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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Trade Center Site's Future Is a Prism of Plans

Recovery: Opinions on what to build there range from a park to a museum to offices. The choice could set the tone for a nation's memory.

January 13, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's a jagged hole in the heart of lower Manhattan, a 16-acre moonscape that continues to trigger fury, grief and numbing disbelief in those flocking to see it.

But the emotions flaring now at the World Trade Center site, powerful as they are, may be nothing compared to those ahead.

As the first phase of cleanup at ground zero nears completion, New York--and America--must confront a difficult question: What exactly should be done with the sprawling vacant lot? And how can the final decision, months or years away, possibly satisfy all those demanding to be heard?

On a recent wintry day, as chilling winds ripped through the crowds viewing the site, New Yorkers offered radically different suggestions. Some, shaken by the devastation, said the area is hallowed ground, a mass grave that must not be defiled with buildings. Others could barely contain their anger at the terrorist attacks, saying the area must be rebuilt--and quickly.

"We've got to do the right thing here," said a Brooklyn teacher, gazing sadly at the wreckage below. "I mean, this is not just real estate."

In recent weeks, victims' families, survivors, real estate brokers, politicians, community leaders, businesspeople, historians, museum curators, developers, architects and bankers have voiced a flurry of ideas for rebuilding. The proposals range from sweeping monuments and memorials to vigorous new office construction that would rejuvenate the community's beleaguered economy.

The newly formed Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corp. will sift through all of these ideas before agreeing on a final plan, but major construction at the site is not expected to begin until later next year.

And long before then, there will be lengthy, perhaps rancorous, public hearings. The outcome is unclear, many experts say, because what ultimately takes shape at the World Trade Center site will say as much about how America chooses to remember Sept. 11 as it does about the future of development and commercial growth in downtown Manhattan.

"This could wind up being one of the most visited sites in the world when it's finally completed," said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, an amalgam of developers, contractors and Realtors. "And to think we can decide what to do based on office vacancy rates or real estate trends is ludicrous. The whole country will be watching us."

A key player is Larry Silverstein, the Manhattan developer who won a 99-year lease to the World Trade Center buildings for $3.4 billion and wants to rebuild them with a mix of offices, retail shops and a memorial. But the land is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and before any construction is approved, a long list of state and city officials, plus zoning, engineering and planning agencies, must give their blessings.

Last week, the redevelopment corporation began forming task forces on various aspects of the rebuilding project, and for now the watchword is "inclusion," according to panel chief John C. Whitehead. New York's new mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has voiced confidence that the panel will honor victims' feelings above all and find a design that most New Yorkers can support.

But for many observers, it still seems premature to talk of concrete plans. Even though the World Trade Center surface area is expected to be cleaned up by June, paving the way for quick repairs on subways and other underground facilities, the clamor of different voices has only begun to surface.

"A lot of people are entitled to sit at the table," said Edward T. Linenthal, author of "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory," a study of the city's response to the 1995 terrorist attack. "This site belongs to Mr. Silverstein, but it also belongs to city and state officials, to victims and survivors. It belongs symbolically to the larger culture. Whatever gets built at ground zero will be the flagship statement of what Sept. 11 means to America."

Indeed, Linenthal believes New York might learn from Oklahoma City's experience. Although local officials there were initially determined to quickly rebuild the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, they eventually formed a huge task force to come up with a "vision statement." It took nine months to write the statement, and the community finally decided to construct a quiet memorial park honoring the 168 bombing victims.

But Oklahoma City is light-years from Manhattan, which abhors a real estate vacuum and is unlikely to turn 16 acres of real estate into parkland. Still, the voices calling for just that won a major ally last month, when departing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged the city to forgo development on the site and instead build a memorial with a museum. He said Silverstein could be easily compensated with office development rights elsewhere in Manhattan.

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