Ground Zero's Messy Future

Ground Zero's Messy Future

Return to AN Feature> Making Meaning.

The final plans emerging for Ground Zero are a horrible mess, despite the billions of dollars promised for the site’s redevelopment, the application of the best brains of the surviving members of the Port Authority (PA), the best intentions of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the governor of New York, the mayor of New York City, the 5,000 participants of the New York New Visions Project, and Daniel Libeskind’s inspirational master plan. It is easy to blame the developer Larry Silverstein, with his narrow agenda, for this situation, but all the major players involved have had similarly narrow concerns. Rather than attribute blame I would like to spotlight some of the glaring design issues that remain to be solved by the active parties.

The first and most difficult problem is so obvious that it is amazing that none of the brilliant architects assembled in the design competition dealt with the issue. The site of Ground Zero slopes down 30 feet from Broadway to West Street and the Hudson. This means that the site must be dealt with as a series of platforms from east to west and that north-south cross streets like Church and Greenwich must act as a series of steps across the site. Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center design for the PA completely ignored the island’s topography, resulting in difficult access from the north, south, and west edges of the project. The result was a vast superblock separated from the small-scale grid and slopes of Lower Manhattan.

The design components that have been individually announced for various sites at Ground Zero repeat this same mistake. It would appear from all the finalists’ entries that the site of the WTC Memorial competition, for instance, is flat. Libeskind’s master plan evaded the problem by proposing a void space going down to bedrock. Reflecting Absence, with its underground memorial, fills the Libeskind void and recreates the World Trade Center Plaza of Yamasaki as a platform with the same difficulties of access from north, south, and west. The latest revised, landscaped version of the memorial shows an enormous ramp as a barrier on Liberty Street; a 20-foot-tall, bomb-proof concrete wall on West Street; and an impossible condition of entry from the north on 40-foot-wide Fulton Street, at the foot of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill–designed Freedom Tower.

While the original Reflecting Absence proposal wisely called for a wall of small buildings against the site’s western edge, as it stands now, the memorial terrace will come to an abrupt, brutal edge above the traffic noise of West Street. Because the footprints of the old towers are used as openings to bring light to the memorial’s contemplation spaces below, access on the surface of the platform is restricted. Meanwhile, Libeskind’s master plan positions cultural facilities along the eastern edge of his void, restricting access to the new memorial plaza to a single point at Greenwich and Fulton, at his “Wedge of Light” plaza (which is overshadowed by the Millenium Hilton). The likely result is that the memorial platform will be a difficult-to-access backwater of concrete pavers and trees, completely overshadowed and dominated by the oppressive presence of the Freedom Tower crashing to earth at its northern edge. The overall effect will be institutional and deadening, something like Governor Rockefeller’s tall tower crashing into the horizontal roof garden of the Albany Mall.

The position of the Freedom Tower between tiny Fulton and Vesey streets also raises many problems with regards to the topography of the site. These streets ramp down 30 feet to West Street in the LMDC master plan, as recently noted in a map compiled by David Dunlap and Willie Neuman in The New York Times. This seems to be physically impossible if other parts of the plan are to take shape. Beneath Fulton Street the PA plans to build a long, pedestrian shopping arcade as a tunnel that would connect the base of the Freedom Tower to the Santiago Calatrava–designed Path Station and then to the new Fulton Street Station, designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. In order to allow these underground connections, Fulton Street must stay level and terminate 20 feet above West Street. This means the Freedom Tower entrance on Fulton will be at the same level as Reflecting Absence’s memorial gardens, while Vesey will slope down to the West Street level. The underground shopping mall will become exposed on the western end of Vesey, which also has the truck exit for the underground service system and the base of the Freedom Tower.

If the traffic and shadows on narrow Vesey Street at the base of the Freedom Tower seem especially nasty now, consider the plight of the much wider Liberty Street. Here the slope of the terrain is absolutely obvious as it is the first cross-town street in Manhattan. It is also here that SOM’s mid-20th-century work—the Chase Manhattan Plaza for David Rockefeller, black slab tower at 140 Broadway, and black, boxy Inland Steel Building across the street—paved the way for Yamasaki’s monumental, modernist intervention.

These tower in the park projects made Liberty Street a strange urban wasteland, an effect that will be reinforced by the PA’s new Liberty Street Park to the south that will house the reconstructed St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The city ceded this land, as well as the adjacent Deutsche Bank property, to the PA in exchange for controlling the surface level of the new streets outlined in the Libeskind plan.

Liberty Street will be further alienated by the PA’s plans to construct an enormous 40-foot-wide ramp on its north side as an entrance to its vast underground service, security, and parking kingdom. The view up Liberty Street from Battery Park City will consist of this vast orifice and the concrete walls of the memorial terrace. Access to the terrace from Liberty Street will be limited to a small platform over the ramps at the junction with Greenwich Street. The result is not going to be very pretty as diesel buses and trucks sit below the memorial platform waiting to gain access to the lot, their exhausts pumping out fumes to the level of the memorial and its visitors above.

The only hope is that the designers involved will be able to salvage something from these strange juxtapositions. Perhaps West Street can have a bomb-proof wall of glass allowing a view into the memorial spaces contained below the plaza. Perhaps the base of the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower will be an extraordinary urban invention, opening onto Fulton and the memorial plaza above. Perhaps landscaping can ameliorate the sense of isolation of the memorial plaza. Clearly an impossible urban design miracle is needed. (Stan Eckstut is now working with the Port Authority.) Unfortunately, the mess of past decisions—belying a lack of coordination, transparency, and democracy—does not provide much ground for hope.