Is an argument against streets at the next World
Trade Center an argument against streets in general?
No. It is a critique of the New Urbanist planning dogma
that streets — and, in New York, the street grid — is in every case the right answer and superblocks in every case the wrong one.
And it is an indictment of those pro-street New York City planning groups who, in the wake of 9/11, sold the public a bill of goods; who misled their captive audiences into believing there was but one kind of superblock — the long-demonized "World Trade Center superblock"; and who used that reductio ad absurdum both to mobilize the public and the news media in favor of streets and to (thus) narrow the possible futures for the next World Trade Center.
Some background: By the time the public was asked what it thought about ground zero's future — the first public meeting took place in January 2002 — Larry Silverstein had repeatedly stated his intention to build four or five buildings of 50 to 60 stories each. Silverstein rolled out the idea just nine days after 9/11, and, for anyone who was paying attention, it was a desperate gambit to finesse the fact that he had underinsured the World Trade Center. Given that Silverstein would not have enough money to rebuild, building one box at a time and using each one to leverage the financing of the next was the only way for Silverstein to get enough, even if it meant delaying the project for years.
But for all the eleventh-hour finger pointing over certain financial implications of Silverstein's involvement at ground zero, no one has ever looked at the design implications.
In fact, all of ground zero's money problems — including at least a cumulative billion dollars in waste between the memorial and the acquisition / demolition costs associated with plans to build unnecessarily on land that is not even on the site — can be traced to Silverstein's design. Although we have not been conditioned to think of Silverstein's "contribution" in this way, his determination from the earliest days to build a handful of standard-issue Manhattan boxes is the architectural lynchpin of the entire project.
This architecture, in ways New York's decision makers have not even begun to imagine, is where the real damage is being done.
The New York City planning advocacy groups who in the first six months of 2002 took the lead in soliciting public input — "civic groups" was the media-friendly catch-all applied to convey a sense of neutrality to organizations that were anything but — weren't happy about Silverstein and his 10-million-square-feet-of-office-space lease with the Port Authority, the owner of the World Trade Center site.
What's ironic is that, in fighting for one of their most fiercely held shared agenda items — streets — these groups, the aptly named Civic Alliance (an umbrella group convened after 9/11 by New York's 84-year-old Regional Plan Association) and the 113-year-old Municipal Arts Society of New York (whose own Ground Zero project was called Imagine New York), did perhaps more than anyone else to ensure that Silverstein's architectural vision would come to pass. For where else were those buildings to go, if not on streets?
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BOTH the Civic Alliance and the Municipal Art Society are staffed by planners and activists who cut their urbanistic teeth on Jane Jacobs and for decades have resented the World Trade Center superblock — bitterly — for taking out part of the Manhattan street grid (which they view as sacred); for cutting off the site from its surroundings; and for providing the occasion for the towers themselves (which many of them hated as much as they did the superblock).
Determined to get at least some of the old streets back, both of these New Urbanist-inflected groups used their bully pulpits at various public forums to preach the gospel of "restoring the street grid," presenting this to eager participants as the only way to "weave the site back into the urban fabric" and to provide for buildings that would introduce a "human scale" to the area. The clear message was that more streets with shorter buildings was the obvious choice of real New Yorkers.
These ideas were being peddled in other circles by Freedom Tower architect and Municipal Art Society director David Childs and by Paul Goldberger, the influential architecture critic of The New Yorker magazine. Goldberger delivered a keynote to the Regional Plan Association in April 2002 — two weeks after the LMDC issued its "blueprint for rebuilding" and seven months after 9/11 — in which he wisely cautioned that getting it right at ground zero required continued deliberation and restraint:
"The events of September 11th have a magnitude that we cannot grasp in six weeks or six months or nine months, and long-term decisions made when we still feel the shock are not likely to be the right decisions." [emphasis added]
Yet Goldberger reversed himself almost immediately, saying that "restoring streets will go a long way toward making the city whole...To go from the anti-street private space of the World Trade Center to a renewed embrace of the street is something that returns this site...to the public realm, and for that alone, it is worth it...a way of using this catastrophe as an opportunity to fix something that had been broken for a long time, and it is reassuring that a consensus has developed around [this idea]."
He even went so far as to say that if, among other things, "we restore the streets...we will have been worthy of the challenge that has been laid before us."
Goldberger concluded his talk with another call for patience — "Let us reflect, and let us think." — but, obviously, certain "long-term decisions made when we still feel the shock" required neither reflection nor thought. Goldberger knew his audience. (He also knew where the political winds were blowing. In an early sign of just how determined politicians were to arrogate the major design decisions to themselves, one of the first things Lower Manhattan Development Corporation planning chief Alexander Garvin had said to Goldberger after arriving at the LMDC in February 2002 was: "I am telling you right now that no one is building in the bed of Greenwich Street, period.")
Childs, whom Silverstein had hired in the summer of
2001 to upgrade the World Trade Center complex, almost immediately after 9/11 began drawing up an all-new plan for Silverstein. The following May, Childs would tell Time magazine that the trade center superblock was "an act of vandalism just as complete as September 11th."
But whatever Childs's contempt for the superblock and whatever else he may have thought about the street grid as an urban gesture, Childs's plan for Silverstein — one of the six the public rejected in July 2002 ("Memorial Garden") — made it clear that he was sufficiently grounded in the age-old logic of Manhattan real estate to understand what streets really meant to someone like Silverstein. Streets helped to organize ground zero's very large site into smaller stock development parcels for exactly the kind of speculative office boxes Silverstein had in mind, while cordoning off a discrete memorial precinct.
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GOLDBERGER is right, of course, that the former World Trade Center was an "anti-street private space," just as Childs is right that it constituted an "act of vandalism" at the street level (although I would prefer to leave 9/11 out of the metaphor).
But the trade center was not "anti-street" solely because it lacked streets. No one calls Rome's Piazza Navona or New York's Union Square or Washington Square Park or Central Park — superblocks, all — "anti-street." No one says that these great civic spaces need "human scale" that they would gain if only they had more streets.
This is Union Square, in New York. It is a superblock.
To be sure, not every superblock is a piazza. But every
piazza that occupies an area of two blocks or more is,
by definition, a superblock. And the best piazzas are the centripetal crossroads of their cities. Anyone who has been in Rome has experienced how each clearing becomes a stage set, an urban "theater in the round" for the kind of drama and variety and energy and vitality, planned and spontaneous, that attracts people and thus accelerates the pedestrian, retail, commercial, and residential velocity of the streets that are drawn into its vortex — both the "hub" itself and the "spokes" that spill into and radiate out from it. This centuries-old urban practice holds many lessons for the rebuilding of ground zero.
The trade center was anti-street not just because it was
a superblock but because it was a very particular kind of superblock — one that sat atop a three-story platform, so that every street and sidewalk approaching it terminated with a barricade in three dimensions. The planning advocates convening the major public forums on rebuilding in 2002 invariably left this detail out of their programs.
By using the specific design of the trade center to define "superblock" while rarely, if ever, mentioning that the trade center's chief transgression was its platform — in effect, denying that there are other ways to design superblocks, including on the World Trade Center site — the Civic Alliance, the Municipal Art Society, and their fellow travelers presented to the public a self-serving straw man which they just as self-servingly knocked down. According to their brand of urban fundamentalism, every superblock was bad, any break with the grid wrong — perhaps even immoral. Streets, they said, would be ground zero's salvation.
Never mind that virtually all of Manhattan's great urban dramas coincide with breaks in the grid: Columbus Circle, Times Square, Herald Square, the Flatiron Building, and Union Square (where Broadway's diagonal cuts in at 59th, 42nd, 34th, 23rd, and 14th Streets); and, of course, Central Park.
This was irrelevant to forum leaders for the same reason the rebuilding authorities replaced the six austere white models the public rejected in July 2002 with the "money shots" of December 2002 and beyond. The public rejected those simple models because they told the architectural truth. The authorities learned from the experience the political lesson the planning groups already understood: If you wish to guarantee the outcome, do not trust the public with the concrete complexities of architectural reality. Deal in the oversimplified abstract.
For forum leaders, this meant trucking only in the idea of the superblock and the idea of streets. Given these choices, "restoring the street grid" — a catch phrase clearly calculated to invoke the greatest sympathy — was an easy sell to participants who, for all their good intentions, were also, for the most part, as unschooled in urban design as they were anxious to do the right thing.
The quickly manufactured consenus on streets helped the LMDC to justify to the public the agency's stated "preference" for streets, both in its April 2002 blueprint and in the instructions the agency issued to architects the month after. Indeed, as far as the unsuspecting public was concerned, "restoring the street grid" was its own idea. In the words of the Civic Alliance's brand name for its forums, the rebuilding authorities truly had been "listening to the City."
The result? The rebuilding authorities never produced for decision makers and the public any design that did not use streets to draw physical lines between life and memory on the site.
Both life and memory would be better served otherwise.