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Great read...

NY Times

At Ground Zero, Disarray Reigns, and an Opportunity Awaits

A rendering of the Freedom Tower, whose security is an issue.

Published: May 2, 2005

The master plan for ground zero is unraveling, which is not necessarily bad news. But what are the odds that planners will see this as an opportunity to save it?

The discovery that the Freedom Tower will have to be redesigned to address concerns raised by security experts has once again sent architects scurrying to patch up one of the most muddled developments in the city's recent memory.

State officials have said that the changes sought by police officials could delay construction of the tower, already behind schedule, for at least three more months. But one of the suggestions under discussion - moving the tower to the east, where it would be less vulnerable to a truck bomb - would clearly delay construction longer. Meanwhile, there is growing apprehension that adhering to new security standards will transform the tower into an armored bunker - a message that is unlikely to instill confidence in downtown's rebirth.

In fact, the delay in addressing security is only the most recent in a series of missteps that have dogged the master plan since it was adopted more than two years ago. These include imperious changes to the ground zero memorial that have dismayed its architect, Michael Arad, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's insistence on forging ahead with the design of a "Freedom Center" building even though no one knows exactly what it would house. At the same time, the agency decided to put off fund-raising for a theater complex designed by Frank Gehry, seeding doubt that it will be built at all.

These are not simply errors in judgment. They are byproducts of the mix of secrecy, self-interest and paranoia that have enveloped the site from the outset - a climate that favors political expediency and empty symbolic gestures over thoughtful urban planning discussions. And that climate has essentially prevented the architects involved from openly addressing problems with the master plan even as its weaknesses have become more glaring.

With typical inflexibility, Kevin Rampe, the president of the development corporation, insisted last week that the tower would not be moved under any circumstances. His point was that moving the tower eastward would only raise new security concerns, like its relationship to train tracks that run beneath Greenwich Street.

Meanwhile, Daniel Libeskind, the site's master planner, has privately suggested to Gov. George E. Pataki that the tower be combined with the proposed theater complex that would stand just to the east, at the corner of Greenwich and Fulton, which would allow for a broader defensive perimeter around both.

Mr. Libeskind has also floated the idea of simply straightening the tower's twisting form. That would allow the architect to reduce the size of the building's base, which would leave more room for a security buffer. (According to Mr. Libeskind, it could increase the tower's distance from West Street by an additional 40 feet.)

All of these proposals have some merit. I, for one, won't shed a tear if the tower has to be redesigned. Its cylindrical crown of steel cables and twisting silhouette are clunky, watered-down versions of a recycled idea. But simply redesigning the tower or shifting it slightly to one side would set off more stopgap changes that would only exacerbate the project's flaws. This approach to urban planning is doomed to failure - and is particularly galling at a site once spoken of as sacred ground.

Among the most glaring problems with the master plan is its relationship to the neighborhoods to the west. In its current incarnation, the ground zero memorial park is completely exposed to West Street, given that planners recently decided not to build a tunnel that would have funneled much of the traffic underground past the site. The park feels like leftover space, and it only reinforces the sense of detachment between the site and the World Financial Center across the street.

Just as troubling is the park's diminished size. At the behest of planners, the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta has been struggling to stuff 70,000 square feet of space into a museum building in the northeast corner of the park - a figure that is essentially random, given that it is still unclear what that museum would contain. The building would gobble up a quarter of the area that is supposed to encompass the memorial park; the ground zero memorial, which traces the footprints of the former towers, would essentially consume two more quadrants. That would leave only the southwest corner - about one and a half acres - for a park.

Privately, several architects involved at ground zero have been exploring ways to improve the master plan. Long before the security concerns were raised, some had toyed with the notion of moving the Freedom Tower to the east side of the site and creating a smaller commercial structure at its current location on the site's northwest corner. This would create a stronger visual dialogue between the various commercial towers at ground zero and the World Financial Center.

Others have proposed moving one of the cultural buildings to the site's southwest corner, which would help shield the memorial from West Street and make it feel more intimate. An even more radical idea - a riff on one of Mr. Libeskind's proposals - would be to relocate all of the cultural institutions in the base of the towers, freeing up room for a much bigger public park. This might help cover the costs of the site's cultural components and ensure that they remain a strong part of the program.

Of course, these are simply mental exercises, a way of exploring how the project could be set on the right track. But the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has steadfastly refused to open up discussion on the site's overall organization. Not only has it sought to prevent the architects from speaking publicly about their ideas, according to several architects interviewed, but it has also warned them against sharing their ideas with one another, saying that this would be a breach of their confidentiality agreements.

As a result, the major architectural players at ground zero - Mr. Libeskind, Mr. Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, David Childs, Mr. Arad and the Snohetta architects, to name the most obvious - have never sat down in a room together to discuss their growing concerns about the overall plan, let alone exchange ideas about how best to improve it.

This constitutes an enormous squandering of talent, as well as a total disregard for how the creative process unfolds. And it has essentially shut the public out of the process.

So far, such inflexibility has been justified by political calculations. Open discussion of what isn't working, and why, might slow the pace of rebuilding, the thinking goes, and send the wrong message to the world - as if indecision were somehow a sign of weakness. Given how the project has stumbled, that argument is looking more and more specious. And it ignores the fact that the city, and those of us who care about it, will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for decades.

Governor Pataki should take advantage of the most recent delays to take a big step back and rethink what has become a debased process. Planning should be open to intense public scrutiny. And by encouraging the architects to talk with one another and to the public they serve, he could finally take advantage of the talent that he has right under his nose.
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