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.