At W.T.C. and Brooklyn Arena, Death and Life of the Superblock

092605 article schuerman At W.T.C. and Brooklyn Arena,  Death and Life of the SuperblockWhen the smoke cleared from the rubble of the World Trade Center, the image that emerged was of a brave new neighborhood that was supposed to behave, if not look, like the West Village that Jane Jacobs used to write about. The 16-acre raised plaza, which created a deadly dull superblock disengaged from the surrounding streets of lower Manhattan, would be dismantled and some of the old streets reinstated. And there would be shops that people could enter right on the street. And there would be culture—museums, maybe a theater—so that the new complex would become a weekend and evening destination for the proliferating number of residents who are choosing to live, as well as work, in the financial district.

Even if there would be none of the crew-cut children playing on the stoops and longshoremen hoisting a few at the White Horse Tavern which Ms. Jacobs described, at least there was supposed to be some semblance of street life.

Four years later, that vision is becoming harder and harder to achieve. It is not just that the cultural institutions have now been subjected to ideological scrutiny that has pushed one would-be tenant, the Drawing Center, off the site and another, the International Freedom Center, into limbo. Nor is it that the street-level retail is still five years away or more. Now, it looks like the very streets that were supposed to carry this new life may be closed, at least occasionally, because of security concerns.

Add to that a project in Brooklyn that seeks to create a superblock where there isn’t one, and scattered calls to bring back Robert Moses, and this isn’t looking like a great season for the legacy of Jane Jacobs.

It is a matter of debate how much the street closings at Ground Zero will damage the Jacobsian idyll. Neither the New York Police Department nor the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation would comment, so it’s hard to say how many Ground Zero streets will be closed or how often. In June, James K. Kallstrom, special advisor to Governor George Pataki on counterterrorism, first told The Observer that Fulton and Vesey streets near the Freedom Tower might be blocked, “if the security situation warrants it.” That possibility became more real this month, when The Observer obtained through the state Freedom of Information Law an excerpt from a redevelopment agreement between the city and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center site. The agreement, signed last November, states: “The parties agree that if any such streets are closed to vehicular traffic for security purposes, the parties will revisit the traffic flow patterns on the other streets in and adjacent to the WTC site to insure a proper flow of vehicular traffic in and through the WTC site.”

The master plan for the World Trade Center area calls for two streets to be fully reconstituted: Fulton and Greenwich streets. Together, they divide up the site into four unequal quadrants—the largest, in the southwest, will hold the Sept. 11 memorial, a museum devoted to the attacks, as well as a cultural building the occupants of which Mr. Pataki has put into doubt. The northwestern quadrant will hold a theater building and the Freedom Tower, scheduled to open in 2010. The other two quadrants, between Greenwich and Church streets, will include Towers 2, 3 and 4, which will presumably have about 200,000 square feet of street-level retail at their bases.

The plaza that was there before was so vast as to appear impassable. It was widely known to be a failure of public space that the terrorist attack oddly permitted to be rectified. “That was something that we in City Planning knew had to be changed early on,” said Joseph B. Rose, the chairman of the City Planning Commission when the Twin Towers came down. “When the World Trade Center was being built, the megablock was part of the planning orthodoxy.”

But even though the street grid seemed to be one of those unshakeable elements of the rebuilding plan that everyone seemed to agree on, it has now been subjugated to security fears, like so much of the rest of the site: chiefly, the Freedom Tower, and, to a lesser extent, Santiago Calatrava’s PATH station. When Alexander Garvin, a Yale professor and Ground Zero’s first planner, was told of the possibility of closing streets, his first reaction was to laugh. But he is amenable to the adjustments if the resulting streets behave like Nassau Street a few blocks away: closed for a few hours in the middle of the day to accommodate lunchtime pedestrian traffic, but open otherwise. “It is important to have vehicular traffic at least some of the time,” he said. “In order to get desks, chairs, the daily needs of the buildings, it is important to have daily access.”

Even if the streets end up getting closed off most or all of the day, the street beds will be there, people will be able to walk on them, and perhaps, 20 or 30 years from now, if the threat of terrorism somehow disappears, cars can follow. Those promises are enough for Robert D. Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association and one of the outside agitators who advocated for the street grid in the months after the 2001 attack. “We’re talking about ephemera here,” he said. “The important thing is, eventually the streets will be open for pedestrians. The important thing is that the streets are there, the rights of way are there, the pedestrian access is there. Lower Manhattan, more than any other part of the city, is a pedestrian precinct anyway, and it should be.”

Yet the fact that the street grid will have to comply with security concerns, at least for a couple of decades, all the more proves the point that in the ebb and flow of planning fashions, Jane Jacobs is on the decline. Robert Moses, the Goliath that Ms. Jacobs famously took on in the fight over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, is now ascendant. (Moses died in 1981. Ms. Jacobs is 89 years old and lives in Toronto. She declined an interview because she is working on two books.)

In the past three years, several noted writers and planners have reconsidered Mr. Moses, portrayed in Robert Caro’s 1975 biography, The Power Broker, as an arrogant autocrat who bulldozed neighborhoods. It is not just that Moses built a lot of swimming pools and parks. Mr. Garvin wrote in the winter 2003 issue of the British journal Topic that Moses was not the omnipotent manipulator that people make him out to be. He did fail—once or twice—and he did have to amend his goals, as when he dropped plans for a music center and theater from the Coliseum at Columbus Circle. The essayist Phillip Lopate, in his 2004 book Waterfront, argued that Mr. Caro deliberately turned Moses into a Shakespearean character for dramatic effect, “a Richard III or Macbeth, grasping for more and more power,” who started out good and then got drunk on power. An even more comprehensive assessment of Moses’ 40-year career—probably the first since Mr. Caro’s doorstopper came out—will take place early next year, when Columbia University, the Queens Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society host a joint exhibition, Robert Moses and the Modern City.

Meanwhile, last summer The New York Times hired a new architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, who has in that short time made a number of jabs at Ms. Jacobs, suggesting just how dusty her reputation has become. In praising Frank Gehry’s design for a 24-acre sports-arena complex with 600-foot towers in Brooklyn, Mr. Ouroussoff anticipated that Ms. Jacobs’ acolytes would complain about the project’s scale. “But cities attain their beauty from their mix of scales; one could see the development’s thrusting forms as a representation of Brooklyn’s cultural flowering,” he wrote. Mr. Ouroussoff wrote once that Greg Pasquarelli’s design for a East River esplanade is “far more relevant to modern life than Jacobs’s.”

Amanda Burden, the chair of the City Planning Commission, who is overseeing the planning for the esplanade, says she doesn’t see the esplanade as anything out of line with Ms. Jacobs’ vision.

“All those things in the plan were really what the community wanted,” Ms. Burden said. “Jane Jacobs is still my inspiration: eyes on the street, the vitality of street life, small scale, keeping the texture of neighborhoods, keeping it very, very mixed-use—all of these things we are trying to incorporate, no matter how big a project it is.”

Ms. Jacobs, oddly enough, spends little time in her 1961 manifesto, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, complaining about scale, and she generally likes the vibrancy that high-density development brings with it. At one point, she even advocates mixing low-rises with high-rises to create a jagged roofline. But there certainly is one aspect of Mr. Gehry’s design for Atlantic Yards that Ms. Jacobs wouldn’t like: superblocks.

For the eastern third of the complex, the developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, is planning to join two long blocks side by side into one thick block on which seven high-rise apartment towers will stand. Although the towers will stand flush against the street, and retail shops will occupy the ground floors of some of the buildings, their rears will form an open courtyard reminiscent of the Le Corbusier’s Radiant City of the 1920’s, which Ms. Jacobs distinctly didn’t like.

The public will be able to use these green spaces at Atlantic Yards, but they are snuggled between and behind buildings, creating what Ms. Jacobs would call quasi-public space. “There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space,” Ms. Jacobs wrote. Otherwise, the good-hearted strangers who look out for other strangers—and who Ms. Jacobs thought were more important than private security guards in keeping a neighborhood safe—wouldn’t know whether they needed to watch over this quasi-public space. And if that space is to the side or behind some of the buildings, then they would be less able to do so.

The Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning group, said that the Atlantic Yards design signified “more concessions to traffic and carte blanche for the architect’s ego.” Opponents to Atlantic Yards actually drafted their own design for the train yards, which called for running more streets through the area instead of fewer.

So is Mr. Gehry trumping Ms. Jacobs? She has always held more traction among community activists than among professional planners, but James P. Stuckey, executive vice president at Forest City, said Atlantic Yards was in fact very much in keeping with Ms. Jacobs’ philosophy. He predicted that the arena, restaurants and shops would create constant street activity in and around the community.

“For FCRC, it is less about superblocks and more about working blocks,” Mr. Stuckey said in an e-mail. “What we like most about the plan is how the buildings and the public space respect one another and surrounding areas by encouraging movement along the sidewalk and within the interior. These buildings will very much look out to the larger city and surrounding communities while creating a public space that remains alive because it too is open to the street.”

Of course, if you don’t like superblocks, no one is forcing you to move to Atlantic Yards. Jane Jacobs’ West Village is still there, looking remarkably the same. If you can’t afford an apartment, at least stop into the White Horse. But don’t bother looking for the longshoremen. They are no longer there.