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Ground Zero Reconstruction Sparks Passionate Debate Among New Yorkers

The question of what do to with the hole left by the destruction of the World Trade Center complex has been a controversial one almost since September 11, 2001. What should it look like? What should it include? What should be left out? Who decides? And who decides that? The process for deciding these questions is at the heart of one of the most passionate debates over real estate in American history. In March of this year, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation or LMDC, the quasi-governmental entity responsible for choosing a working plan for Ground Zero, announced that the architect Daniel Libeskind had produced a winning design.

His blueprint calls for a large sunken memorial below street level that incorporates a piece of the World Trade Center's foundation wall that survived the September 11 2001 attacks. Above ground, a crystalline tower would contain offices for the first seventy stories, but taper to a delicate spire that, if built today, would be the tallest man-made structure in the world. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine, likes Daniel Libeskind's overall design. "I do think it's a very good idea. Although I'd really hope that they carry it through. It beautifully integrates commemoration and moving forward and rebuilding the city," he says. It has been a daunting task to get the various stakeholders in Ground Zero to move forward together. There are the government entities that own the land, and the private leaseholder and landlord of the original twin towers, which contained millions of square meters of valuable office space. Lower Manhattan residents, whose neighborhood was changed forever by the attacks, also had strong opinions, as did the families and loved ones of the victims.

And because of the deep symbolic significance of the attack and the rebuilding effort, the governor of New York State promised to solicit the public's opinion in the planning and redesign process for Ground Zero. Open meetings were held throughout the city between the late fall of 2001 and late spring of 2002. But in early summer 2002, the LMDC finally unveiled six designs, all produced by one firm, all mostly resembling each other, and all of which were rejected by the public.

Paul Goldberger says "it turned out to be really pretty banal, pretty ordinary. They seemed to be driven mainly by putting back office space and not by any kind of powerful memorial idea. Then, last summer, something amazing happened, which was that the public outcry against that was tremendous and we have never seen a case, certainly not in my memory, of as much public engagement and passion begin devoted to the question of what should happen on a piece of land in the city. At that point, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation figured that if people wanted more vision, the best thing to do is turn to some of the best architects in the world."

But the LMDC issued an open call for new design ideas really a competition by another name. Over 400 submissions were received, representing the combined work of over nine hundred architects, many of them world famous. Of those, seven were picked to submit formal models.

Finally, in February 2003, the field had narrowed to two architectural firms, and in March, Daniel Libeskind's design, which included the soaring spire and the sunken memorial pit, was formally chosen, as a working plan.

Immediately, some modifications were necessary. For example, the depth of the memorial was reduced from about 20 meters to about ten. Some financiers grumbled about the need for more office space. Still, many did agree that the central concept did manage, in Mr. Libeskind's words, to fuse the seemingly impossible. On the one hand, a memorial, which is really sacred, which is serious, which has a gravity and civic nature which is very very important to protect. And on the other hand to develop a city which is fun, which is enjoyable, which is celebratory, and how to weave these things together so it doesn't present a contradiction but really a seamless continuity," he says.

But while this conception was generally well received, the opinions of a random sampling of New Yorkers on their way to work near Ground Zero revealed a wariness about the project design. One woman, for example, tells VOA she doesn't like the idea of a sunken memorial. "There is something about being underground that is connected to death to me. And I think New York is about street life and not about what is gong on underground. It's kind of a grim image," she says.

Another woman wasn't crazy about the idea of a super-tall crystal-shaped tower. "That's just inviting them to come back and do more terrorism to the United States. My opinion is if they can just build something simple so we can bring up the employment in New York City that'd be great," she says.

This man, a vendor of Ground Zero souvenirs, just wishes that work could begin on whatever is decided. I read the paper every day. I haven't seen a firm yes or no on the design yet. It's ridiculous," he says. "The city changes its mind like it changes its underwear. They haven't got a clue!

Architect Daniel Libeskind, who savors the creative tensions New Yorkers are famous for, says he looks forward to continued debate over his Ground Zero design. It's a civic art, architecture at this scale. This is not a private activity that one can indulge in a studio with some drawings and models. This is right in the middle of the marketplace. And I think what makes a great democratic capital like New York a pluralistic city with heterogeneous interests is precisely that one has to navigate and reconcile all sorts of different aspects of the site and different stakeholders. And I think this is the art of negotiations. I think a design that evolves is always better than a design that didn't evolve," he says.

A new controversy has surfaced, whether a so-called Wedge of Light Mr. Libeskind said would be visible on the memorial every year during the day and time when the towers were struck will be in partial shadow or not. And if so, whether the building that will cast the shadow will be part of the new Ground Zero complex. For daunted Ground Zero watchers, Paul Goldberger had this bit of advice. "Don't trust anybody who tells you they are sure how it's going to turn out' because nobody knows what is going on in this process more than about a week or two ahead," he says.