At Tower Site Vast Top Seen As Memorial

For months now, Larry Silverstein and his house architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, have been quietly drafting plans for a massive office building on the World Trade Center site that would equal the former Twin Towers in height, but with one significant difference: The top would be an uninhabited “memorial” structure that would fade into the clouds, suggesting a height beyond conventional measure.

In public, Mr. Silverstein and David Childs, the head of the effort at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, have been principally engaged for the last several months in juggling the tangle of interests in what gets built at the ground level of Ground Zero, drafting designs that have attempted to satisfy as many of the parties as possible. But as public opinion begins to take at least a preliminary shape, and compromises among stakeholders start to appear on the horizon, it was only natural that the city would look up and begin to imagine what might fill the void the towers left behind.

What’s being imagined is a single office building, 65 to 70 stories tall, with a square base suggested by both the footprint of the original Twin Towers and the prospect of a partially reimposed street grid on the 16-acre site where the towers once stood. According to a source familiar with the plans, the building would gradually morph from a square to a circular footprint. After the top office floor, however, the structure would continue to rise some 35 to 40 stories further, until the structural elements of the building are gradually stripped away and, at close to 1,300 feet, the building seems to disappear completely.

Mr. Childs described the design to a reporter recently as dissolving “like the branches of a tree.”

“Not in the sense that it gets wider as it goes up,” said one source familiar with the plans, when asked by The Observer to elaborate. “It kind of opens up, like a latticework, and gets more and more open-more and more ethereal-until it disappears into the sky.”

The design reflects many of the elements the public admired in the Tribute in Light, a temporary memorial developed by the Municipal Arts Society that shot two blue light beams replicating the Twin Towers into the sky, where they appeared to dissolve into a vertical eternity. That memorial was so popular that it has become a rallying cry for groups representing the families of people lost in the World Trade Center attacks, who wish to keep the tribute lit.

It’s also reminiscent of a long-held dream by many architects to produce something approaching the design of Jean Nouvel for Paris’ own World Trade Center-the Tour Sans Fin in La Defense, which would have become gradually more transparent as it rose, from a granite base to a clear glass cladding at the top. (A building recession nipped that project in the bud.)

“It’s among a number of ideas in a preliminary stage,” said Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for Mr. Silverstein, holder of the 99-year lease from the Port Authority on the original buildings on the site.

Just how “preliminary” is not yet clear.

A number of issues at the base of the proposed structure will determine what Mr. Childs can plan on the top. But it appears that planners are trying to reconcile the plans for the ground level of the site in a way that would make a very tall building-this one in particular-possible.

“We’re making all the right steps at the base of the building to be able to make this happen,” said a source familiar with the design process. “It’s all about setting up the groundwork.”

Indeed, the groundwork has been the hardest nut for developers to crack. After all, there will be little rising above the ground that is not office space controlled by Mr. Silverstein. But retail, entertainment, commercial and memorial uses are all vying for prime space on a continually shrinking site.

As The Observer reported last week, Mr. Childs’ design team has been stymied in its approach to redeveloping the “at-grade” (or ground-level) configuration of the retail space on the site. Westfield America, a subsidiary of the Sydney, Australia–based international mall giant, was insisting on a massive, contiguous retail complex at street level. This would have dashed the hopes of local residents for a more humanly scaled streetscape, as well as Brookfield Properties’ hopes for better access to their now-remote World Financial Center buildings.

Preliminary plans seem to call for a combination of the two: a redeveloped, indoor but open-air Cortlandt Street market that would connect the Winter Garden-the grand new entranceway to the World Financial Center-to the eastern half of the financial district.

Then there’s the memorial. The bulk of those who had previously supported no building on the site now appear content with an international design competition to develop a memorial and possible museum at the southwest corner, bounded on the north end by Fulton Street and on the east by Greenwich Street.

Last is the matter of the transit hub. Its location on Fulton Street-an idea recently floated in the New York Post -would appear to allow more lines to connect together more easily than a new transit hub on the World Trade Center site. But stakeholders in the site have been salivating at the notion of commuter traffic even greater than they’d been able to attract with the World Trade Center’s old PATH station. If that PATH station moves east by a block or two, that retail space suddenly becomes less valuable.

With these issues still unresolved, and no clear consensus as to whether New Yorkers want something tall on the site, the current plans for the upper portion of the building were kept under tight wraps for months.

“We recognized people were going to have a certain reticence to be on the site in a tall building,” a source close to the planning told The Observer .

Then Mr. Childs gave an unusually frank interview detailing the plans to Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, which appeared in the newspaper’s Tempo section on June 6.

“Maybe this is just Childs’ baby, and it hasn’t really got support?” suggested one prominent real-estate figure who was trying to puzzle out the disclosure last week to Chicago readers.

But according to a source familiar with the negotiations on the site’s redevelopment, the plans have received positive reviews.

They’ve been circulated throughout the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation-the city-state agency charged with rebuilding lower Manhattan-as well as the Port Authority, which owns the site.

“The people I’ve heard from responded positively to it,” the source told The Observer.

Not so another recent plan “under consideration” at the rebuilding agency and floated before reporters on June 5. This one called for buildings that would start small and gradually be built up in response to market conditions and the public’s feelings about the propriety of tall buildings on the site.

“Larry Silverstein is opposed to that,” said Mr. Rubenstein, reflecting the ambivalence The Observer found in interviews with several other real-estate developers and architects.

Family Concerns

Expandable buildings are one thing. But questions about the wisdom of building a staggering, 1,300-foot-tall building on the site where thousands perished in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 have not faded away. On June 11, nearly 100 relatives of people who died in the Twin Towers that day lobbied at the Capitol for an independent investigative body to look into why U.S. intelligence agencies failed to stop the attacks, and also how the towers fell after the planes struck them.

But speaking on her cell phone from the rally that morning, Sally Regenhard-who heads up the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a project begun by W.T.C. family members-told The Observer : “I don’t care how tall the buildings are, as long as they are quality construction, safe for humans.”

She was echoing the feelings that appeared to emerge from a poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS from June 4 to 9, which found that only 26 percent of New Yorkers are “uneasy” going into skyscrapers. Sixty percent reported no trouble at all with the prospect, and a further 12 percent said they had been uneasy before, but no longer were.

“I don’t believe that the issue of a new target is a relevant factor, other than the perception that people have about it and their fears,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “I think there’s a desire to have something stand out in the skyline by a lot of people-that if you build 50- or 55-story buildings, there is still going to be, from an emotional point of view, something missing from the city skyline.”

Indeed, two weeks before Mr. Childs made his disclosure to the Tribune , a May 23 public hearing sponsored by the LMDC elicited a surprising chorus of support for building a tall, monumental structure on the site. Reporters grabbed for their pads when Jonathan Hakala, a Hoboken resident who had worked on the 77th floor of 1 World Trade Center, took the microphone at Pace University and issued that very call.

“If you’re going to put buildings on the site, build one of the seven modern wonders of the world,” Mr. Hakala told the 1,000 people assembled. “And please give us a skyline that will once again cause our spirits to soar.