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Ground Zero Should Celebrate Life, Not Memorialize Fear

Here’s what’s needed for a reconstruction plan that inspires

September 25, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Getty Images

The overseers of the 16-acre Ground Zero site in Manhattan have an uncommon goal: Undertaking an expensive, symbolic, and closely-watched reconstruction that inspires America and responds to the challenges of this century in a new way.

Another anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone. Only this time it was nearly submerged in the wreckage of New Orleans. The overseers of a 300-year-old Southern city and the 16-acre Ground Zero site in Manhattan now share a common new purpose: Undertaking expensive, symbolic, and closely watched reconstructions that inspire America and respond to the challenges of this century in a new way.

Much of the responsibility for achieving these goals is falling to civic planners, a group of professionals suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. For better or worse it’s planners in New York, faced with reconstructing Ground Zero, who are taking the first crack at an incredibly important task.

If any city should know how to build to meet the needs of people, respond to an ever changing and complex economy, and inspire the world about what is possible, New York should. Every urban lesson about how to construct a durable, efficient, and functioning modern civilization is here, in plain view. The prescription for future development at Ground Zero should draw on the proven lessons of what has evolved over time in the lower Manhattan neighborhoods that border the site.

So what does that look like?

It’s The Street, Stupid
First, just as officials have planned, we ought to leave the sacred footprints of the Twin Towers as memorials honoring a horrific attack on a city and a nation that bent, but did not break. But equally appropriate is to rebuild the functional and economically productive street grid that once existed in lower Manhattan before it was wiped out in the 1960s to make way for the now-fallen towers.

Great streets evolve on interesting grids. Outside of the fenced in Ground Zero site, the rest of lower Manhattan still has narrow, winding streets alive with human activity. For Ground Zero to truly function as a place fit for all the human-scale activities of this century, it needs to reconnect to those lively streets. Ground Zero’s new streets need to be interesting enough to attract crowds, and they need to be safe and comforting too, with benches and intimate public spaces where people can mingle and meet.

Productive street life also makes all the other facets of urban design and construction flow. Ground Zero’s planners should see the need for a mixture of buildings of different heights, widths, and scale. No superblocks should emerge. Instead, different kinds of buildings need to be encouraged — tall and thin, short and fat, residential and commercial, institutional and educational, museums and theaters. They should be constructed on a timetable that is dictated by market demand, not a gargantuan plan. Too much built at one time without market demand acts as a giant sump, draining economic and social energy from elsewhere. That, too, occurred with the original World Trade Center.

Another idea that is crucial to Ground Zero’s ability to inspire and perform well is to include lots of new housing. Right now, residences are prohibited. This policy needs to be reversed. In fact there is more demand for housing at the Ground Zero site and in nearby neighborhoods than for office space. There is precedence for this idea. In neighboring landmark districts, Tribecca and SoHo, new modestly scaled contemporary buildings are being developed alongside historic buildings that bring a kind of urban coziness to both neighborhoods, among the trendiest and most desirable in New York.

No Mall! No Mall!
Moving on: The Ground Zero master plan calls for 1 million square feet of retail space in a giant mall that tries hard not to look like a mall. The developers are reported to be the same ones who put a mall in Time Warner’s new building uptown, named it the Shops at Columbus Circle, and insist it is not what it is: a mall. The same old national chains are there. The space is totally developer controlled. This is an important distinction. Most people don't understand that what makes a mall is that it is all owned, leased, and controlled by one owner. It’s not an authentic street that is truly public, has multiple property owners and individual tenants, whether those tenants are chains or locally-owned.

The proposed Ground Zero mall is a terrible idea and should be taken off the table. New York City isn’t a suburb and doesn’t want to be a suburb. It’s a city of individual shops and stores, chains and locally owned businesses side by side, located on busy streets. This pattern of retail development created the intensely vibrant streets of New York. It will for Ground Zero as well.

Lower Manhattan, which the Twin Towers once shaded, is a different place today than it was when the World Trade Center was built more than three decades ago. Authentic, market-driven urbanism is re-emerging gradually. Scores of early 20th century office towers have been converted into housing and new office space. Tribecca and the lower West Side waterfront boast the highest residential values in the city. Small-scale and high-rise buildings are scattered throughout.

Battery Park City, which borders the west side of Ground Zero, is almost fully developed after four decades. Above the street, and slipped into spaces all around Ground Zero, are converted lofts, live-work sites, small offices, and art-based businesses – the useful mix that defines a thriving urban neighborhood that has taken shape right alongside the fancy brokerages and bond sellers and banks that we all associate with the financial center internationally recognized as Wall Street.

All the critical ingredients of a successful redevelopment, in short, are in place at Ground Zero,  including public transportation. More mass transit lines connect to each other on this site than almost any other place in New York City. Every subway line in the city has an on-site or nearby stop. Regional ferry and rail, and connections from Grand Central, Penn Station, and Atlantic Terminal tie the tri-state Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York region together like no other in the United States.

No Fortresses Please
All of this activity, which celebrates life and honors a tragic event, has eluded the Ground Zero planners. The current design for Ground Zero calls for buildings that are forbidding, intimidating, and harsh. The thick, fortress-like structures respond to the very acts of depravity that leveled the World Trade Center four years ago. For example, the newest design for the Freedom Tower, the centerpiece of the development, calls for a windowless base of steel and concrete rising 200 feet up from the street. That will surely enable the building to survive a freakish truck bomb attack. But you have to wonder how such a cold and forbidding shoulder turned to the city will attract enough renters or visitors.

The Freedom Tower has the potential to be the most significant new building of this century. It should not be a fort in an urban desert awaiting attack. It should be a welcoming center of human activity, a place of beauty and energy, an inspiring symbol of big-hearted New York and America. For that matter, the Freedom Tower and the other facets of the reconstructed Ground Zero should be a national porch, a place to gather and share and exchange and enjoy what it is to be alive. That would be a building that honors lives that were lost and truly celebrates American freedom.

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an international lecturer on urban development issues and a former reporter for the New York Post, is the author of "The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way," and "Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown." She lives in New York City and can be reached at LIVINGCITY@aol.com

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