A plan to overhaul the Cesar Pelli–designed World Financial Center Winter Garden hinges on the removal of the hall’s grand marble staircase, sparking a debate between city planners and owner Brookfield Properties over the new design’s appropriateness.
Released last month, the plan has garnered attention in part because the space, including the stairs, was one of the first structures to be rebuilt and reopened after damage sustained on September 11. At that time, Pelli Clarke Pelli conceived a new glass-walled east face, essentially creating what has become a popular Ground Zero viewing platform at the top of the stairs. The 40 steps also continue to serve as amphitheater seating for concerts and events held in the palm tree–planted glass court.
But the space has its problems. Visitors entering from the east side immediately face and must circumnavigate the large, semi-circular support wall for the staircase to reach the Winter Garden. Though he declined to comment at press time, Rafael Pelli has spoken in the past about the circulation issues surrounding the original stair design. Its form poses a block, mentally and physically, to anyone entering the plaza. The new design, also by Pelli, replaces the east entrance with a two-story glass box into which commuters would arrive from an underground connector to the PATH and subway stations, now under construction at the World Trade Center. The plan also adds a two-story market and 700-seat food court to the south side of the Winter Garden.
City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden’s disapproval of the plan leaked to the press in August, in the form of letters she sent to John Zuccotti, Brookfield’s co-chairman of the board. Burden also voiced her concern to Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin, saying that the Planning Commission “objects strongly to the removal of the Grand Stairs.” CB1 has not formally released an opinion of the plans.
Though the staircase would be lost, Brookfield has suggested a temporary stage and seating would replace the garden’s amphitheater setup during events. Melissa Coley, a Brookfield spokesperson, said the company declined to comment on the project until it gains the necessary approvals from the city. At a presentation to the CB1 World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee last month, David Cheikin, Brookfield’s vice president of leasing, summed up realities at the changing site. By 2013—the estimated completion date for the Winter Garden renovation—the newly opened pedestrian tunnel could bring up to 13,000 commuters per hour through the space. Consultants hired by the developer said that if left in place, the stair’s support wall would greatly hinder traffic. “Their estimation was that on day one, we would have a failed pedestrian system,” Cheikin said.
Jennifer K. Gorsche