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Architecture Review

Ideas for Ground Zero: Where's the Imagination?

Six new designs for the World Trade Center site, unveiled this week, lack any sense of the area's monumental importance; the plans are called a starting point for discussion.

July 20, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those who have been following the development process at ground zero, the six master plans for the 16-acre site in Lower Manhattan will offer no bold surprises. Bland and conventional, the proposals represent the kind of no-nonsense, ho-hum design we have come to expect from the average real estate development.

The plans, produced by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, were unveiled Tuesday by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency charged with developing the site. They will be presented today at a town hall meeting at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. The agency's intent is to use the plans as a starting point for a more detailed public discussion over the site's future.

The designs vary widely in detail, in particular in how they deal with the memorial park--proposed sizes range from five to 10 acres. Three proposals would build over the footprint of one of the former Twin Towers, a move strenuously objected to by the families of the victims and New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

But ultimately, the designs reveal how fixed many of the initial planning decisions seem to be. In each, significant portions of the street grid that was removed in the 1970s would be rebuilt, dividing the 16-acre site into smaller parcels. Part of West Street would be replaced by an underground tunnel to connect the site to nearby Battery Park City. About 11 million square feet of commercial office space and 600,000 square feet of retail space would be replaced. And all of the plans include a museum and one or two cultural venues. Most of these ideas were formulated within months of the September attacks.

What the proposals lack is any sense of the site's importance as a monumental expression of one of the most tragic events in the nation's history. Instead, in applying conventional development formulas to a site so loaded with symbolic meaning, the plans are the equivalent of an act of psychological repression. They seek to forget the past rather than come to terms with it. As such, they fail to rise to the level of thoughtfulness that the public has a right to expect.

One proposal should be dismissed out of hand. In it, a new street grid would cut through the site of the South Tower, which would be partially covered with commercial buildings.

In two other designs, a museum or pavilion would be built on the site of one of the towers.

These proposals are apt to encounter intense resistance from victim's families, who have stated that they consider the footprints of the Twin Towers sacred territory. Building on top of them--without even acknowledging their presence through the design--is a startling offense to memory.

The three other proposals concentrate the bulk of commercial development in a series of towers clustered along the site's northern and western edges, with memorial parks located where the towers once stood. All three set the museum along West Street, an obvious effort to provide a cultural bridge between the site and Battery Park City to the west.

The most unusual plan calls for an oblong Beaux Arts-inspired park that connects to a grand boulevard extending all the way down to the tip of Battery Park City. The park's formal layouts suggest the kind of imperial grandeur associated with Washington rather than New York, and it seems particularly inappropriate for a site that is more about mourning than civic power.

In effect, all six designs mirror the kind of New Urbanist thinking that has dominated conventional development design for a decade. Wholly unimaginative, they seek to replicate the fine-grained fabric of traditional cities, but on a massive scale. The result is theme park architecture.

When the plans diverge from that model, they usually tend toward the bizarre. In one proposal, a multilevel public walkway would flank the memorial park on four sides. The arcade has no discernable relationship to the various buildings, and it serves to isolate the park from its surrounding context.

In another, an elevated pedestrian deck would span West Street, linking the site to the upper level of the World Financial Center's winter garden, effectively draining pedestrian life from the street.

What all of these proposals share is an inability to resolve the colliding interests of developers and the public. The LMDC has been under intense pressure to come up with a final master plan for the site by December. Yet it has yet to determine which parts of the site should be given over to commercial development and which should remain an inviolate part of the public realm.

Developers and businessmen have been lobbying the agency to rebuild as much commercial and retail space as possible to buttress downtown's flagging real estate market. The Port Authority, which owns the land, also has a vested interest in the plan's commercial component, which is expected to generate more than $120 million a year in revenue for the agency. It is in its interest to begin reconstruction as quickly as possible.

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