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PointOfView: Future of the World Trade Center Site: It's the Chessboard, Not the Chess Pieces, that Matter Now - By the Van Alen Institute

by ArchNewsNow
December 13, 2002

Since the recovery effort ended last summer, the former site of the World Trade Center has remained off limits for New Yorkers, but the first evidence of its core identity as public space is already clear. Ironically, the fence that secures its perimeter is a testament to the site's future role in the life and movement of the city. Not so much because it is the Viewing Wall for the site, or because it carries, with ungilded eloquence, the responsibility of being a temporary memorial posting for the names of the uniformed rescue workers who died responding to the 9/11 attacks, but more because of what happens on the sidewalk running along the fence at Church and Liberty Streets.


There, on that pavement, is Downtown's first major public space since 9/11. By conceptualizing, designing and installing the fence, the two agencies that control the site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have recognized - whether intentionally or by default - that the primary focus for the design of these 16 acres has to be the physical public realm. In particular, they have generated a very New York kind of place, the kind that is shaped by and shared by competing interests, who, however sober and respectful, are all working out a 21st century version of what Jane Jacobs called the "sidewalk ballet" of the metropolis.


Several public agencies and civic groups are actively pursuing urban designs to renew all of Lower Manhattan, not just the site of the former World Trade Center, and are correctly underscoring the importance of open public space in their plans. But they should not use this as an excuse for sidestepping the essential public character of Ground Zero itself, however complex the site's politics, provenance, and financing. The public sector should do what it does best on these 16 acres - renew infrastructure, and just as important, provide the public space that contemporary city life demands in this most public and private of cities. Whatever takes place over the coming decade and more as the area is reconfigured, this 16-acre plot will be seen - in New York, across the country, and around the world - as having been the catalyst for and the touchstone of the renewal of downtown New York City. Downtown's urban future, whether as a financial capital, cultural center, international crossroads, or a bedroom community for midtown, will be expressed initially by what is paid forward here.


As the design teams selected by the LMDC present their "innovative design ideas" as called for in the Request for Proposals, which will be displayed to the public beginning December 19, the overarching question is: How will their efforts be judged? Evaluating and deciphering the results, and recognizing value in them - civic value - is the core challenge faced by the LMDC and the Port Authority. If public citizens aren't clear and forceful on the "How" of this evaluation, these public servants may take the least inspiring option, and use the trump card they've been poised to play since the beginning by asserting peremptory property rights to the site.

The "How" has to mean putting public space first, as the main measure of civic value. None of the schemes or programs presented to date convincingly establishes this priority. The most significant public amenity proposed to date, the half-mile underground people-mover put forward by the Port Authority in a still schematic design, could serve an important transportation function, but it would also funnel thousands of commuters and visitors into an underground passage, away from the urban life above.


No one knows exactly what the next generation's public space should be here-green, gray, indoor, outdoor, sloped, level, busy with information or still with memory, but we do know that it has to be shared, and open to change. The right expression of this will require designers and planners of great talent and patience, and they will be the greater for demonstrating that for the renewal of Ground Zero and all of downtown, it is the chessboard, not the chess pieces, that matters most.


This statement was written by Robert E. Kupiec, Chairman, Peter Slatin, Trustee, and Raymond W. Gastil, Executive Director, Van Alen Institute.