Forged in Democracy?

The public process behind the new World Trade Center design was certainly a process, but it wasn’t quite public.

When we left the Winter Garden in late February, we were elated. Daniel Libeskind’s design for the World Trade Center site was the favorite, and he was the man we were rooting for all along. Although the outcome of the competition between Libeskind and the Think team had been leaked to the wire services before the press conference began, the event didn’t disappoint.

Thanks and congratulations reverberated from the dome of the cavernous greenhouse. The governor said the new plan was “forged in democracy.” The mayor proudly announced that his Web site received seven million hits in this “open, competitive, intensely debated” project. The LMDC chairman claimed that the Libeskind plan “resonated with the public” from the very beginning. And Libeskind himself, triumphant but not gloating, called the moment “tremendously profound, moving.” He too mentioned “democratic participation” and quoted the Bible: “Freedom carved on stone tablets.”

It was one of those incredible New York moments—marred later by a closer look at the fine print. No one mentioned that the bloated square footage, which led to last summer’s public condemnation of the original six plans, had retained its girth. Although Libeskind’s original plan accommodated 7.6 million square feet of office space, he’d been persuaded to increase it to the original ten million; his alternative plan showed 8.83 million square feet. The new plan being celebrated by the governor, the mayor, and those charged with rebuilding was in fact the old plan dressed in glitzier architectural garb. Everyone kept quiet about this small detail that day, though shortly thereafter R.Dot, the civic group I co-chair, called for a more open public process. But it’s not a small detail: the process continues to be driven by lease obligations, with crucial decisions being made behind closed doors. If our public officials and their architects insist on talking about democracy, they may want to remember that our system thrives on the open sharing of information and informed discussion, not silent deals.

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