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Steven Malanga
Downtown Rebuilding Gets Serious
Governor Pataki, taking charge at last, offers a plan and a timetable that make sense.
25 April 2003

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, the overwhelming sentiment of New Yorkers—and indeed Americans—was that the World Trade Center site should be rebuilt as quickly and defiantly as possible. Over time, however, the momentum for rebuilding slowed, as anti-development advocates began to undermine the planning and question the economic viability of Lower Manhattan. The very public process of picking new designs for the site produced a tangle of conflicting, incompatible goals.

But now Governor Pataki has taken an important step toward restoring the momentum for rebuilding Lower Manhattan as a vigorous commercial district. Recognizing that what happens on and around that site will loom large in his legacy, the governor announced an accelerated timetable for rebuilding and promised a host of new programs to speed the area’s overall recovery. Looked at from the low point of the planning process—last summer, when it seemed that those most responsible for reviving that site were flagging in their commitment to a robust commercial plan—the governor’s message represents a brisk and hopeful turnaround in the prospects for the area and for the city itself.

Make no mistake about it: the plan as it now exists is far from perfect, and key issues remain unresolved. The master plan falls short of re-establishing full access in the area by restoring most of the street grid. Only about half of the retail space that is to be restored to the site will be at street level, while 400,000 square feet will be housed in mall-like corridors unsuitable for Manhattan.

Still, the plan that is emerging—and on a faster track now—is much better than could have been hoped only a few short months ago. It includes efforts to restore most of the 10 million square feet of office space lost in the attacks, including a goal of topping out the major, 1776-foot-tall office tower that will dominate the downtown skyline by the end of 2006. Ready for occupancy a year later, that tower’s more than 2.5 million square feet—combined with the nearly 1.7 million square feet of 7 World Trade Center, which developer Larry Silverstein is currently rebuilding—means that within just four years the site will again see vigorous office activity. The master plan also sets aside space for building a hotel and two more office towers, as the market demands them.

Wisely, the governor is also now focusing on the short term, proposing a series of immediate improvements to help jolt Lower Manhattan to life before this new building is complete. Those include new pedestrian walkways reconnecting parts of the area, the upgrading of portions of lower Broadway, an effort to untangle the barricades and security measures on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, and even a return of the greenmarket formerly housed on the WTC site. Longer term, the governor is also promising dramatic improvements in access to the area, including links to both JFK and Newark airports. Perhaps most important, Pataki has set a schedule for these and other projects; yesterday he distributed a detailed timeline for what he outlined.

There are, of course, important issues still to be decided that could turn controversial. Chief among them is design of the memorial on the site. While this may have little to do with the commercial life of the area, the kind of memorial selected by the committee assigned this task will send an important message about how we remember September 11. A set of monuments chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation as models for creating the 9/11 memorial all celebrate loss and victimization. Something finer is called for, a monument that not merely remembers those who died but celebrates the values of democracy attacked on that day.

But while we ponder what kind of memorial should take shape, the governor deserves kudos for kickstarting the rebuilding process. So, too, does developer Larry Silverstein, who is even now preparing to build the major tower on the site. During much of the debate following September 11, too few business leaders argued aggressively for a dynamic rebuilding. Many in the real-estate community stayed silent, more worried about how any downtown rebuilding might affect their own projects than about the city’s long-term future. Politicians, meanwhile, at times pandered to various no-growth constituencies. The LMDC got hijacked by low-growth and no-growth types, who wanted to turn much of Lower Manhattan into parkland. But through it all, Silverstein’s was one of the few brave voices consistently fighting for the kind of far-sighted revival plan we now see emerging.

The governor’s new leadership will help make that plan a reality.

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More by Steven Malanga:
Welcome to the Jungle
Trolling for Dollars
March Labor Madness
More . . .
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