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The Downtown Redevelopment Flop
The heroism Gotham showed after 9/11 is giving way to sentimentality and defeatism that threaten the city’s future.
Autumn 2002

The New York City that the world admired after the terrorist attacks last year—the city that rushed to the rescue before the towers fell and then strapped on its boots, searched the rubble for survivors, and cleaned up the damage; the city that pledged to rebuild quickly and defiantly—is in danger of disappearing. In its place is arising a city of victims seeking pity for what happened on 9/11, rather than a great metropolis to be admired for the courage and resolve with which its heroic citizens brought about recovery and renewal.

Nothing illustrates this failure of nerve more than the way that the discussion about reconstructing lower Manhattan has gone horribly awry. It began hopefully, when Governor George Pataki appointed a blue-chip redevelopment committee stocked with notable business executives and sensible civic leaders. At first, these executives articulated an optimistic vision of a renewed lower Manhattan. They advocated a dynamic reconstruction and studied promising concepts, like replacing the streets that previously existed on the World Trade Center site to create a vibrant new neighborhood connected to the rest of lower Manhattan. Although they vowed to listen to many different voices, they also dedicated themselves to a quick rebuilding. In the early days of their work, they even made frequent announcements of progress, so as to encourage New Yorkers with a sense of ongoing recovery.

But gradually, the committee members lost their resolve—or rather, have had it sapped by those who would deny or diminish New York’s traditional place as a global center of commerce and capital. Leading this effort is an alliance of anti-business advocates, anti-development activists, a small but vocal group of family members of 9/11 victims (backed up by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani), and a too-willing media. Mired in a culture of grieving and sentimentality, this alliance would turn the WTC site into a celebration of loss and a perverse tribute to our enemies.

Since the start of the rebuilding process, these groups have sown doubt about the ability of lower Manhattan to regain its edge as a business district and have used the grief of the families to argue for transforming the area into a vast memorial park. Their influence was clearly apparent at the July 16 press conference in which the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released its six preliminary plans for the site.

The very first questions seemed aimed at undermining the rebuilding process: Wasn’t there too much commercial building planned for the site? a reporter queried. Hadn’t the committee put the planners in a straitjacket by demanding so much office and retail space? someone asked. The plans had barely been on view, but the press was already loaded for bear—not because reporters had studied the proposals carefully but because anti-building forces had primed them in the weeks before to see any return to commerce on the site as profane.

If the members of the LMDC and the city’s business community had responded vigorously in defense of an energetic rebuilding, they might have muffled these sentiments quickly. But everything about the process the LMDC set up has allowed the activists to control the debate.

One of the LMDC’s biggest mistakes has been inviting the anti-development types into the planning as virtual partners of the rebuilding committee. The LMDC agreed to cooperate with an ad hoc group known as the Civil Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York on a series of town-hall meetings, ostensibly aimed at gauging public opinion on the rebuilding plans, including a massive all-day event at the Javits Center in July. This group is the brainchild of the Regional Plan Association, a once-respected planning organization started by business leaders that over the years has declined into a slow-growth, high-tax, government-spending advocate. Joining the RPA in this downtown rebuilding alliance is a Who’s Who of organizations unconcerned about, or even opposed to, a market-driven, robust economy—everyone from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Organization of Women Legal and Educational Defense Fund to social services organizations, subsidized housing groups, liberal policy think tanks, and left-leaning foundations like the Ford Foundation.

What this unwholesome alliance produced at the Javits Center was an unrestrained wallow in sentimentality and anti-development attitudes. The conference’s participants—many of whom had been recruited to take part—divided into small discussion groups led by trained “facilitators.” Organizers advised journalists not to interrupt or break the “dynamics” of the group—gobbledygook straight out of group therapy. Organizers even had a contingent of “grief counselors” standing by, as if the mere discussion of rebuilding the WTC were too emotionally stressful for New Yorkers to handle. Not even a hint of the in-your-face resolve that the city displayed after September 11 leavened the proceedings. The grief-fest, not surprisingly, produced recommendations to reduce the amount of commerce on the site, to tilt lower Manhattan toward cultural uses, and to reserve large tracts of the site’s 16 acres for nothing but memorials.

One would have expected a rebuilding commission composed of sensible business executives immediately to have seen the Javits Center meeting as a mistake and politely to have rejected its recommendations. But no: the LMDC’s leaders seemed impressed by what they heard, naively mistaking this swarm of activists assembled by no-growth organizations as true representatives of the city’s will. The committee promptly rejected its own six preliminary plans—ugly and uninspired, to be sure, but at least consistent with the site’s commercial character. The LMDC then proceeded to solicit new suggestions for development—or rather, anti-development.

It is especially dismaying to see how far the distinguished head of the LMDC, former Goldman Sachs chairman John Whitehead, has come under the sway of these anti-development activists. Whitehead can be excused, perhaps, for gushing to the press that the Javits convocation was “absolutely beautiful.” But even on substantive policy matters, Whitehead is slowly abandoning his free-market principles in response to the sustained din of the no-growth groups. Speaking before the Manhattan Institute, City Journal’s publisher, Whitehead proposed a new, state-created tourism industry for lower Manhattan, organized around a giant memorial, a museum, and other cultural uses on the WTC site. This theme park was just another version of the state-capitalist approach that had produced the first World Trade Center, built with heavy government subsidies 35 years ago. Now, government was proposing to create a new industry for the area—a sort of Disneyland of Death—conceived and operated by some New York State entity, no doubt.

Whitehead’s idea for a government-created tourism industry comes straight from the Civic Alliance’s agenda, a prescription for a government-controlled, managed economy, with a loony tinge of New Age economics. Some of the group’s work builds upon a report authored for it by Carnegie Mellon professor Richard Florida. The professor, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class is a current fad among trendy economists, believes that the key to a region’s economic growth is its ability to attract creative types, gauged by how many homosexuals and bohemians, among other groups, live there. The professor applied his Gay and Bohemian indexes to Gotham to produce a study entitled “Rebuilding Lower Manhattan for the Creative Age.” Out of this claptrap, which describes New York as a “multi-nodal creative center,” came an economic development plan for downtown that includes not only the state-sponsored tourism-industry proposal, endorsed by Whitehead, but also further proposals for heavy government investment that would inevitably require higher taxes—something else that the Civic Alliance endorses, though that is exactly what a city struggling to revive itself does not need.

With his own rebuilding committee heading off into New Age economic mumbo jumbo, Governor Pataki has done little to help reset the debate in the proper direction. No one ultimately has more power over the process than the governor, not only because he appointed most members of the LMDC, but because he controls half of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which, as owner of the site, is ostensibly still in charge. Just weeks before the LMDC was to issue its new designs, the governor suddenly blurted out to a gathering of family members of victims that he was against building on the “footprints” of the World Trade Center site—that is, where the towers themselves originally stood. The governor’s words pulled the rug out from under the planning process, tilting the debate away from the notion of a vigorous rebuilding and toward the idea of keeping much of the land as non-commercial public space—a pronouncement that thrilled the no-growth advocates dominating the discussion. It resonated nicely with New York’s big-government political culture, too. The state would take back much of the WTC land that, just weeks before the attack, the government had finally leased to the private sector, after having resisted decades of pressure to privatize the WTC buildings.

Business groups, which in other American cities might be counted on to add a voice of reason to such a debate, have essentially been AWOL from the process. The few such groups that are nominally a part of the Civic Alliance (aside from the clueless RPA) are too timid to make waves or stand up courageously to Gotham’s activists and media. The only audible voices from the business community in this debate are real-estate developers—who have their own reasons for hoping for a non-building: namely, that many of them already control properties that new building downtown would compete with for tenants.

These efforts to un-build much of lower Manhattan really amount to an attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. During the latter part of the 1990s, lower Manhattan went through a stunning revival, in which the commercial vacancy rate declined from above 20 percent to under 5 percent just before the terrorist attack, in the process absorbing millions of square feet of empty space. The area had successfully reinvented itself with a mixture of small, high-technology firms in renovated older buildings, big financial players anchored in projects like the WTC or the World Financial Center, new residential development, and a reviving retail landscape to serve these various markets.

The terrorist attack blew a gaping hole in that landscape, but nothing else fundamental has changed in the city’s economy—which suggests that a vigorous rebuilding would jump-start the area all over again. Since the attack, the city, in a weakened national economy, has descended into a recession that is mild by historical standards; Gotham has lost about 80,000 jobs. By contrast, in the recession of 1989 to 1992, New York lost 325,000 jobs. In short, nothing in the current downturn suggests that New York’s economic fundamentals have grown shaky, or that the city’s ability to regenerate itself and continue to produce wealth and capital has changed in any way that requires abandoning lower Manhattan to parkland, tourism, and New Age economics.

What these circumstances call for instead is a vigorous commercial rebuilding that aims to continue downtown’s tradition as the city’s second most important business district (and the third biggest in the nation). That rebuilding should not repeat the mistakes of the past. Despite our sentimental attachment to the Twin Towers after the bombing, their design was a mistake. Not only too tall, they also cut off other lower Manhattan neighborhoods from one another with their barrier-like raised plaza, forbiddingly deserted at night and on weekends. A sensible approach would encourage a rebuilding that restores the streets that originally divided the huge site into 12 city blocks, on which the private market could construct a series of buildings of different uses. This approach also allows the stores and restaurants that existed underground in the original design to come up to street level, re-creating a real neighborhood there, with auto and pedestrian traffic and street life. The effect of this design would be to transform the area of the WTC, which previously was a business-only district that closed down after 6 pm, into a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week urban neighborhood.

Last fall, City Journal published a plan for lower Manhattan by the architects Franck Lohsen McCrery of Washington and New York that sought to achieve all these ends. It remains the most successful attempt we have yet seen at a vigorous rebuilding that offers both a dynamic new neighborhood and a respectful, appropriate approach to a memorial for the victims—one encompassing several blocks—without in any way undermining the importance of the site as the commercial center of lower Manhattan.

But the debate continues to march away from this notion. A recent case in point: a New York Times Magazine article presenting a design for the area that the paper commissioned from a team of the nation’s trendiest planners and architects. Taking its cue from the activists and victims’ families, who oppose any building on the footprints of the old towers at the center of the site, this group produced a scheme of almost comic triviality, an array of cringing, twisted structures cowering along the edges of a featureless park. Among its manifold defects, the Times’s plan does nothing to reestablish a sense of neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Instead, this entire approach is likely to produce nearly as empty and desolate a place after business hours as the old WTC site.

Part of the problem is that the LMDC has insisted from the beginning that discussions about the site must center upon a possible memorial or memorials to those who died. But the memorial is perhaps the most emotional feature of the WTC site, and trying to make crucial decisions about it now promises to complicate the rebuilding further, adding another layer of contention and delay to the process. A wiser approach would be to set aside some land for the memorial, then allow time to pass before actually designing and constructing it. Meanwhile, the rest of the reconstruction can proceed. This is exactly what the Pentagon has done so successfully.

Putting off decisions on the memorial would give the committee time to reconsider the kinds of tribute it should build downtown. The initial set of monuments chosen by the committee as guides for the Ground Zero memorial are all based on ideas that celebrate loss and victimization—from memorial gardens where flowers represent those who died to the excruciatingly banal Oklahoma City memorial—empty chairs for everyone who perished. These are essentially content-less memorials that, by emphasizing nothing more than absence, refrain from making any large, profound statement. But something nobler is required at Ground Zero: something that not only recognizes our loss but also affirms the fundamental values of democracy and Western civilization that the terrorists attacked. Sculptor Alexander Stoddart’s design for a memorial, published in City Journal’s Autumn 2001 issue, accomplishes both these tasks eloquently, and we believe that Stoddart’s design, unsurpassed so far, remains the one to beat.

The debate over the proposed memorial reflects larger discussions now going on. The heart of these conversations is the question of what kind of city New York will be after 9/11 and how it will remember the events of that day. On the one side stand the activists and advocates, so expert at controlling the debate in New York City—people who often question the principles of capitalism on which so much of the city’s success and power are based. They would have New York construct at Ground Zero a permanent memorial to the success of the terrorist attacks, a necropolis largely devoid of building, as if to suggest that terrorists were right to hate the global capitalism of which Gotham is the center and therefore New York must rein in the commercial dynamism that makes it great.

On the other side are ordinary New Yorkers, who supply the energy and talent that make Gotham the city that it is. They are the people who will never forget September 11, but who recognize, as the president declared in his message to the nation on the first anniversary of the attack, that “our mission goes forward.” These are the New Yorkers who fill the stands at New York sports events these days, still singing the national anthem at top volume and cheering lustily as announcers ask them to honor our heroes at home and serving overseas.

These ordinary New Yorkers are the people I walked with on the morning of September 11, 2002—the anniversary of the bombings. As I headed across midtown with the clock approaching 8:46, the exact time of the first attack, workers from a handful of nearby construction projects started streaming out of their work sites and into the streets lining Fifth and Madison Avenues, standing there quietly. Other New Yorkers slowed down, too, looking at their watches and then quietly joining the construction workers along the avenues. Then, suddenly, the din that is ever present in midtown seemed to fade away, and the city became hushed. By this time I had made it to Vanderbilt Avenue, so I stepped into the side entrance of Grand Central. There, in the main waiting room, hundreds of people had simply stopped and were standing still, looking up at the flag in the middle of the room. There were no speeches, no formal ceremonies; no one had called all of them together. They were just ordinary people finding their own way to remember. Then, it was over. Slowly, everyone just began moving again, heading back to work, back to the business at hand.

That is the New York that needs to be embodied for the ages in the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.

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