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Groups Compete Over Cultural Complex at NYC's World Trade Center Site - 2003-09-26

Plans for the future of the former World Trade Center site are in flux as politicians, developers, area residents and victims' families debate how to allot commercial, office, residential and memorial space. One of the few certainties is that a major cultural complex will be one of the anchors at the site. And arts and education groups are vigorously competing to participate.

A cultural center at the site has been part of discussions since talk about rebuilding began. But few expected the robust competition that has emerged.

The agency overseeing the redevelopment process, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) initially envisioned at least one cultural venue, a museum to explain the events of September 11, 2001. Almost immediately after redevelopment discussions started, one of the city's leading cultural groups, the New York City Opera, already in the market for a new home, announced it would consider relocating to the site. A major dance venue, the Joyce Theater, then declared it might move to a larger building downtown. The LMDC has invited other cultural organizations to submit ideas.

One of the bids came from Hunter College, which is highly regarded for its studio art program and galleries. Hunter President Jennifer Raab says she would like to move the college's entire arts program, including performing arts and art history, to a revitalized downtown neighborhood.

"In addition to students learning, we have this stellar faculty producing art," he said. "So we have painters and dancers and sculptors and actors. The theory is that it would be wonderful to bring it downtown to be an anchor. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity for Hunter to be part of a growing new community as well as to help that community be created in the best possible way."

The Museum of the City of New York submitted a joint submission with several other city, state, and national historic societies and archives for a museum to interpret the events of 9/11 and a previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

"We think the city's story is an important thing to tell there," said Sarah Henry, program director for the Museum of the City of New York, "because people who go to understand September 11 and to pay homage to it need a context, a specific one of understanding the World Trade Center itself, how it got to be there, what its broader meaning was within the city's history."

The LMDC says more than 110 groups, ranging from small non-profit theaters to major colleges to a film festival, have submitted ideas to either relocate to the future complex or expand to include facilities at the site. The response, for Sarah Henry, is not surprising.

"It is going to be a highly visible, highly visited place," she said, "and I think that in addition to that and what that can bring to their institution, they are all people and institutions that are deeply rooted and invested in New York and they were all devastated by what happened. There is something truly resonant about participating in the rebuilding in even a small way."

But some observers and arts critics wonder if a cultural complex located in what is essentially a business district can attract audiences and visitors over the long haul, particularly after interest in the events of September 11 fades. The answer, Sarah Henry says, is yes.

"Even before September 11, there was really a cultural nexus developing downtown in lower Manhattan," she said. "So I think if interest fades as distance lengthens, but there still remains what there was before, which is a vital group of interesting institutions and a redevelopment that is already underway on the waterfront and in the parks [which] was already making that a 24-hour community."

Many of the arts groups are intrigued by the idea of working together. For example, Jennifer Raab says Hunter College would provide space for the annual Tribeca Film Festival, founded by actor Robert DeNiro. The film festival would, in turn, provide a great boon to the school's film and acting students, allowing them to participate in the festival and meet leading people in the field.

"This is really exciting to me because we have had the most wonderful conversations with other institutions now about how you can move down to revitalize an area together and really share resources," she said.

Equally exciting, Ms. Raab adds, is the new relationship being developed between cultural groups and government.

"When was the last time you can think of government itself coming out and recognizing the economic and physical development potential of the arts? One of the great challenges of the arts community is always arguing to government that they are a great part of making a city strong," she said. "There have been a number of reports over the years commissioned to show what an economic generator the arts are to New York City, to galvanize support for the arts. So here you have the reverse. Rather than the arts community saying to the government, 'You should help us and support us because we help the city to have residents, to have visitors and tourism and really generate economic profit.' Here, you have the government saying we are looking to the arts as the anchor for a new development. It is a great turnaround."

Governments around the world are increasingly viewing cultural sites as destinations to attract tourists and revitalize urban areas. The LMDC says it wants to transform lower Manhattan into a "world renowned cultural epicenter" with almost 56,000 square meters devoted to cultural facilities at the former World Trade Center site.