Suddenly, after months of silence on the matter, Governor Pataki has begun speaking out on the future of the World Trade Center site. And anyone who hopes that what emerges on this site will keep lower Manhattan a vibrant community can only be troubled by what the governor now has to say.
Last week, Pataki told a meeting of family members of those who died in the towers that "we will never build where the towers stood." The statement couldn’t have been more ill-timed or indiscreet. It came just as planners and designers employed by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, an entity Pataki himself created, were drawing up preliminary plans for the site. Given that the footprint of the Twin Towers essentially covers half the site, the governor’s pronouncement put a straightjacket around designers’ efforts, sending a message that a substantial chunk of the site would be dominated by a memorial to those who died on September 11. The governor’s sudden declaration also seemed bent on narrowing public discussion of the matter. His speech to the families came just as the LMDC prepared to hold hearings on the future of the site, with input from downtown business and community organizations that heavily favor making the site the cornerstone of a commercial and residential revival of Lower Manhattan.
No one disputes that the families of those who died that day deserve a considerable voice in any discussions about a memorial on the World Trade Center site. Nor does anyone doubt that, as part of the site, America wants a fitting—and fittingly affirmative—memorial to those who died in a dastardly attack on America and on its ideals. But the entreaties of family members and a few public figures—most notably Rudy Giuliani and now Pataki—run counter to the best interests of the city and are not what most New Yorkers want. Polls have shown that Gotham residents favor returning most of the site to commercial use. And downtown’s stakeholders—local businesses and residents—have been equally adamant: they don’t want their neighborhood turned into a necropolis.
Responding to these attitudes, the planners who now have the opportunity to re-invent that area of Lower Manhattan have conceived of restoring the streets to the neighborhoods, bringing the stores that were encased in an underground mall to street level, and constructing in and around the site a series of commercial and residential buildings that would not only reinvigorate the area but also send a powerful message that when America is attacked, what it rebuilds is even stronger and more impressive than what our enemies destroyed. Moreover, there is little doubt that, given the opportunity, the private sector would rise up and over time accomplish all of this and more in Lower Manhattan.
Under these circumstances, it’s difficult not to be cynical and suspicious of the governor’s intentions. His statement on the Twin Towers appear to be the beginnings of an attempt by the government to appropriate a big chunk of this site, as it did when New York State ordained back in the 1960s that the original neighborhood would be obliterated to construct the ill-conceived World Trade Center. The recollection of that misguided state-capitalist project was so fresh in people’s minds after 9/11 that most educated public opinion favored a rebuilding project that was friendlier to the neighborhood, that was driven more clearly by the desires of downtown businesses and residents, and that bore a close relationship to the real needs of the marketplace. What emerged was a consensus that government ought to restore some semblance of the area’s street grid and seek to integrate the area of the World Trade Center to Battery Park City and the rest of Lower Manhattan.
But government can’t seem to keep its hands off so substantial a site, which is what makes the governor’s remarks so troubling. They coincide with talk within the LMDC about dividing the 16-acre site into four superblocks and devoting the largest of these four—constituting about half the site—to a memorial that might include a gigantic museum, a park, and a monument in the area where the towers themselves stood, and other tourist attractions linking the site to historic portions of downtown like Castle Clinton and the historic promenade facing the Statue of Liberty. All of this amounts to nothing more than the state deciding that lower Manhattan should now morph into a magnet for tourists—exactly the kind of decision that the marketplace, not government, should be making.
This grand spectacle would be designed, managed, and controlled by the state. And so, under the guise of a fitting tribute to those who died that day, we instead move closer and closer to yet another towering example of the Empire State’s state capitalism, a memorial complex packaged as a piece of the city’s tourism industry, crowding out commercial and residential development so desperately needed in the area.
Isn’t this just another version of the same mistake that New York made on this site 40 years ago?