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Memorial at heart of winning WTC design 'Breathtaking and practical'

By Charisse Jones and Maria Puente

February 28, 2003

NEW YORK -- At last they have a plan -- or at least the outlines of one.

Now comes the hard part.

The months-long search for a plan to rebuild Ground Zero and restore Lower Manhattan's physical and emotional anchor ended Thursday when officials announced that they would fill the void left by the fallen World Trade Center with a sky-piercing spire that would be the tallest building in the world, a complex of sharply geometrical buildings and a memorial plaza exposing the pit where the twin towers once stood.

It won't look exactly like this in the end. But at least New Yorkers can now move on to the next step, which is what New Yorkers do best -- arguing about details. How much commercial office space and where? Who will pay for the public spaces and museums?

And most important, what kind of monument will there be to remember nearly 2,800 innocents who died on Sept. 11, 2001? A separate architectural competition for that starts in the spring.

But for now, the selection of a design by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind, culled from nine proposals submitted in December by some of the most prominent names in architecture, is the critical first step toward rebuilding a city devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the city-state agency overseeing development of the area, called the winning design ''breathtaking and practical.''

''Daniel Libeskind's plan succeeds both when it rises into the sky and descends into the ground,'' Whitehead said at a news conference Thursday. ''In doing so it captures the soaring optimism of our city and honors the eternal spirit of our fallen heroes.''

But the proposal will certainly be modified. A signature element of the design, a pit that descends to the bedrock foundation of the original towers, has already been made shallower. The design of the office buildings that dot the site will ultimately depend on the needs of businesses interested in locating there.

The other finalist design, by a team dubbed THINK, proposed two soaring latticework towers as ghostly echoes of the twin towers. Rafael Viñoly, the lead architect, issued a brief statement Thursday. He said his team felt ''very fortunate'' to have participated in the design competition. ''Our team put forth its very best effort.''

In deciding how to remake the World Trade Center site, officials had to balance the emotional concerns of grieving relatives who want to see their loved ones fittingly remembered with the desires of those who have a financial interest in the area. And they want to make sure it is once again a magnet for businesses.

And then there are the tens of thousands of residents who call Lower Manhattan home and see the redevelopment as an opportunity to make their community feel less isolated from the rest of the city. They want it to be a more vibrant place where residents can hear music or grab a bite to eat virtually 24 hours a day.

An early favorite

Libeskind's plan emerged early as a favorite, supported by most critics, many of the victims' families and, crucially, by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Gov. George Pataki. The board of the development corporation had expressed a slight preference for the THINK design. But among the concerns with THINK's approach was the polarizing effect the plan seemed to have on those who found it either wonderful or too haunting.

''The THINK plan is all about those two towers, and the two towers provoked different reactions,'' said Roland Betts, a development corporation board member and chairman of the overall site planning group. ''One was (that) they were soaring and inspirational . . . and the other is they were skeletons of the original buildings. And instead of being inspirational, they were constant reminders of the attack.''

Moreover, experts considered Libeskind's design more achievable -- less costly, less schematic, more easily modified if necessary and more likely to generate income for the region. Libeskind's proposal is expected to lure many businesses that deserted downtown and create an entertainment and shopping nexus that can reinvigorate the community.

Besides the logistical and economic reasons for the selection, there are the all-encompassing emotional consequences: Moving forward on filling the hole in Manhattan's skyline will help salve a psychic wound.

''This won't be just a memorial,'' said Kathy Wylde of the NYC Partnership. ''Originally there was some concern that this giant hole in the ground would be too depressing. But it's been changed to more of a reflection area . . . We want to remember, but we want to go forward too.''

Still, it will be 10 to 12 years before the site is fully rebuilt. While Libeskind's plan restores 8.5 million square feet of office space, Larry Silverstein, the developer who held the lease on the World Trade Center, has argued that the 10 million square feet of office space destroyed by the terrorist attacks must be fully replaced. And while insurers will pay for those new buildings, development officials say other funding will be needed for the public spaces and museum Libeskind proposes.

In the meantime, the economy of Lower Manhattan continues to suffer aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attack. The New York City Comptroller's Office estimated in September 2002 that the assault cost New York City 146,100 jobs and destroyed 13 million square feet of premium office space. Before the attacks, Manhattan's office vacancy rate was about 8%. By the end of 2002, it was 14%. In Lower Manhattan, it was 21%, according to TenantWise, a real estate leasing and market research firm.

The two finalists were selected earlier this month by the development corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site.

Both Libeskind and the THINK proposals preserved the footprints of the original twin towers. And both groups initially proposed buildings that would be the tallest in the world, surpassing the 1,483-foot-tall Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the fallen trade center's north tower, which stood 1,368 feet.

While THINK's plan would have constructed two lacy, open-air structures that evoked the memory of the original twin towers, Libeskind proposed a 70-story office building topped with a single spire soaring to the height of 1,776 feet. The building would include a restaurant on the 110th floor and also have an observation deck.

The Libeskind proposal, which he calls ''Memory Foundations,'' makes memorializing the focal point by preserving at least part of the yawning void at Ground Zero where the twin towers once stood. It will expose part of the ''slurry wall'' that was part of the foundation of the twin towers to hold back the Hudson River.

Besides the memorial plaza, Libeskind's proposal would allow a shaft of sunlight to illuminate two public spaces each Sept. 11, between 8:46 a.m., when the first hijacked airliner struck the tower, and 10:28 a.m., when the last tower collapsed.

While development officials say designing a victims' memorial is a priority, the next step is to restore the transportation hub to provide a center where PATH trains to New Jersey, the Long Island Railroad, city subways and buses can converge.

A restored and upgraded transportation network will be a central factor in whether businesses decide to move to the area, experts say. When the new complex is built on the World Trade Center site around 2010, the demand for premium office space downtown could be 12 million to 14 million square feet, if transportation access is improved, according to estimates from TenantWise.

But addressing those needs has sparked controversy. One of the most acclaimed parts of Libeskind's plan will be altered. Rather than having a memorial plaza that descends 70 feet underground to allow visitors to see the ''slurry wall,'' the depth will now be 30 feet to allow for transportation infrastructure underneath.

Several relatives of the victims do not want vehicles or trains running through what they call sacred ground. ''I think it's disrespectful,'' said Mary Fetchet, whose 24-year-old son, Brad, was killed on the 89th floor of the south tower.'' I thought it was important for me, as a family member, to go down to the site to stand on the bedrock. Just the magnitude of the event echoes through the area. Anyone who visits that site must have the same opportunity.''

Development officials had said that whichever plan was chosen, it would have to be modified to make sure it could actually be built and accommodate the community's transportation and pedestrian needs.

Both teams had been meeting with development officials for the past few weeks, nipping and tucking their proposals.

The THINK team reduced the height of its towers from 1,665 to 1,440 feet. It also decided that the structures should be built out of stainless steel rather than forged steel, making them lighter, eliminating the need to paint them, and allowing them to reflect light in a way that would be more reminiscent of the original towers.

While some changes to Libeskind's winning design will be necessary, some observers say they hope the architect's vision is left largely intact rather than merely serving as a vague outline filled in by public officials.

''Obviously there will be infrastructure requirements that will need to be met,'' said Jeremy Soffin, spokesman for the Regional Plan Association, a New York City-based research, planning and advocacy organization. ''But the design competition brought out some innovative designs from some of the world's greatest architects. And we can't assume they can be altered in whatever way the Port Authority sees fit and retain their spiritual power.''

Designers waged PR battle

Along with those competing interests, city and state officials charged with making the final decisions have had differences of their own, with opposing visions of the best way to remake Ground Zero. Both Libeskind and THINK conducted vigorous public relations campaigns by lobbying to be chosen for the historic project.

Libeskind turned out to be a savvy public performer and diplomat to promote his design. He met with Silverstein, who holds a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center's office space. He talked about technical questions with Port Authority engineers. And he took calls from scores of relatives of the victims. In short, he emerged, as New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger put it, as ''the most likely figure to pull together the conflicting constituencies'' that have a stake in rebuilding the site.

So fractious and complex was the process in picking an architectural design that an earlier batch of proposals presented in July was scrapped after they were all criticized for being unimaginative and giving short shift to a memorial.

In choosing Libeskind's blueprint, Pataki described it as ''truly an emotional protection of the site of Ground Zero itself.'' He said it ''brings back the life to Lower Manhattan that is so important to our future.''

Robert Ivy, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, said Libeskind ''authentically captures a shard of history without overwhelming us with the past. The slurry wall would remain intact, a piece of reality that says what occurred here, a reminder of the real story. (The design) moved everyone who saw it, heard it, understood it.''

In contrast, while the THINK towers were visually compelling and popular, critics worried they could be technically infeasible, prohibitively expensive and not as lacy and delicate as drawings made them appear once the guts of the structures were installed.

Some said the structures were too much like the original towers. ''I don't believe you have to replicate to exorcise our demons,'' said Reed Kroloff, an architect and the design consultant for the Pentagon's Sept. 11 memorial project.

Preliminary estimates to build the Libeskind plan are around $330 million. The World Trade Center was insured for approximately $3.5 billion, and the insurers would pay to rebuild the lost office space.

''To make judgments about what's going to happen to the office space, it's too soon to tell,'' said M. Myers Mermel, CEO of TenantWise. ''That's 10 years from now. There's a long row to hoe. This is the beginning of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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