For perspective on the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, look a few miles north to Columbus Circle, where the nearly-twin towers of the AOL Time Warner headquarters are going up. The commercial reuse of that midtown block, formerly occupied by the New York Coliseum, was first proposed by a prominent developer in the mid-1980s. Plans were drawn up by a celebrated architect and presented in 1985, but that scheme was scuttled by public complaint (the grandiose tower would have robbed the sun from a big chunk of Central Park). A second, more risk-averse architecture firm was hired in 1988; an early version of the buildings now rising was shown that year. They should open for business some time in 2004. So, with one client, two architects, a handful of city agencies, one or two concerned community boards, the usual claque of not-in-my-backyard activists, undisputed ownership and no on-site dead, that complex is getting built only after twenty years of high hopes and false starts. Welcome to the world of New York development. Now hurry up and wait.

Downtown, of course, the context is different. People died there in droves; money and advice are flowing in from unusual sources; progress is tied up with patriotism and no one wants to be the spoiler. But, as we have seen in the past year, despite the nature of the events that necessitate rebuilding, despite the resulting national and global convulsions, despite the well-sung heroes in the rubble and sifting through it, that exceptional construction site with the unfortunate name has been and will continue to be subject to business as usual, Manhattan style.

The driving principles of New York real estate are not only “location, location, location”–the site in question has all three–but “get it done, get it done cheap, and get it done fast,” or try to. As we have been so frequently reminded, economic expedience is part of what makes the city the powerhouse that it is. Just as well established but better hidden is the local mechanism for development debate, formal and ad hoc. That rickety but effective contrivance was not swept away by the events of last September, only thrown into motion to re-emerge in caricature. There is a new menagerie of pro-design civic organizations–including “New York New Visions” (engineers, planners and architects), “Rebuild Downtown Our Town” (planners, architects and residents) and “Team Twin Towers” (a grassroots campaign to rebuild them as they were)–and old institutions that have reinvented themselves for the occasion: the newly activist New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, for example, or the reinvigorated Regional Plan Association, which has taken the lead in counseling that crucial new entity, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), disbursers of the public purse.

Governor George Pataki has built himself a wonderful catbird seat from which to turn the process to his political advantage in this re-election year. He loaded the board of the LMDC, made it subsidiary to the Empire State Development Corporation (which he already controls) and left it to hash out prerogatives with the ambiguously empowered owners of the site, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which he oversees with Garden State Governor James McGreevey, who has so far tread lightly). Pataki is thus the arbiter of last resort for the inevitable gridlock he created by putting two cooks in the kitchen. Last winter, intemperate criticism from gubernatorial aspirant Andrew Cuomo prompted the LMDC–and then, after some confusion, the Port Authority–to issue a rushed request for proposals that resulted in the six infamous site plans unveiled in July. When the public recoiled, abetted by a rollicking press (Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called the plans “retarded”), Pataki stepped in quickly to say the people must be heard. His dueling agencies duly announced a more open search for ideas. It was brilliant.

In the shadow of that purposeful bureaucratic clinch, the effects of which we are only beginning to see, the inflated roster of civic groups and public-space advocates is still well-primed to check and balance the process. If the financial and political stakes are bigger than usual at the World Trade Center site, so too is interested dissent; the world is watching. Architect John Belle, whose firm was bloodied by its association with that first round of designs, recently summed up the scene: “The market forces, political forces and community forces are just unbelievable,” he said. “This design is in the big ocean, it’s not in the goldfish bowl.”

As we enter the second year of what history suggests will be at least a decade of development skirmishes, that “big ocean” may be helping to create a more measured, reflective climate for big real estate. But the laws of Mammon have not been repealed; as always, it should be expected that opponents and proponents will collaborate over time in the courtroom rulings and back-room compromises that have traditionally concatenated to shape the skyline so many hold so dear. That singular spectacle, with its very high and very low aesthetic points, is the proud product of New York’s home-grown and enduring development culture. Can the new scrutiny force new qualities on a quantity-conscious town?

Like many, I thought the development process might be inflected beyond recognition by the presence of the victims’ advocacy groups. What pol or panel could resist a plea from “the families”? Wouldn’t a single hero-invoking turn at the microphone be enough to dull any designer’s excess or magnate’s greed? One of the past year’s surprises was the degree to which that faction was ignored. The survivors’ signature issue–enforcing respect for the dead by proxy through respect for the place of death–was incrementally marginalized.

Rudolph Giuliani, that once and likely future redevelopment power player, made the first significant appeal for protecting the full site nine months ago in his final speech as mayor, and again recently in an essay for Time. But the case for keeping the site clear of all but memorial apparatus–the logical first line of defense of its sanctity–was obviated when reconstruction quickly began on the essential transportation infrastructure there. Joining the soon-to-be-rebuilt subway tunnel and a future, temporary PATH station are the specters of transit sugar plums to come, long-championed intermodal improvements that are finding opportunity in the emptiness. More than $4.5 billion in federal funds has already been very publicly secured for a “Downtown Grand Central” that will honeycomb the site. Several of the July plans blithely proposed a garage for idling tour buses to join that hub, which, with its inevitable shopping, will bustle under whatever haunted memorial materializes above.

With the once-sacred Pit compromised by these workaday facts in the ground, the curious abstraction of the “footprints,” the offset squares of the tower outlines, has taken hold. It is a minimal position; the sacrosanct area, if delimited by the places where bodies or parts thereof were recovered, would extend many blocks beyond the obvious ruins. And there never was a plane on which those outlines were printed. The towers passed through the plaza level, remember, then opened up wide in the concourse below, to be rooted somewhere under the garage that was the scene of the 1993 bombing, and not as two neat squares. Either that whole volume is protected or we’re trading in deep symbolic pastiche. So much for sacred ground at Ground Zero.

As unsatisfying as it is, the idea of “preserving” the footprints has stuck, probably for good. After percolating through committee meetings, public hearings, unsolicited and commissioned designs, web musings and letters to the editor, “recognition of the tower footprints” was listed as an official desire in the LMDC’s recent tender for “innovative designs” (the results of which are scheduled to be shown in November–after the elections). And so it will go with every idea. The urban myth of the footprints is only among the first batch of managed assumptions that will pass for consensus, allowing the public and private arbiters of the site to act under the umbrella of conventional wisdom as they navigate the minefield of unconventional dispute.

Bringing the former street grid back into the World Trade Center superblock is another idea that has been elevated to premature inevitability. The restored grid made its first appearance in a September 2001 plan developed by Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein (whose power at the site now hangs on the size of his payout from insurer Swiss Re). After floating through the media all year with little examination, “new street grid” was recently added to the LMDC wish list. The center’s street-blocking conglomeration of plazas and towers was one of the most ridiculed urban gestures of the 1970s. The extra-critical embrace of streets-for-streets’-sake is a pendulum-swing chestnut of contemporary urbanism. Still, I suspect that the grid idea owes its easy traction to more than a love of New Urbanist theory. It’s a win-win move for development, suppressing the difficult aspects of the site while maximizing its profit potential: The new streets would increase retail frontage and erase the iconic perimeter, that inconvenient aide-mémoire. (All mourners please proceed to the footprints in an orderly fashion.)

Another unchecked assumption is that at this still very early stage, the questions at Ground Zero have architectural answers. The rush to propose elaborate, effusive structures suggests the depth of designers’ faith in form, the touching belief that a building with a particular aspect, a certain flourish, a totemic shape–something as inspiring as the Twin Towers were found to be after the fact–will resolve the monumental clash of interests at the site. That faith is shared by the public, a large part of which now seems to back grand architecture–at least as such opinions have been conveyed in the press and assembled at exercises in mass-produced consensus like the “Listening to the City” forums at the South Street Seaport in February and the Javits Center in July. At that second meeting, reacting to the “six cookie-cutter losers” (Ada Louise, again), a clear majority of the 4,500 participants clicked their remote controls on cue to express a preference for architectural daring, an apparent groundswell that was noted in the summary findings–“Be bold!”–and soon thereafter became another plank in the official platform.

Hunger for great architecture has often gone hand in hand with calls to locate architecture’s “best minds,” the assumption being that such minds exist and might be found. But, alas, there are no messiahs coming. A culture of surfaces has left its architects poorly equipped for depth. That was made clear in January at the hyped but inconsequential “New World Trade Center” exhibition at the Max Protetch gallery in New York, a speculative romp that yielded more publicity than public service, and will be again in the world’s fair curated for the New York Times Magazine by its conflict-courting architecture critic, to be published on September 8. (Both projects are now on display at the Venice Biennale.)

The products of these all-star outings are no different than the flood of earnest dabblers’ designs that have been a charming feature of the redevelopment culture all year. Why not build a towering Statue of Justice with a memorial in her scales? Twin laser-lit space needles contrived to simulate collapse? Skyscrapers that fight back when attacked? The LMDC has received thousands of volunteered plans, and thousands more are now archived on the websites of CNN and New York magazine. Clever sketches, from any source, may be good for morale, but they do nothing for progress on the site. In their graphic irrelevance they show again and again that it is still not time for architecture, if architecture is understood as form alone. For a design to have meaning, for it to be grounded in something greater than whim, architects have to respond to use and need and economic limits–the lowly parameters known as a program. Otherwise, they’re just making shapes.

A program, of course, is still being hashed out, mostly behind closed doors, though, as with the July debacle, it must inevitably emerge for some form of public test. It appears now that the full-bore 11-million-square-foot reconstruction put out as a first negotiating ploy by the Port Authority has been derailed by the excoriation that greeted it. There will be office space and retail space and a memorial–somewhere–that much is clear. Other components of a future program are also beginning to make inroads, attaining the same exalted status as “save the footprints,” “restore the grid” and “be bold.”

For many, it seems, a cultural institution is de rigueur; the idea of a Ground Zero Guggenheim has been floating around since about September 12 last year. More recently, the rejected Port Authority plan known as Memorial Square proposed an opera house (later revealed to occupy an adjacent site where an evacuated but intact residential building now stands). The ever-popular, ever-receding mirage of affordable Manhattan housing has its advocates, the mayor among them. A mention of housing got the only spontaneous applause at the first “Listening to the City” event. But, again, conventions are solidifying faster than problems are examined. Forget for a moment the anxieties of tenants at that two-time bull’s-eye. How can the fiscally ruptured city explain the construction of below-market-rate apartments on what may be the most valuable undeveloped urban acreage in the world?

There is plenty of open ground nearby in TriBeCa and in the half-fallow northern end of Battery Park City, and some plans have begun to expand the field to explore those options. A similar logic is behind the two swaps that have been aired in recent months–two of the most interesting and atypical ideas yet put forward. Fred Schwartz, a New York architect, has proposed decking highway-wide West Street (owned by the state) with new commercial construction in order to ease the pressure on the World Trade Center site itself. A horse-by-committee version of that idea serves as the chassis of the new Times plan. The second, more important swap was cooked up by advisors to Mayor Bloomberg: New York City would in effect buy the Port Authority out of its fiefdom downtown by granting it the land it now leases under the city’s two airports: sixteen acres in Manhattan traded for 5,610 in Queens. This resourceful cure-all would get the Port Authority, hamstrung by its lease obligations, out of the Ground Zero game, put it back in the role for which it was created and–advantage Bloomberg–break the state’s near-monopoly on influence three blocks from City Hall.

Much more than the parade of oddball fantasies, that idea is creative design in its finest form. And it is that kind of design thinking–so thoroughly wonkish that it has been almost forgotten by the star-struck profession–that is badly needed now. In lieu of affected shapes deployed in a void of intention, the public might be better served by an ideas competition among real estate lawyers.

The first real competition, tentatively set to begin early next year, will be for the memorial. There, too, future designs are already being limited by instant conventions and facts on the ground. As the first truckloads of wreckage left the burning site in the darkest days of last September, a representative of an architect hired by the Port Authority was on hand to flag those pieces of morbid steel that were judged in passing to have aesthetic significance. Some of these pretzel-twist souvenirs appeared last month as backdrops for a policy announcement; tons more are being stored, along with a collection of crushed police and fire vehicles, for possible future use in a memorial. The very existence and veneration of these things gives momentum to the idea of a mimetic memorial that will, through the display of building parts in various states of snarl and char, dramatize the towers’ final moments and honor that material calamity over the concurrent human one.

A place will also have to be found for Fritz Koenig’s dented Sphere–the monument to world peace that was the focal point of the Trade Center plaza and now serves as a temporary memorial in Battery Park–and for the miles of paramedics’ patches, flags and signed T-shirts that are still being left at St. Paul’s or the shrine of the nearest construction fence. Meanwhile, the “Tribute in Light” introduced a taste for the technological sublime to the mix, to great acclaim. It seems that for every ten citizens swept up by that spectacle, there was only a single curmudgeon, myself among them, who objected to the bombast, the disorientation of seeing the ghost towers projected from the wrong site, or the fact that in their art-historical DNA they contained the code of Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” shot into the Nuremberg night in 1936. A movement for a traditional sculptural memorial is also afoot. The New York Post gave a page last fall to a critic promoting an allegorical colossus; one amateur has proposed a sculpture garden with lifesize office workers. And then there is what might be called the project’s Vietnam hangover–backing for a list of names on clean stone à la Maya Lin.

At some point, those five urges–pictorial, acquisitive, techno-triumphant, figurative and demurewill collide, in a hideous farrago, in separate-but-equal memorials (remember the bronze soldiers that share Maya Lin’s corner of the Washington Mall) or–my bet–in some expanded hybrid that will link a “Museum of Heroism”–a place for relics and statues and crowds–with a memorial in the footprints erring to bent steel, epic lists and antic light shows. Below, a train station, above, space for rent; that’s how it looks right now.

The memorial issue alone should delay the project long enough for the preservation of memory to have become a necessity. That pitfall has not been lost on planners. One of the last questions at the July “Listening to the City” confab asked if the LMDC should wait to finalize the site plan as the design of a memorial inches forward, or should just designate space and move on. Most, almost 80 percent, said wait. But that leading question betrayed the grand presumption that has shaped the process more than any other to date: that the memorial will be ghettoized.

How do you build anything at Ground Zero and divorce it from the fulsome culture of “9/11″? All that eventually rises from or proliferates within that big hole–the commuter trains, parking lots and shopping malls, the Starbucks and Kinkos and condos and cube farms, the whole gnarly ensemble of contemporary urbanism–will be integral to the remembrance of the event, will make up the greatest part of the “memorial experience,” will be weighed against the dignity of the dead, and should be so disposed to carry that burden with grace. It is not hard to see why some would encourage a narrower standard–city here, memory there–and that position has been made public policy in the past year, as much by default as decree. With the footprints and the grid and the instant prejudice for mixed use, it shares one quiet bias: to make this project look like a regular New York job. Those who think it isn’t should make it look like a regular New York fight. Ring the bell for round two.