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Concern From the Ground Up

April 13, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK--With the release Tuesday of guidelines for the development of ground zero, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has taken the first significant step toward the creation of a master plan for the 16-acre World Trade Center site. And although it's too soon to panic, there's reason for concern.

Assembled by Alexander Garvin, the agency's vice president for planning, design and development, the guidelines propose a park with a memorial and a related museum of American freedom, a development that would include housing; commercial and retail space; the relocation of West Street, the site's west boundary, below ground for better pedestrian access to Battery Park City and its World Financial Center; and the reestablishment of a number of streets that were eradicated when the World Trade Center complex was built in the 1970s.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. expects to lay out a timetable in the next few months for developing the early phases of the project. The schedule will focus first on the reconstruction of the underground transportation hub linking subway and rail lines and on establishing a competition to design the park and related memorials.

Safe and unimaginative, the guidelines reflect the planning mentality that has shaped large-scale development in Manhattan for decades.

But ground zero is no ordinary site; its planning demands the highest level of creative intelligence. That will require a willingness to break rules, to challenge accepted orthodoxies. And that's something the current guidelines are unlikely to accomplish.

Established in November by New York Gov. George Pataki and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the development agency's function is to coordinate the interests of all stakeholders in the site. And the main aim of the guidelines, in fact, is a political one--to avoid a collision between the forces vying for control of the site--the ordinary citizens and victims' families who consider ground zero a sacred site and the city's power brokers, who see it as prime real estate and worry about plummeting property values.

In effect, the guidelines isolate these interests by creating two distinct zones. That is accomplished by reestablishing the old lower Manhattan street grid. The most important of these streets are Greenwich and Fulton, which would cross to create a roughly 7-acre lot at the southwest corner of the site. That lot contains the footprint of the twin towers, and it's widely assumed that it will eventually become the site of the memorial. The remaining 9 acres would be divided into city blocks, which could then be independently developed as housing, retail and commercial space.

Such divisions, in turn, allow the agency to practice a kind of design-containment policy, establishing different creative standards for each of the two zones. Although the details have yet to be worked out, the park and other memorial elements will be created via a competition, an approach that will probably attract a number of celebrated architects and artists. So far, however, there has been no discussion of launching such a competition for the rest of the site, which implies that at least some portions of it--if not all--will be designed along more conventional commercial-development lines.

The outcome of such an approach is fairly easy to predict. The best-case scenario is a project such as Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The result of a 1992 international competition sponsored by Daimler-Benz, Potsdamer Platz restored a historic district destroyed by the construction of the Berlin Wall. Covering 16.8 acres, it is eerily similar in scale to the ground zero site and it also includes underground transportation systems and a mixed-use development of corporate towers, housing and retail shops.

Piano's design blends traditional planning strategies with a modern building aesthetic. It does not shy away from contemporary realities, nor does it slip into a nostalgic sentimentality. The sleek forms of his towers are discreetly woven into the surrounding city fabric. Many of them--equipped with soaring glass atriums--have an exquisite lightness.

But as a whole, the development has the homogenous, slightly sterile feel of the edge cities that are a dominant feature of the contemporary urban experience. The reason is the restrictions placed on Piano's design by Berlin's powerful planning board, which regulated street patterns, building heights and exterior cladding materials. The result is a uniformity that even a skilled architect could not overcome.

A more likely result at ground zero, however, is something closer in spirit to Battery Park City. Its 1979 master plan is an example of New Urbanist strategies, which are modeled on the patterns of the traditional city. Covering 92 acres, the mixed-use development includes the four World Financial Center towers that overlook the World Trade Center site.

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