Downtown 2.0: Politics Makes Big Redesigns

On Sept. 17, officials in charge of rebuilding lower Manhattan will join architect Daniel Libeskind to unveil an updated plan for the redevelopment of Ground Zero.

To the untrained eye, the unveiling probably won’t inspire any revelations about what the site will look like when it’s completed in about 15 years: The dreary-looking technical drawings will, in their more thrilling moments, layout truck-servicing stations and possible bus-parking lots.

But quietly and behind the scenes, the last several weeks of the rebuilding effort have yielded some of the most surprising and important developments since Mr. Libeskind’s designs were presented to the public.

From the hallowed ground where thousands lost their lives to the planned 1,776-foot spire, to the street-level experience envisioned for this small city, the most important movements at Ground Zero are often the hardest to detect.

With the passing of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, politics are now shifting toward the election year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki are looking ahead to their biggest co-production since unveiling the Libeskind design last February: the Republican National Convention, slated for next September. The two are eager to burnish their rebuilding credentials before Ground Zero becomes a backdrop for the convention. While the Bloomberg administration bats away reports that Mr. Pataki has drowned out City Hall’s voice at Ground Zero, the Governor’s office busily refutes rumors that he is planning to deliver a massive golden spade to George W. Bush at the site during the convention.

For things to get done according to the Governor’s new timetable-a schedule that more than one functionary from his own camp has called “aggressive”-work has to begin, and soon.

Larry Silverstein, the developer who had just purchased a 99-year lease on the Twin Towers when they crashed to the ground, learned of the new urgency when he returned from a trip to Germany in mid-September of this year.

There, he had been led on a personal tour of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the handiwork of Mr. Libeskind, by none other than the architect himself. According to Silverstein spokesman Howard Rubenstein, the trip was part of a détente between the two. “The relationship there is quite good now,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “And Larry indicates that he thinks Libeskind is a brilliant architect, and he hopes he will be working with him.”

But Mr. Silverstein’s good sportsmanship was tested when he returned to discover that his partner in the 99-year lease, the retail-mall company Westfield America, was in negotiations to sell its interest back to its landlord, the Port Authority, for some $140 million. According to people in the Silverstein camp, the announcement came as a surprise to him.

The move also fanned gossip that Mr. Silverstein would be the next stakeholder to be muscled out of the site, returning it to the hands of its owners. Already, the Port Authority has regained control of a substantial portion of the site that it had leased out in preceding years in its efforts to “get out of the real-estate business.” They’re back in, it seems, with a vengeance.

Mr. Silverstein’s camp is anxious to aver its commitment to the site, though spokespersons for Mr. Silverstein told The Observer he hasn’t had time to properly determine what effect Westfield’s impending sale of the rights to rebuild the World Trade Center mall might have on his investment in the site.

Others were not so circumspect in their analyses. At the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the city-state agency charged with coordinating the rebuilding process, spokeswoman Joanna Rose said: “This helps us to move forward [on the redevelopment process] to meet the Governor’s aggressive timeline.”

No doubt. Westfield had become a cantankerous negotiator for its interests in the site, which included some 430,000 square feet of the most successful retail space in America, until it was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. The company had built into its lease a provision that would allow it to expand its retail space on the site to nearly 650,000 square feet; and when the rebuilding effort began, the company was adamant that its retail space be restored pretty much as it was before the attacks-a massive superblock of unbroken retail space. (In fact, the company was trying to secure as much as one million square feet in the rebuilt trade center.)

That was no good for rebuilding authorities, who were already juggling Westfield’s interests with those of the families of 9/11 victims. The families were insistent that the footprints of the original Twin Towers remain undeveloped. The remaining space on the site was seen by civic organizations and architects alike as an opportunity to design on a more human scale, re-introducing the street grid to the site and creating shops that led directly off the streets in the organic proportions to which New Yorkers are accustomed.

But Mr. Silverstein will no doubt have other concerns. For one thing, the proximity of his commercial space to shopping concourses at the site could have a big impact on the success of his buildings there. Mr. Silverstein had lobbied to move the signature 1,776-foot tower east, to sit atop the massive transit hub being planned for the eastern edge of the site. The direct flow of foot traffic from the transit hub and adjacent retail uses was expected to perk up prospects for selling office space in the building.

But rebuilding authorities have decisively nixed that plan, and are now pursuing a program for retail development unfettered by Westfield America’s very particular needs. Before Sept. 11, Mr. Silverstein and Westfield had engaged the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to redesign the lower portions of the Trade Center complex to make it more attractive, both to potential office tenants in the towers and to retailers at the Trade Center mall. Whether the same spirit of cooperation will be forthcoming from the Port Authority or its new retail leaseholder remains to be seen.

Still, several civic groups pointed out that the Port Authority’s bargaining position remains as profit-driven as Westfield’s was. As the owner of the site, the Port Authority still needs to find someone to lease the retail space it builds; in order to find those people, the space has to be profitable. If Westfield was to be believed, that means building its way, whoever holds the lease.

Robert Yaro, chairman of the Civic Alliance, a group of civic organizations focused on the downtown redevelopment process, said he doubted that retail development as envisioned in the Libeskind plan had to be placed in a mega-mall setting to succeed.

“Westfield was looking for this hermetic, enclosed experience,” Mr. Yaro said. “What the [Libeskind] master plan calls for, and what the city and the civic [groups] have been pushing for, is something that animates the street-level experience.”

He said the real purpose of taking back control of the retail space was not to reconfigure it, but to reduce the overall amount to be built on the site.

But where, then, will the Port Authority generate the revenue it has been depending upon leaseholders like Westfield to provide? That revenue is normally funneled into other Port Authority projects in the region that are all-important: from maintenance of the airports to shipping in the harbor to local bridges and tunnels.

“The bigger issue is replacing those revenues if we are going to scale back those retail,” Mr. Yaro said.

Tower of Dour

Meanwhile, the last several weeks have seen Mr. Libeskind toiling in the fields of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

It was that firm which won the lead architectural position in the building of the signature tower. (Mr. Libeskind will also have to play second fiddle to architect Santiago Calatrava when it comes time to design the downtown transit hub.)

By all formal accounts, the relationship between Mr. Libeskind and David Childs, the lead architect at S.O.M. (which has long counted Mr. Silverstein as a major client), is pleasant.

But as preliminary designs emerge for the “Freedom Tower,” it is becoming clearer that it will not likely resemble the building New Yorkers saw in Mr. Libeskind’s models in February.

Sources told The Observer that S.O.M. thinks the signature shape of the building-in which the tall spire is set off to the side to create a silhouette that, from several angles, appears to mirror the Statue of Liberty with her torch arm outstretched-cannot be built at that height. Already, pictures have emerged from S.O.M. showing a rather more square structure with a large television antenna centered in its top.

The sources said that at 1,776 feet, a spire’s natural tendency is to shear off the building; it has to be rigged into the central core of the building to remain stable.

Mr. Libeskind has said that the shape of the 1,776-foot tower was non-negotiable, a fundamental element of his plan that he would not give way on. As the design process continues, the relationship between Mr. Libeskind and Mr. Childs-and, by extension, between Mr. Libeskind and Mr. Silverstein-will likely become a central drama of the rebuilding effort.

The Sept. 17 announcement is also likely to answer a question that has vexed the families of Sept. 11 victims for some time now. They have protested that Mr. Pataki has abandoned his promise to protect the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers from development, and to preserve them as sacred ground.

The recent protest staged at Ground Zero to protest the ongoing construction of a temporary PATH station was the last straw for rebuilding authorities, who had early on displayed something of a tin ear to victims’ families-or, at least, to the political clout they were gaining in the course of the rebuilding effort.

The central dispute is a perfect case in point: When Port Authority officials let slip that they were planning to build a bus-parking facility for tourists at the bedrock level of the towers’ footprints-the very place where the vast majority of human remains were found-the press found the story irresistible.

The Port Authority countered that the 70-foot-deep “pit” proposed in the Libeskind plan for the memorial site was structurally unsound. The surrounding slurry walls that keep the Hudson River’s waters at bay were held up in the past in part by the buildings that stood rooted in them; without a lateral brace halfway up, they would not hold up. Something had to be built in the bottom 40 feet of the “pit,” so why not a bus terminal?

On Sept. 17, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announces its plan to remove consideration for a bus terminal on the tower footprints and to find an offsite location for tour buses, the victims’ families will have scored a small but significant victory.

Compared to the shape of the signature tower, which will define the downtown skyline for decades-or centuries-to come, or the opening up of the streets surrounding that once-windswept megablock, it may seem to be of little significance. But in the long-term, as the Port Authority gains more and more control over the site, it may turn out to be the most impressive turnaround we are likely to see.