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Thinking Inside the Box: Beyer Blinder Belle's West 63rd Street apartment tower.Photo: Photograph by Sean Hemmerle

It is only a matter of days until a proposed master plan for ground zero is unveiled by the firm Beyer Blinder Belle, but despite the importance of this huge assignment, no one is waiting with bated breath for the outcome. For in choosing Beyer, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation all but signaled their intention to erect a Provincial Trade Center where the Twin Towers once stood. In late May, drawing from a severely limited pool of mostly New York applicants, the two agencies chose Beyer, an all–New York, business-as-usual firm, for the task of imagining how the site should be used. The Port Authority had briefly run ads soliciting proposals only in the New York Times and the Newark Star Ledger (and a few local foreign-language newspapers), effectively excluding talent from the rest of the country, not to mention the rest of the world. Applicants had just nine working days to complete the onerous task of assembling a complex team with experience either in major mixed-use complexes or urban-planning and transportation projects exceeding $100 million. The winner then had just over a month to render as many as six alternative plans that would suggest a framework for fitting together all the parts – aboveground and below, private and public – of this massive project.

Any architectural team that had New York’s Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm onboard enjoyed the inside track, since that company has done a tremendous amount of the kind of infrastructural work now deemed essential to ground zero’s redevelopment. The Port Authority is basically a bi-state transportation agency, and infrastructure – a lot of it – has effectively emerged as the tail wagging the WTC II. Not architecture. Not vision – or at least not a vision that is likely to extend beyond Beyer’s historically limited thinking. All of which will be an afterthought in this unnecessarily frantic process, which appears to be linked more to George Pataki’s re-election campaign than to any desire to create a worthy successor to the World Trade Center.

Just two days before the announcement, at a revealing panel held by Creative Cities (an international nonprofit organization specializing in the urban environment), Port Authority executive Anthony Cracchiolo lamely said that the tight schedule required a team with New York experience “to hit the ground running.” The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s vice-president for planning, Alexander Garvin, who boasted in a New York Times profile that he is a “certified provincial,” confirmed the self-assessment when he offended the foreign delegations by asserting that ground zero is a New York problem best left to New Yorkers.

So much for the global lessons of September 11. The world architecture community, which is familiar with due building process, sees this opaque, exclusionary scenario and is left appalled. Beyer Blinder Belle – which did a commendable job restoring Grand Central – has shown little of its own design initiative in up-from-the-ground projects (as evidenced by the mundane residential tower it recently designed for the West 63rd Street YMCA), and it has had only a few weeks to get brilliant. If the Port Authority and LMDC are expecting master-plan proposals by early July, they can’t be expecting much.

Hopes for what the site might become have already been diminished by talk of restoring the old street grid, a covert way of slanting the overall plan toward the feel-good urbanism and milk-chocolate architecture of Battery Park City. Garvin – who recently told Yale magazine, “I don’t care whether something is modernist or neo-traditional. The question is, does it work?” – weighted his vote heavily toward Beyer Blinder Belle, whose work is inclined to a historical rather than a contemporary sensibility. Garvin may like to quote Daniel Burnham about making no small plans because “they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” but so far, only medium-size plans are on the table.

For all the soothing tautologies about the New Yorkness of New York, no one at PA/LMDC seems to be thinking about reinterpreting the site’s vertical layers, opening the underground to the sky in a sort of reverse, top-to-bottom high-rise that would connect rather than isolate the elements of ground zero. That kind of imaginative thinking could extend the site throughout lower Manhattan to the Harbor, a ready-made public asset even more glorious than Central Park. The other pieces of this intriguing puzzle would include Governors Island, the Brooklyn Waterfront, Red Hook, a waterside Guggenheim, the Second Avenue subway, and even Garvin’s own brilliant plan for an East River Olympics – all issues the Department of City Planning, now awkwardly sidelined in the process, could coordinate with the Port Authority and LMDC.

The way to move the process forward with ideas rather than just deadlines is to ask the highly capable Beyer Blinder Belle to do the due diligence and then prepare a program documenting how much residential, commercial, recreational, cultural, and memorial space should be in the mix. That would provide the framework for a master plan, to be developed in an invited competition held over the summer. Only twenty architects locally, nationally, and internationally are really capable of dealing with a project of this scale and import, and the results could yield a mother lode of ideas while stimulating the public discussions New Yorkers, and all Americans, deserve.

It could easily be done: Just uncouple the civil-engineering CV from the architectural qualifications, invite twenty firms (including Beyer Blinder Belle), and give them the information, public comments, a reasonable fee, and two months’ time. Then exhibit the proposals in Grand Central, spark discussion, and expand the jury with independent world-class experts. The leadership that’s now necessary is design leadership, and the politicized bureaucratic process should let this happen in an open forum rather than a protectionist one that smells of provincial back-scratching. We need to imagine what the city can become, and work toward not an election but a vision.

The master plan, the basis of what will come, represents an emotionally charged issue. The memory of September 11 will never go away, and elevated expectations will always be the measure of what we finally erect. The city that built Central Park, Grand Central, and, yes, the Twin Towers must invent a contemporary equivalent, and that prospect cannot now be discerned in the cards. If we can’t look to Governor Pataki for the political support for what is right, then our senators, armed with federal money, should spend some political capital and step up to the plate. This is no time for New York to be ordinary.

Ground Zero
The commission of a master plan for the World Trade Center site.

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