather than the master.) Much of
the actual design work has been farmed out to other architects, and
many of their plans so far intrude on the basic elements of
Libeskind's design--Santiago Calatrava's train station, for
example, alters significantly Libeskind's vaunted "Wedge of Light."
Childs, whose firm dropped out of the competition, spent most of
last fall battling Libeskind for control of the "Freedom Tower"
design; and the final plan, released in December, is a clear
victory for Childs and Silverstein. Indeed, with the unveiling of
the revised plan for the memorial, the overall site plan has lost
many of the most notable and attractive elements of Libeskind's
original scheme, to the point that it now bears a striking
resemblance to two of the six much-derided plans introduced in the
summer of 2002--a good indication that the competition, touted as a
breakthrough in civic involvement, was merely an elaborate trick.

In truth, though, the competition could not have been otherwise.
Silverstein, who controls both the lease and the billions of
dollars in insurance money necessary to rebuild, was never beholden
to the results. Both LMDC and the Port Authority had long since
relinquished any chance they might have had to force Silverstein
out of the picture, which meant all they could do was construct the
impression of public involvement--both to pacify New Yorkers and to
give them some edge over Silverstein. In any case, the notion that
the public was ever involved, at least in a substantive sense, was
a lie. There is no concrete evidence that the concerns expressed at
the Javits Center hearing or at any of the other public meetings
had a significant influence on the process.

By and large, the LMDC, Silverstein, and the Port Authority have
replicated the mistakes of the first generation of World Trade
Center builders. They have ignored public concerns and failed to
take into account the future relationship of the site to the
surrounding community. They have attempted to bulldoze their way
through legal challenges and opposition from the mayor's office and
the city council. They have made a fetish of square footage at a
time when the real estate market in New York, let alone in Lower
Manhattan, is suffering from a glut of office space. (There are now
twelve million unoccupied square feet downtown.) For all its fancy
symbolism of memory, Libeskind's plan taken as a whole evokes less
the tragedy or the city in which the tragedy occurred than an
upstart commercial center in some Sun Belt edge city. (Even the
Times' Herbert Muschamp, once a fan of Libeskind's design, asked:
"How did Ground Zero come to inherit a vision of glitzy,
structurally inept towers that would look more at home in an office
park for some energy companies?") The process has been impelled
mainly by fat egos--George Pataki's, Daniel Libeskind's, Larry
Silverstein's. And those egos have chosen a coarsely triumphalist
image--the massive tower--to represent their achievement. No matter
how impressive the memorial turns out, it will be an office tower
that grounds the site.

And because there is no opportunity for indep end ent criticism,
major planning elements have been overlooked. The "master plan,"
for example, is presented as an after-the-fact document; there is
no consideration as to how the project will be phased in over the
decade-plus construction period. Given that a substantial amount of
the office and retail space will not be built for years, it is
worth inquiring, as Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff wrote in a letter
to the Port Authority in October, whether the planners int end to
leave "voids on any of the city's parcels." More alarming, perhaps,
was Doctoroff's mention that "to date, we are not aware of any
estimates of the costs of the master plan ... a detailed,
multi-year comparison of the uses and sources of funds must be
produced." In other words, how long will the site remain a hole in
the ground? The planners, lacking public criticism, seem never to
have even considered the question.


While the LMDC and Port Authority have taken pains to place their
plans behind a democratic facade, others have been more upfront
about their opposition to a greater public role in the planning
process. Paul Goldberger, in The New Yorker, remarked last year
that the rebuilding process was "a struggle between democracy and
vision." And William Tucker in The New York Post worried that
public involvement would derail the process completely, warning
that "after 20 years, we'll probably end up with a hole in the
ground." Public planning and architecture are too important to be
left to the public, these and other writers say.

The notion that there has been too much public input at Ground Zero,
that the process is suffering from a surfeit of democracy, is
ludicrous. Moreover, history shows that, when it comes to the
planning process, more democracy, not less, is usually required for
success. One of the great moments in urban planning took place in
1366 in Florence. The city was well into the process of erecting
the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, and wanted the citizens'
imprimatur to begin work on a daring unbuttressed dome. The plan was
ambitious, to say the least, and by the standards of the building
techniques of its time it was not at all clear whether it could be
built. The powers that be supported the plan, which they felt would
vault the city to world-class status. And that status, they
decided, would be better served if the new cathedral bore the stamp
of public approval. So they took the extraordinary step of putting
the plan to a vote before the citizens of the city, who
overwhelmingly approved it. And that vote gave the planners the
momentum and the confidence to continue such a massive project,
which became one of the ornaments of our civilization.

Nor were the Florentines an anomaly. As David Mayernik notes in
Timeless Cities, during the Renaissance the role of the public was
considered integral to the notion of the humanist city, one that in
turn drew on classical ideas of the city as an expression of civic
ideals rather than civic realities. "This allowed those cities to
be always better than the people who made them," he writes,
"whereas business and politics rarely provide built contexts that
transc end their immediate contingent reality." But the humanist
approach to city planning, Mayernik argues, has fallen apart in the
wake of industrialization and the re-imagination of the city as a
machine, a tool to promote human progress rather than embody it. By
the middle of the twentieth century, city planners could approach
their subject simply as a matter of social engineering, in which
public discussion was no match for scientific methods. (Like Tucker
and Goldberger, they felt public involvement would only create more
problems.) Modernist city planners bulldozed entire neighborhoods
in the name of "urban renewal," replacing them with civic plazas,
housing projects, freeways, and cultural centers. It was only when
the public finally rebelled against such wholesale destruction,
embodied in the crusading work of Jane Jacobs and the fight against
New York's Westway project, that top-down planning ground to a

Today, beyond Ground Zero, we can find numerous examples of the
public re- emerging as a force in city planning. Consider the vast
number of refer end a on "smart growth" initiatives, in which
communities vote on nothing less than the future growth of their
cities. Or take the planning process for the Oklahoma City bombing
memorial, which went through years of public debate before a
consensus emerged behind a moving plan for a field of empty chairs,
one for each victim--strong evidence that democracy and vision are
not mutually exclusive. And in many cities public involvement in
the design and the construction of civic buildings is standard
operating procedure. In Seattle, the plans for the main branch of
the public library, designed by Rem Koolhaas's Office of
Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), went through dozens of public
hearings, after which significant changes were made; the result is a
building by a world-class architect that is informed, on a
fundamental level, by the public interest.

Of course, it is not always easy to maintain the role of the
architect, or the essential integrity of the architect's
conception, in the face of increased public involvement. In
Seattle, OMA was never required to adopt the public's input, only
to consider it. Such a requirement would have, to a large extent, r
end ered meaningless the genius that an architect such as Koolhaas
can bring to a project. I do not mean to suggest that architectural
democracy should be exactly like political democracy; but
developers and corporations and politicians should not be allowed
to hide their self-interests behind the distinction.

The public need not get to vote, precisely; but it should get to air
its views and see them recognized. How would such a system work?
One could imagine a three-step process. First, there would be a
thorough round of public debate, ranging from sponsored forums to
opinion columns, to gauge the community's goals for a particular
site. (This sort of open discussion was seen much more clearly
during the run-up to the World Trade Center memorial competition.)
Second, there would be a fully funded competition among architects,
in which firms and individuals would be given the time and money
needed to produce actual plans, not just flashy imagery. While
nothing at the competition stage should be considered final, fully
realized plans would give both the public and the planning
authority more to work with, and it would provide a check on the
sort of backroom fill-in-the-spaces work that is currently underway
at Ground Zero. Finally, once a designer is chosen, the public
would be brought back into the process, and through an additional
series of forums be allowed to comment upon and to criticize the
direction that the designers have taken. As in Seattle, the
architects would not be legally required to incorporate those
criticisms, but they would be morally (and even politically)
required to consider them and to respond to some of them. Had this
process been followed at Ground Zero, it would have taken much
longer than the accelerated timetable set by the electorally
ambitious Pataki; but we might have had a real shot at building
something that actually embodied the city's spirit instead of
trampling on it.

What all these examples--from Florence to Seattle--have in common is
an appreciation for the role of ordinary citizens in the planning
process. They speak for the fine pragmatic notion that public
involvement allows for more ideas to be aired, thus improving the
final plan. One can imagine that, had the Port Authority been
forced to listen in the 1960s to animadversions from the
neighborhood boards, business groups, or the mayor's office, it
might not have invested in a pharaonic folly such as the World
Trade Center. And were the LMDC and Port Authority now held
accountable to the local public, they might have in their hands a
plan that did not mindlessly recreate the mistakes of the past, or
at least a plan that actually made financial sense.

The history of successful urban design also teaches that great
cities physically embody the values and the ideals of their
citizens--and they do so because they allow the public a
substantive voice in their development. This is all the more true
today, when the sheer density of our urban areas requires a
democracy that is not only political, but also cultural. Urban life
is guided, on a daily basis, by the multitude of decisions that go
into shaping the cityscape, and the more control the public has
over those the decisions, the better the city will be as a whole.
"If a harmonious city is the goal," Mayernik writes, "imposing it
only from above is a strategy doomed to failure. And if this were
true in a nascent first century B.C. 'global' empire such as Rome,
it is even truer for our twenty-first-century democracies."

What does this mean for Ground Zero? In their present state, the
plans for Ground Zero are little more than an elaborately decorated
attempt to recuperate real-estate value and undergird Lower
Manhattan's losing fight to retain its mantle as the city's
financial hub (ironically, through an infusion of office space so
large as to destroy the district's market for good). But while the
LMDC and the Port Authority have already made many of the important
decisions themselves, it is not too late to give the public a say
in how things proceed. The LMDC could institute a series of public
hearings and round tables, and promise that the ideas and
criticisms that emerge will be incorporated into the plans; and
follow-up hearings would ensure that those ideas were instituted.
In doing so, the end result would not only be a better building,
but the process would itself have become a part of the memorial.
But in the current planning environment, in which cynical
developers have used sham democracy to undermine the public
interest, such an alternative is, to say the least, a long shot. It
is not the first time that the city has failed at this crucial and
tortured site.

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