The WTC backlash

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.


Risen, Greg

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


Writes Risen:

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.

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3 Responses to The WTC backlash

  1. Jane Galt says:

    I wasn’t proposing that the towers be rebuilt on one site; there are a number of soft sites in the area, three of them directly across the street (the parking lot, the burger king block, and the courtyard), as well as a number of other plots of city land in the battery park area, including the waterside park off Battery Park which is owned by the city, extremely underdeveloped, and which would be unneeded with a large public space such as I propose. Is it huge, contiguous ofice block? Nope. And Silverstein isn’t getting a huge, contiguous office block at the WTC either, due to the increasingly active voice of the community, which has already cut down the size of the proposed buildings, moved them, and last I checked, was hot on the tail of restoring Greenwich Street. Suggesting that we should use the Libeskind design because of concern for Silverstein is more than a little odd, since Silverstein has barely been mentioned, much less consulted, in the process.

    Moreover, I think you’re misinterpreting the commercial developer move. From what I hear, the argument about shops was a blind; the real reason they pulled out is that they thought the thing would be hugely unprofitable. No other developers are stepping forward to take their place, you notice; if anyone thought they were going to make money off this, we’d have expected a number of high-publicity bids by now. But no one seems to want to be the company that’s building a Quizno’s on top of the innocent graves of the 9/11 dead. As far as I can tell, the only reason Larry Silverstein is even marginally interested in rebuilding the site is that he has to in order to collect the insurance money. Commercially viable, it isn’t. You could *never* get this project funded in New York if it weren’t the terms of an insurance payout.

  2. geoff says:

    i think that is a key point to the whole issue:

    “Commercially viable, it isn’t. You could *never* get this project funded in New York if it weren’t the terms of an insurance payout.”

    many of the larger more popular nyc developments have been born of a single vision, single source of money (personal, or public appropriation) and generally have lost money for a good long time. it hasn’t changed their greatness.

    wtc was a 2 decade old anachronism when it was built and was hated. it got built by little more then the arrogance of a few people. it stood mostly empty for a long time.

    rock center- built in the midst of the depression, empty for a long time, lost money hand over fist- none of which mattered… it was all about the rockefellers

    empire state- another big money loser built in the midst of a depression by a small handful of single minded people.

    the list goes on and on… through housing developments, parks, streets etc.

    the whole concept of getting projects built by the loving agreement of all involved for the ‘stated’ motive of something other then money is a recent (15 years or so) phenomenon- not just in nyc but everywhere.

    i say the jury is still out on the success of such a development model.

  3. when you do a competition with 20 or something teams of architects they all go blind of greediness . what was missing was an open international competition for the hole site , (the kind is being held right now for the memorial), when you don•t think in winning is when you are true to yourself and abstraction of all things considered is possible.

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