July 14-18, 2002: Urban Planning

July 14, 2002—Next Saturday, I will take part in “Listening to the City”, a “town hall” forum in which 5,000 participants will be presented with the six options of how to rebuild the WTC site and surrounding areas, and be asked to discuss and vote on them. That should be a fascinating experience, though a little scary, as it feels like a great responsibility (even though the votes are nonbonding). I was also feeling a lack of entitlement, as I didn’t lose my job, family or friends on 9-11, don’t live or work in the WTC vicinity, I’m not an urban planner, just an ordinary citizen who was in the Union Square/Flatiron area, 3 km from the WTC site, on the morning of September 11, saw the Twin Towers burning, evacuated Manhattan on foot, someone who works in Manhattan and spends much of his waking hours there, who bore with the city during and after the worst calamity it has ever known. I guess that’s entitlement enough; after all, they weren’t asking for any special qualifications, and the votes are nonbonding. I will treat this with the respect and urgency that it warrants. I guess my fascination with the “A New World Trade Center” show, and looking towards the rebuilding, which helped me get through the early part of the year, and a desire to make a difference, all contributed to my signing up.

July 16, 2002—Went downtown to see a movie (“Lilo & Stitch”) with a friend, after eating at a Vietnamese restaurant south of Union Square. It turned out that the movie was in Battery Park City, just a block from Ground Zero—we walked over from City Hall. There was a fence not far from the theater; attached to it were several dozen flyers, each with the photo of a face, a name, and the words “Remember Me”. The theater was three stories tall, but with very high ceilings they were each close to 10 meters high. From a window you could actually look across and down into the pit. A lot of exposed cement; it looked like some massive infrastructure project, or a little like an architectural dig. After the film, I decided to inspect Ground Zero as if I were an urban planner. I made my way around the northern edge of the site, a block away from the pit. I was struck by how the enormity of the place is somewhat of an illusion; the towers themselves made the space seem gigantic. It’s still a large pit, but there’s finite space to build in. I reached the northwest corner. There’s still a memorial wall there, in back of the church they were using for rescue operations; reminiscences and objects left from all over the world—I hope they incorporate some of that stuff into the final memorial. There were also street vendors, one with a computer playing actual video and sound from September 11, a news report I guess. It was twilight when I reached the perimeter. A first-quarter Moon to the south, Venus hanging between the towers of the World Financial Center. I looked at the space, and tried to imagine what structures, what new ways of seeing and behaving might spring from the ashes of this scene of horror. There was a large American flag just within the Ground Zero perimeter; I wondered how America could overcome this devastating tragedy, and also improve its strained relations with much of the world. I asked for a dream, concerning renewal, and this project—which is more than a physical project—that encompasses our grief and hopes and our drive to transform a scene of horror into a place of beauty and reverent reflection. .

July 18, 2002—The proposals and designs were released two days ago, pictured and discussed in all the papers yesterday, and posted on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s website. They seem, on the whole, rather small-minded and uninspired—bent on trying to fit not only an adequate memorial (and related museum) but all the commercial, hotel, and retail (for the latter, even more) space that was lost on the site without being able to lodge it in 110-story towers. The results are predictably cluttered, with the office buildings (except in one design) placed almost haphazardly around the rim. The two with the most interesting space set aside for memorial parks also have parts of the footprints built on, which will never do. .

In a discussion forum on the rebuilding appearing on the New York Times website, mention was made of another plan called Liberty Square, which is as bold and soaring as the official plans are timid and bland. Liberty Square is designed to be a culmination of Downtown’s skyline, rather than to be set off from it (as was the World Trade Center): a complex of 11 buildings (reminiscent of the great towers of the early 20th Century), to be among the tallest buildings in New York, of increasing height moving in towards the centerpiece, a tower on the north end of the square that would be the world’s tallest building. The memorial is the central square, encompassing two city blocks, with a lawn in the center, surrounded by a plaza. At one end would be two classical statues, History and Memory, one pointing to a tablet inscribed “IX XI MMI”; between them a shroud marking and symbolizing the spot where so many people died. On the other end would be statues of a firefighter and policeman. There would be no tall buildings to the south, so that plenty of sunlight would illuminate the square. There are some drawbacks: it would likely produce an excess of commercial space, beyond even the glut that the Port Authority is currently contractually obligated to provide to Larry Silverstein and Westfield America (though some of the space in the tall buildings could be residential, museum, etc). I don’t know exactly what the disposition of the footprints of the original towers is in this plan. There’s not much in green space evident (other than the lawn in the square itself). But it’s a heck of a lot better start than anything that the city has released. I’ve e-mailed the URL to Liberty Square to my friend Arthur Nusbaum, a “new urbanist” activist, developer, and onetime NYC resident. Tomorrow I’ll again look over the 6 official plans on the LMDC’s website, as well as Liberty Square and the designs from the “A New World Trade Center” show in preparation for the big meeting.

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