WTC Fate Comes Clear: Prepare for Ordinary

What’s now under construction is looking like a fairly typical twenty-first-century business district.

Tourists still flock to the World Trade Center site, almost seven years after the attacks of September 11. What they find when they get there is not a scene of destruction but a busy construction site. While I’m grateful to see Ground Zero filling up with fresh concrete and steel, there’s something about the utter normalcy of the scene that makes me long for that heady period in 2003 and 2004 when the planning process for the site, a grand public pageant bursting with visionary zeal, promised to generate a place brave and powerful enough to heal the city’s wounds. But as the concrete hardens, I can almost see the banality setting in.

The only person speaking with any frequency these days about his “vision” for the site is its developer, Larry Silverstein. Lately, he’s been giving what amounts to a stump speech, promoting the vitality of Lower Manhattan and touting his revised schedule. “The buildings will reach street level approximately one year after the start of construction, and Towers 3 and 4 will top out in mid-2010, with Tower 2 following in 2011,” Sil­verstein told the Downtown Association in April. “Can you count on this schedule? You bet.”

So Silverstein, once thought to be the site’s weak link, is now its master builder. His deal with retail developer Westfield, which for a time was off, is back on so the towers’ lower floors will be lined with 500,000 square feet of shopping and dining. The latest renderings released by Silverstein Properties show four gleaming skyscrapers (including the Freedom Tower, now being developed by the Port Authority) flanking the eight-acre memorial. The most obvious thing suggested by the images is that none of the architects—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Fumihiko Maki—has turned in their most inspired efforts. All of them appear to have been reined in by the limitations of Daniel Libeskind’s oddly conventional master plan; even Foster deferred to Libeskind’s crystalline aesthetic. Back in 2003, Libeskind thrilled us with his rhetorical wizardry, but the portion of his vision that has survived looks utterly unremarkable.

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“It turns out that Silverstein is the one who’s implementing Daniel’s plan,” observes Alex Gar­vin, who for 15 crucial months in 2002 and 2003 was the planning czar of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), shepherding Lib­es­kind’s plan to victory. The Silverstein towers stair-step up in height from the southeast to the northwest corner of the site. “One of the things that nobody paid attention to,” Garvin says, “was this spiral that went around up to the top of the Freedom Tower. That’s still there.”

Across a newly remapped Greenwich Street, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, once scheduled for completion in 2009, is now projected to open in September 2011, presumably on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped up as the memorial board’s chairman in October 2006 to spearhead flagging fund-raising efforts, personally donating $15 million. As of April, the $350 million fund-raising goal had been reached for a project that is currently estimated to cost $530 million (the rest of the budget comes from the LMDC). The memorial still bears a resemblance to architect Michael Arad’s competition-winning design in that it has two water-filled voids in the shape and approximate locations of the Twin Towers’ footprints. But what was once a brooding, minimalist shrine has become a more cheerful, tourist-friendly place. There are some 350 trees, courtesy of landscape designer Peter Walker. The victims’ names, which in Arad’s scheme were to be underground in a sort of tomb, will be inscribed in the sunlight on the parapets of the fountains, something surviving family members advocated. The underground space will be largely occupied by a “state-of-the-art Memorial Museum.” The slurry wall, the concrete retaining structure that was anointed by Libeskind as a symbol and was perhaps the most powerful component of his overall plan, will also be hidden away beneath Walker’s Memorial Plaza.

What the renderings show is a fairly normal twenty-first-century urban place, with many of the original plan’s most unorthodox buildings conspicuous by their absence. The so-called Freedom Center, a cultural facility beautifully drafted by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, was booted off the site in 2005 when it was determined that its designated clients might exhibit art that would somehow be offensive to 9/11 victims’ families. Snøhetta is now designing a simpler building, an entry pavilion to the memorial, presumably content-free and inoffensive.

Meanwhile, the performing-arts center designed by Frank Gehry, which was supposed to house the Joyce Theater dance company, shows up as an empty green square on the Silverstein rendering. There is as yet no design and no timetable. It has $50 million in LMDC funding, which is not nearly enough to move it forward.

In the rendering, the Santiago Calatrava–designed PATH Station—a hub for commuter trains to New Jersey (and back in 2002, in the moment when all things were possible, home to the still elusive one-seat ride to the airports)—is largely obscured by Towers 2 and 3. That positioning, though accurate, may also be convenient. The station has lately been in the rebidding phase. It was originally budgeted at $2.2 billion, and the Port Authority is now struggling to bring it in for under $3 billion. While Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman says there will be “no significant changes to the renderings the public is accustomed to seeing,” there will likely be less stone and more concrete, less daylight and more fluor­escence. Calatrava’s dove taking wing might wind up being more of a value-­engineered turkey.

But the development I find maddening is the shaky status of Nicholas Grimshaw’s Fulton Street subway station. Back in the days of the public-­spirited process, the announcement that most thrilled me was that the architect responsible for London’s sinuous Waterloo station had designed a circular glass crown for Lower Manhattan’s pivotal subway stop. Actual architecture for subway riders! But public architecture doesn’t come cheap. “Earlier this year the bids came back for major contracting above and below ground,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin recently told me. “The budget is $400 million; the bids were $800 million.” As a result, the Grimshaw scheme is in limbo. In April the LMDC embarked on a 30-day study of the feasibility of shifting the Gehry performing-arts center to the corner of Fulton and Broadway as a substitute for Grimshaw’s Fulton Transit Center. How this would benefit subway riders, I don’t know, but it would fill the MTA’s vacant lot.

I’ve recently spent a lot of time trying to find someone in a position of authority who’s dedicated to making sure the remaining visionary bits of the WTC plan—the things that might distinguish it from a simple set of office buildings grouped around a park—still get built, but I can’t say that such a person exists. The LMDC’s current spokesman, for instance, couldn’t even tell me whether Libeskind’s office was still working with the ­agency. The mayor’s office says that the deputy mayor for economic development is trying his best to get the state-run MTA to build as promised, and that, not coincidentally, the Fulton Transit Center is one of the initiatives the mayor’s recently killed ­congestion-pricing scheme could have financed (never mind that the design predates congestion pricing by a good four years).

What I sense at Ground Zero is a power vacuum. It used to be that there were too many big egos down there. Now there appear to be too few. Regardless, Silverstein continues to do what developers do: he builds. If 7 WTC, completed in 2006, is any indication, he can build well. The memorial likewise will find its way to completion, and the Port Authority will surely figure out how to value-engineer Calatrava’s station into existence. But what I can’t see at the moment is how the World Trade Center that someday emerges will be as extraordinary as it ought to be. Maybe it was foolish of me to have ever believed otherwise, but it’s now quite clear that while the hole will soon be filled in, the wounds will remain.

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