WTC: Your questions answered

Back from a long weekend, there’s lots of fabulous new stuff I want to blog

about, but first I want to get the last of the WTC stuff off my chest. My last

post, on the design revisions, got a lot of inbound links, largely, I think,

because the mainstream media isn’t giving this story the detailed coverage it

deserves. Part of the problem is that the news trickles out slowly, and there’s

no real news hook to hang a big WTC story on.

Anyway, the excellent World New York linked

to me on Thursday, and pointed me back to some questions

he’d asked back in January. They’re good questions, so I’m going to try to answer

them here. He’s particularly keen on what he calls the "six-foot view,"

something he says which seems to have been overlooked in the site plan so far.

Never mind what the buildings are going to look like from the Statue of Liberty,

he says: what are they going to look like from six feet away?

This is a very good question, and one that no one can answer, largely because

none of the buildings have been designed yet. The site plan is basically just

that – a master plan for the site as a whole – and only two of the

buildings even have architects: Santiago Calatrava for the train station and

David Childs for the Freedom Tower. I’m a much bigger fan of Calatrava than

I am of Childs, who’s responsible for the AOL Time Warner monstrosity currently

being constructed at Columbus Circle. But I’m also cautiously optimistic about

the six-foot view in general, and can answer some of the questions posed in


When you stand a body’s length from the skin of the building,

what do you see? What is happening at the street level? Are there windows to

peer in? Are there newsstands? Benches? Bike racks?

At street level, the office towers are going to read largely as retail space.

The idea is to surround the core of the buildings with shops, which enhance

street life. The towers themselves are largely set back from the street, so

they’ll be very hard to see without craning your neck. Obviously, shops nearly

always want as many windows as possible, so yes, there’ll be lots of those.

And as for street furniture like newsstands, benches and bike racks, I’m sure

they’ll be there too. Libeskind is adamant that this become a vibrant new residential

neighborhood and not a soulless central business district. The absence of things

like bike racks is usually a result of no one taking responsibility for such

things. In this case, contrariwise, everybody from the Port Authority and the

LMDC to the city and state of New York is falling over themselves to make sure

that the district works as a pleasant place to live, work, and visit. You’re

much more likely to get bickering over the kind of bike racks to install than

you are to have their necessity overlooked entirely.

Can five tourists walk abreast and still leave room for accelerated

New Yorkers watching their Bostonians?

Insofar as this is possible anywhere in Manhattan, it will be possible here.

The new streets – Greenwich and Fulton – are first and foremost

for pedestrians, with wide sidewalks and lots of trees. There’s a lot of greenery,

too, on the revamped Liberty Street. Even West Street will be great if it gets

buried, although I have to admit I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Are there shops visible from the street—local shops, preferably?

The first part of the question is an easy yes, but the second part is tougher.

The WTC site is not going to grow organically like most of the rest of the city:

it’s going to be built by developers who are going to market it as a hot new

retail destination. Westfield America, the mall operator who ran the shops in

the World Trade Center, is no longer involved, but someone else will surely

take over responsibility for the retail part of the site as a whole. And given

that there’s going to be 600,000 square feet of retail to fill, I have a feeling

that the chain stores we had there before are likely to come back, maybe with

a big department store anchor. The new site won’t feel like a shopping mall

in the way the old one did, but it probably will feel like a shopping mall in

the way the Upper West Side does at the moment. I think that a large number

of national chain stores is an inevitability, if only because – obviously

– there can’t be any small local shops who have been there for generations.

Judging by the World Financial Center, there might be a few independent restaurants,

but the shops are likely to be pretty bland and corporate. Still, Century 21

is still going to be right there on Church Street, and a walk up Fulton Street

to Nassau Street will bring you back to the realm of unique New York retail.

Have piss corners been avoided? Piss corners: you know, those uncomfortable

places where the grand façades come together like wrinkled wallpaper

in a room’s corner, barely hidden, but magnets for dirt, like derelicts

and drunks and trash itself, corners which are inevitably doomed to become pissoirs.

Have windowless and doorless walls been avoided?

Since virtually all the street frontage is going to be retail, I think you’re

ok on the piss-corners and blank-walls front. While you do occasionally see

rubbish in a storefront’s doorway, the kind of thing you’re talking about usually

happens in business districts without a retail presence.

Have delivery bays and trash areas been made as small as possible,

and placed on the least active side of the building? Better, have they been

placed inside the building, in a courtyard or basement?

They’ve been placed underneath the buildings, off a subterranean road

which can only be accessed by trucks which pass a special security area to the

south of Liberty Street. The solution is pretty much ideal from a street-life

perspective: there should be no trucks on Fulton or Greenwich at all.

Have the trees been given room to grow? Or will they forever be saplings,

replaced in their tiny basins when they grow too large? What does the space

look like at night? Is it dead? Is it safe? Or does it become just another passing-through

area for those who have to be there rather than want to be there?

I’m sure the trees have been given room to grow: the LMDC has the best consultants

in the world on such matters. At night, the idea is that the area is going to

be a cultural center, with a performing arts center, restaurants, and all the

other things which will make people want to go there in the evenings, rather

than simply get out of there once the work day is over. The financial district

always has been pretty bleak at nights and weekends, but I’m hoping the new

WTC plan will change all that.

Are the public spaces contiguously external and internal?

Yes: Cortlandt Street, which becomes a pedestrianised internal shopping precinct

when it crosses Church Street, is a good example. There are multiple levels

to the plan, and a lot of what you call contiguousness between external and

internal: for instance, you can walk from the World Financial Center through

to the new train station along wide pedestrian pathways which continue all the

way up to Broadway and beyond. It’s hard to say for sure, because much of the

detailed design work hasn’t been done yet, but the idea is very much to have

a light-filled and pleasant walk around the non-memorial areas of the site which

makes it very easy to get to, say, the World Financial Center or the various

PATH and subway lines. The 600,000 square feet of retail is on many different

levels, from below ground to above it, and no one has any interest in recreating

the fluorescent nightmare that was the original shopping mall. The retail presence,

indeed, is likely to provide another easy way of getting from the below-ground

areas to street level and back, just as you used to be able to walk from the

subway to the street through Borders rather than going up the public staircase.

Are the memorial areas level with the street? Are all the public areas

entered through wide, welcoming gateways?

The memorial competition is ongoing, and no one will know for sure what it’s

going to look like until the results are announced. But at the moment, the memorial

area is sunk about 30 feet below street level, so that it’s separated from the

bustle of the street life. The slurry walls and a new waterfall will give it

auditory isolation, so that you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city

while you’re there, and people on the street will probably be able to go about

their business without feeling that they’re intruding on an important spiritual

experience. As for the gateways, again, that’s unclear. They won’t be there

at the beginning, but as the site plan progresses and more of the buildings

get built, they should start appearing.

It’s certainly the case that architects like thinking big, and that if you’re

designing the world’s highest building you might not spend quite the optimum

amount of time thinking about whether people are going to be able to chain their

bikes to lampposts. Some people are mistrustful of all grand plans, and are

much happier if neighborhoods are just left to develop on their own, but that’s

impossible in this situation, and the LMDC is surely the next best thing. For

the time being, I’m confident that these questions are being asked and that

we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results as they begin to appear. The problem

is one of timing: since everything can’t be constructed at once, what will the

streets be like when they first open? My fear is that they’ll be a little too

pristine, too much like the new piers in the Hudson River Park, without any

New York City grittiness. I don’t want to see the suburbanisation of downtown

New York spread from Battery Park City to the WTC site, but I have to admit

I don’t have any bright ideas about how to prevent that.

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3 Responses to WTC: Your questions answered

  1. Sy Klopps says:

    With regards to the sunken 30ft memorial pit:

    Is it viewable from the street level above? It would seem weird to be down there and have a crowd of people above gawking at you. I guess I’m also thinking of the future terror issue. Sad thought I know, but I wonder how much thought goes into things like this.

    Great writing Felix. A blog with actual original content, how novel. (serious here)

  2. Thanks for the thorough reponse. You’ve given me hope that I won’t have to avoid the new WTC for the rest of my life…

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