I promise – promise – that this will be absolutely, positively,
my last WTC post. This week, anyway. My piece yesterday
was in response to some good questions which were asked back in January and
which I felt I could take a stab at answering. But today there’s a whole new
slew of WTC pieces, which are extremely disparaging and skeptical about the
Libeskind plan, and which deserve a considered response.
Allen, and Megan
McArdle have all written variations on a theme: basically that the WTC site
has been hijacked by the forces of commercialism and is doomed to become a horribly
commerical real-estate development with nary a thought for the greater good.
Much of what they write is sheer rhetoric: it’s hard to argue with a bald assertion
like Risen’s statement that "because of the fast-waning public interest
in the rebuilding, the entire process is at risk of disaster." But there
are a few misconceptions in these pieces which are worth correcting.
Risen, for instance, says that
Last week Westfield, the Australian mall corporation that held the retail
rights to the World Trade Center, took a cash settlement and pulled out, throwing
a screwball at the rebuilding negotiations.
This is completely topsy-turvey: Westfield had been adamant that it wanted
contiguous retail space – it is a mall operator, after all – and
that shops on streets were unacceptable. With Westfield’s departure, the rebuilding
negotiations become a lot easier, not more difficult. It’s hard to see how Risen
can think otherwise, unless he’s so blinded by prior conviction that automatically
all news must be bad news.
Risen also says that the Port Authority, the city, and the federal government
are at fault for refusing to force Larry Silverstein "into a cash settlement
or demanding that he agree to trade for a lease on similar properties elsewhere."
He’s echoed by McArdle:
In the event that more office space is needed in lower Manhattan, there are
other places to put it. There are several underutilized sites in the area,
such as the lot which before 9/11 housed a tiny Orthodox Church and a large
parking lot, both destroyed in the collapse. If the city wanted to, it could
use its power of eminent domain, and an expedited approval process, to give
Mr. Silverstein enough land to replace all the office space he lost.
Is it really possible that McArdle hasn’t even looked at the plans
which she decries as silly and incoherent? The lot she’s talking about is smaller
than one of the footprints of one of the WTC towers. Each
tower had about 4 million square feet of office space, and that was building
much taller than the 70 or so stories which is the practical maximum for a new
office building. Silverstein would find it very difficult to get a building
of much more than 1 million square feet out of that site, and completely impossible
to get anywhere near 2 million square feet. What he’s entitled to, on the other
hand, is 10 million square feet. The kind of land area needed to reach that
total is simply not available in Manhattan’s business districts, eminent domain
or no. The only place it exists is at the WTC site.
Now, Risen’s right that, in theory, Silverstein could be bought off with a
cash settlement rather than office space. But he doesn’t seem to understand
the cashflow situation here: far from the taxpayer giving money to Silverstein
to go away, Silverstein is actually the central, necessary source of funds for
rebuilding the WTC site in the first place. It is Silverstein who held the insurance
contracts on the World Trade Center, you see, and without those insurance proceeds,
nothing is going to get built on the site at all.
McArdle would like that: she just wants the entire site grassed over, with
nothing there at all. It’s one of those proposals, a bit like building the Gaudí
tower or rebuilding the original towers just as they were, which has a certain
amount of conceptual appeal but is completely unrealistic. For one thing, Silverstein
has a contractual right to his office space. For another, the Port Authority
simply can’t operate without the income from the site – and that doesn’t
mean just the PATH trains, it also means JFK and LaGuardia airports, as well
as Brooklyn’s ports. The financial cost to New York City and the states of New
York and New Jersey would be in the high billions – this is not money
which is in any sense available.
McArdle is also unhelpful when it comes to defining exactly what she means
by "the site". From what she writes, it would seem to be the 16 acres
bounded by Vesey, Church, Liberty and West streets. But the very existence of that
site is testament to everything which was bad about 1970s planning: the only
urban site in Manhattan which is nearly as big is Rockefeller Center. Steets
like Greenwich and Fulton were idiotically destroyed when the World Trade Center
was built, and it makes all the sense in the world to bring them back and help
restore street life to lower Manhattan. Leaving the entire 16 acres as empty
space would be a huge "fuck you" to the residents of Battery Park
City and the inhabitants of the World Financial Center, who, trust me, do not
appreciate being stuck on the wrong side of a major highway without any real
interaction with the rest of the city.
It would also be an act of desperation and unbridled pessimism. McArdle declares
that "it seems we can’t" have a great new building, without explaining
why we can’t have a great new building, why Libeskind’s plans preclude one,
or what buildings in the world actually are great and new. Is there something
about Santiago Calatrava she doesn’t like? After all, he’s been commissioned
to design one of the greatest of the new buildings on the site, and certainly
the one which virtually all visitors to the area will enter at some point. But
no, McArdle is so certain that we can’t have something good that she’d rather
have nothing at all. For me, that is not the way that New York City, the capital
of the world, should behave or believe.
It’s also worth pointing out that the area bounded by Greenwich, Fulton, Liberty
and West Streets is enormous in and of itself, and that if a large chunk of
it is going to be green, then it will be much larger than any other park downtown.
A memorial competition is going on right now to design the area in the best
possible way, completely untouched by Silverstein or any commercial considerations.
The only buildings in that quadrant will be cultural, and will be carefully
incorporated into the plan by whomever wins the memorial competition. McArdle
can’t criticise the winner of the memorial competition, of course, because it
hasn’t been announced yet, but why not have a little bit of faith that we’ll
end up with something better than nothing?
Libeskind’s plan does lots of things which will be great for New York. It will
unify neighborhoods which currently have almost no interaction with each other,
from the area south of Liberty Street all the way up, via Battery Park City
and Tribeca, to Chinatown. It will provide a crucial new transportation hub,
and much-needed new cultural facilities – more than 100 cultural organisations
have applied for homes there. It understands that New York City is the ultimate
urban environment, and that skyscrapers belong here – and to
that end, it will restore the skyline and give this town the tallest building
in the world for the ninth or tenth time. It also allows for the construction
of new office buildings – something which you’d think would be unexceptionable
in New York, but which all the critics seem to consider prima facie
The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is of singular importance in
the history of America’s urban environment. It is the moment when the
world of private development, in the form of Larry Silverstein and his dreams
of profit-maximizing skyscrapers, invaded the public realm. It is up to the
city’s political leaders, then, to do something before Silverstein’s
actions set a precedent.
He’s wrong: the whole reason that Silverstein is involved in the World Trade
Center rebuilding to begin with is precisely because it was a commercial development.
New York City has always had an enormous amount of private development, and
it is private development which is responsible for it being one of the greatest
cities in the world. The only reason that the site is in the public realm at
all is because the Port Authority is a state-owned organisation, and that the
destruction of September 11 affected the public as a whole and not just a couple
of tall commercial buildings. But to take a 16-acre site in the middle of the
USA’s third-largest central business district and to use it either for nothing
or for purely public works would be lunacy of the highest order.