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New Yorkers Question Future Plans for World Trade Center - 2002-09-11

Soon after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the agency that owns the property, the Port Authority, called for proposals to redevelop the site. It wanted a business complex that would incorporate a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attack. But public will has overtaken the plans of developers and business interests.

The site of the World Trade Center is an enormous void in the New York skyline, and a cavernous construction site. It attracts as many as 25,000 on-lookers a day, according the Port Authority's site manager, Peter Rinaldi.

"This was the basement," he explains. "You are looking down 21 meters to the lowest levels of the WTC. That is where the whole underground complex for the WTC existed. There were parking levels there. There were stores. There were utilities. There was a train station. All of that was destroyed when the buildings collapsed."

The Port Authority's immediate focus on restoring the more than more than one-million-square meters of office and retail space at the site was not surprising. Business is what the seven-building World Trade Center was about.

But in open meetings across the city, New Yorkers expressed concern that the initial designs commissioned by various planning agencies were uninspired and too oriented toward commerce.

Political leaders agreed. New York State Governor George Pataki, the most powerful figure in the rebuilding process, weighed in on the side of the public. "The memorial has to be the centerpiece," he says. "Commercial and financial considerations in my view should be secondary."

Arthur Fried teaches public policy at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service and is a member of one of the groups working to insure public input into the process, the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York.

"The public response to the site plans in July made it very clear that the public thought that that was a much too dense commercial setting for a memorial or an appropriate use of a site where such a horrible tragedy occurred," he says. "And so suddenly what the public was and is demanding has been more appropriate uses such as cultural facilities and residential facilities and much less of a business and commercial site."

The planning agencies have opened the process to architects and designers from around the globe and eliminated some restrictions, including the restoration of office space.

"I think the extraordinary thing here is the public participation and the extent to which the governmental entities that are responsible ultimately for making decisions here are inviting and responding to the public outcry," says Mr. Fried. "The public is insisting that we do something special here."

The public also made it clear the rebuilding process should not be rushed. It is a rare case in which government agencies, often accused of moving too slowly, were charged with forging ahead too rapidly.

"It takes a long time for emotions to settle and for pain to heal," says Paul Goldberger, one of the most respected architectural critics in the United States. "A memorial is not just to make those people who lost family members feel better, but to make the next generation understand, unborn kids who were not around. It is so that they will understand and it takes a lot of time to do that."

Several strong themes have emerged from the public meetings. New Yorkers want a memorial to dominate the site. They want it to include as much open green space as possible and to incorporate the names of the victims. Water and light beams are often mentioned elements.

They do not want anything built on the so-called footprints of the twin towers. But they want a distinctive structure that will make a bold statement and anchor New York's famous skyline.

Paul Goldberger stresses he is amazed to discover how profoundly the public feels the loss to its skyline.

"It turns out everybody cared about the skyline and felt the skyline is a totality, was a kind of possession that everybody felt was theirs, in the same way that Central Park belongs to everybody so does the skyline," he explains. "And people felt correctly that it had been violated, that it had been torn apart."

Mr. Goldberger is one of those who believes the future memorial must reach toward the sky perhaps in the form of a broadcast tower. "I see it as symbolic, because what I would love to see is that the tower itself be the memorial or a key part of the memorial," he said. "What better way to honor both the buildings and lives of those lost there than with something that went back up into the skyline."

The video, carried live around the globe, of the World Trade Center disintegrating into a fiery pile of rubble deeply affected people far beyond the United States.

No single design will be able to meets the needs and desires of all. But the site has become such a symbol of both horror and heroism that planners must find a vision to inspire and comfort most