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<nettime> Reconstruction Report: 7/11 - 8/11 -- Questions
t byfield on Wed, 24 Jul 2002 14:16:29 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Reconstruction Report: 7/11 - 8/11 -- Questions



     [what follows is an essay from the first issue of a project
      i'm working on, _reconstruction report_, dealing with the
      redevelopment of the WTC site and, more generally, lower 
      manhattan: <http://reconstructionreport.org/>. the essay 
      appeared in a micro-newspaper distributed at the 20 july
      'listening to the city' spectacle, whose stated purpose was
      to elicit public input into redevelopment plans. despite
      tight strictures on distributing non-official material, we
      circulated ~1700 copies among 5000 people -- who then were
      randomly broken up into 10-person discussion tables for the
      next ~7 hours. happily, the main result of the event was a 
      nearly unanimous rejection of the perpetuation of pre-9/11 
      commercial leases on the WTC site. a small but good start.
      
      misc nettimers (in or around sydney, athens, nagano, calgary,
      sarajevo, salt lake city, turin, mexico city, etc, etc) might 
      be interested in what, for them, is a familiar saga: the deus 
      ex machina of an olympic bid sponsored by local elites as a 
      means to reengineer the urban fabric for private gain. in months 
      of talks with urban planners and activists in NYC, i've found
      only a handful of people who grok the Big Picture -- which 
      is alluded to in this essay.
      
      this project is funded by the design trust for public space, 
      with additional support from the new school university and the 
      united nations university. kudos to openflows.org for technical 
      implementation and to thing.net for hosting. the slash site
      _rr_ runs on also hosts slash.thing.net and, soon, might host
      icannwatch as well.

      subscriptions to the paper edition of _rr_ are *free*: mail me 
      and i'll sign you up. and if you know of any non-nettimer who
      have an interest in these issues, please pass this mail along.
      -- cheers, t]


7/11 - 8/11: Questions

Through much of this spring, various elected and appointed New York
officials insisted that there was an "emerging consensus" on how to
redevelop the former World Trade Center site. Too often, they put more
energy into declaring that such a consensus existed than into explaining
what supposedly was agreed on.

To arrive at a consensus, you first ask questions; and the answers you get
depend, in part, on the questions you ask. If you ask someone from the
metro area "What should happen at the WTC site?", the answer will probably
sound more or less like the LMDC's *Principles and Preliminary Blueprint*:
an inclusive and open planning process leading to an idealistic mix with
something for everyone. But if you ask the same person "Should the site be
rebuilt to give the WTC's two leaseholders everything they expected, like
9/11 never happened?", the answer will probably be *very* different.

Yet that latter question fueled *three* of the Port Authority's ten
"program elements" -- requirements -- "for onsite development" of the
site. As a result, all six "concept plans" produced by the PA and LMDC
include 11 million square feet for offices, 600,000 ("or more") for
retail, and a 600,000-square-foot hotel. These numbers won't be found in
the recommendations of public-interest coalitions such as the Civic
Alliance, New York New Visions, Imagine New York, or R.Dot. They're based
on the leases the PA signed with Larry Silverstein's investment group for
the twin towers, and with Westfield America for the retail area beneath
them. (In fact, the proposed retail area includes 170,000 square feet that
Westfield *hoped* to build on the WTC plaza.)

Even people close to the planning process were surprised to learn so
belatedly that the PA was treating these private claims as equal to public
desires. Worse, in explaining the planning concepts, the PA insists --
falsely -- that "legal obligations" prevent it from changing the original
terms of the leases. Given the City's bleak economic prospects, the PA has
good reason to be financially conservative, and ensuring strong revenues
from the site is *one* way to do that. The PA could have -- should have --
made that argument to the public. Instead, it has tried to hide behind the
skirts of Silverstein and Westfield, while offering dubious
black-and-white choices between $120 million per year[1] (the pre-9/11
lease payments) or nothing.

     [1] http://reconstructionreport.org/article.pl?sid=02/05/06/1743249

But the problem isn't just that the PA and LMDC have failed, despite many
promises, to act with openness and transparency. For all the shock and
sorrow of the World Trade Center attacks, the blossoming of committed
public engagement that followed was more than a silver lining: it prompted
civic debates not heard for decades and held forth the possibility of
breaking some political gridlock. But the business-as- usual approach
taken by the PA and the LMDC runs a very serious risk of squandering this
opportunity for innovation -- in exchange for a banal result.

More specifically, the PA's and LMDC's design and planning program demotes
key issues the public felt very strongly about, such as design excellence
and sustainability, to a laundry list of "other programming
considerations." And other points on which there *definitely* is a broad
consensus -- for example, the need for an international design competition
-- are mentioned only in passing as nice possibilities.

If this is where we stand at the end of Phase One of the redevelopment
process, we should be *seriously* concerned about where Phases Two and
Three might lead. The PA and the LMDC have done some extraordinary work,
but to date what little openness we've seen in the planning process has
mainly been a one-way street of press releases, carefully choreographed
presentations, and unaccountable assurances that officials are
"listening." And even the supposed cure for these shortcomings, the NYC
Economic Development Corporation's hiring of a PR team to publicize
redevelopment-related information, seems imbalanced[2]: the contract was
awarded to a two-company team that includes a subsidiary of Parsons
Brinckerhoff, Beyer Blinder Belle's urban-planning partner, and was
announced with a whisper late in the afternoon before the July 4th
weekend.

     [2] http://reconstructionreport.org/article.pl?sid=02/07/08/2047200

There's good reason to pay close attention to the redevelopment process in
any case, but it's now becoming clear how much more transparency is
needed. Unfortunately, transparency is rarely given freely; so those
concerned with the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan need to be *much* more
actively vigilant.

To date, neither the LMDC nor the PA has released any of the
environmental, land-use, or fiscal studies that, one hopes, support the
six concept plans they've published. The LMDC holds weekly meetings, but
as of this writing it has only published the minutes -- ccompletely
schematic summaries -- of just five meetings, the most recent on April
9th.

The disappointing results of Phase One make plain that the PA and LMDC
have failed to understand or articulate some of the deeper challenges
posed by this redevelopment. In a way, that's understandable: it's hard to
fathom how a sixteen-acre site hemmed in by dense urban fabric could
support such a symbolic burden. If it can't, then the problem becomes what
can be achieved on the site within the larger context of the City and
metro region.

Even if the PA's supposed legal obligations to Silverstein and Westfield
are justified, it's fair to ask whether the "right" to rebuild is tied to
the former WTC site. But now that the six concepts have been presented for
public response, we can by the same logic ask whether certain elements
really need to be rebuilt on or even near the WTC site.

Take, for example, the broadcast tower lost when the north WTC building
collapsed. All six PA/LMDC concept plans (one "contributed by"
Silverstein's architects, Owings Skidmore and Merrill[3]) clearly include
a broadcast tower. Jack Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle insistently described
some of them as "sculptural" elements "to create height" instead of
frankly stating what they are. On the other hand, in early June, a
consortium of New York and New Jersey broadcasters "unveiled" an
1,800-foot broadcast tower proposed for Governor's Island or Jersey City
-- the very same design they had unveiled two months earlier as the
"NYTTower/NYC 2012"[4] at a convention in Las Vegas. These kinds of
evasions about such an immense environmental and aesthetic presence are
completely unacceptable.

     [3] http://reconstructionreport.org/article.pl?sid=02/06/07/192237
     [4] http://reconstructionreport.org/article.pl?sid=02/06/05/0529207

At the other extreme, there is strong consensus support for a
transportation hub. One element common to all six concept plans is an
"intermodal" transportation complex. However, the concept documents are
very vague about which modes are involved. Train-to-bus transfers hardly
merit the name "intermodal," and the renderings clearly show that ferries
are a key element ("an absolute given," according to LMDC boardmember
Roland Betts). Expansion of ferry services would be excellent for the city
and the region, but any integration of private ferry operators such as New
York Waterway into metro transportation systems or planning initiatives
such as NYC2012's "Olympic X" *must* be made accountable to the public.

Unfortunately, accountability can move slowly, but some events are bearing
down on us *very* quickly. On November 3rd, Marathon Day, the U.S. Olympic
Committee will announce whether New York is America's candidate for the
Olympic games. If so, the surge of developments around the city will
inevitably become tangled up with, at the very least, any intermodal
transportation project downtown. One of the USOC's twelve- member Bid
Evaluation Task Force is Roland Betts, LMDC boardmember and Chelsea Piers
owner. NYC2012, the private company spearheading the City's bid (including
a showcase stadium[5] near Chelsea Piers), was founded and headed up by
Dan Doctoroff, now Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding.
NYC2012's urban planner is Alex Garvin -- planner for the LMDC and a
member of the City Planning Commission. These overlapping and possibly
contradictory roles can't be ignored, and assurances of personal integrity
aren't enough; possible conflicts of interest need to be made public and
addressed promptly.

     [5] http://reconstructionreport.org/article.pl?sid=02/07/14/0239245

Two days after the USOC's "decision day" comes the gubernatorial election.
Already, imagined electoral pressures have led various politicians to
grandstand on redevelopment issues. There's every reason to think that
this tendency will worsen as the election rolls on.

Amidst this all -- that is, in *five months* -- the PA and the LMDC hope
to complete a coherent redevelopment plan worthy of a historical turning
point, worthy of one of the world's great cities, and worthy of tremendous
public commitment. As they flesh out plans for each component project, the
rising costs will collide with sharply escalating fiscal concerns.

These concerns are without doubt one of the forces driving the PA and the
LMDC to give pride of place to Silverstein and Westfield, who are entitled
to hefty insurance payments when construction begins. But those funds are
locked in fierce litigation that could potentially drag on for years.

In turning to these private parties, redevelopment authorities are turning
away from a much broader public. It's our task now to turn them back.
Doing so involves more than participating in isolated "events" and
contributing "input." More than anything else, what's needed now are
commitments from the PA and the LMDC not just to "listen" but to abide by
the public will.





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