The Latest WTC Casualty

[Editor’s Note: Since the dam of the former 7 World Trade Center building had physically and visually isolated Greenwich St. and Tribeca from Lower Manhattan, area residents were eager to have these problems resolved in the design of the new 7 WTC Building. Discussions with the site’s developer, Larry Silverstein, indicated that residents’ desires would come true: Greenwich St. would be restored to its original width and provide for access to the WTC site. However, any celebrations have proven premature. As reported in the New York Times, the new Greenwich St. right-of-way will actually be 60 feet wide—five feet thinner than the original right-of-way. Yet because 7 WTC will extend far beyond the line of its neighbor, the Bank of New York building, the former will visually seem to project 34 feet into Greenwich St. The result will be that Greenwich St. will not be the envisioned grand gateway to Lower Manhattan, and the anticipated vistas will now be just a sliver of visual space.]

It was 1978 and I was a newly arrived artist from California living a block from Greenwich St. in Lower Manhattan. Why is Greenwich St. so wide, I used to wonder, looking up and down the barren asphalt roadbed that, at 70 feet wide with a 100-foot right-of-way, could easily accommodate four lanes of traffic. Yet, this street was blocked to the south by the World Trade Center (WTC) towers and to the north it narrowed to two lanes. There were few cars and fewer people on sidewalks. The street had historic five-story warehouses on one side and high-rise urban renewal housing on the other. It made no sense.

Greenwich St. has periodically swelled and contracted, been closed and reopened, is gone and then reappears. The street’s moldings, modulations, and configurations over the last 30 to 40 years tell a story of big and small urban design ideas and gestures—some good and some terrible. When I arrived in the area, I could never imagine that in the ’90s, I would co-found the Friends of Greenwich St., Inc., nor that the community would champion our vision for narrowing Greenwich St. to its pre-1960 width, nor that we would be able to add a pedestrian esplanade along the street.

But alas, history repeats. This old street is again on the radar with plans rapidly proceeding for the re-building of the WTC. We find ourselves again asking, “Will the person on the sidewalk be as important as the cars and buildings?” So far, in the public conversation, the WTC site planning has emphasized the massing of buildings, square footage, plot plans, and individual elements, with less emphasis on the delineation of spatial volumes, sequences, and choreography of vehicular and pedestrian movement throughout Downtown. Also, the site plans have not analyzed fine details such as subtle changes in grade, light, and sound; nor varying sidewalk widths and materials. They have not carefully considered the multiple angles of building facades, nor the specific cultural and historical references of the area.

These obvious and sometimes subliminal aspects of place should inform the redesign effort and pedestrian experience of downtown. There is talk of many visitors, new office workers, new residents, and shoppers, yet the planning perspective in this first step of the WTC reconstruction has given them limited priority. The area’s open space has not been properly addressed in the design process, yet it should be the matrix or skeletal structure of all site planning.

In the fall of 2001, at a meeting for [WTC public advocacy group] the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown, I was one of the first to raise the issue of Mr. Silverstein’s proposed reconstruction of 7 WTC, which would again block the Greenwich St. corridor. I held up a photo taken on the morning of September 11 looking south on Greenwich St. showing 7 WTC as a wall, the burning twin towers beyond, the site line blocked. I urged the Civic Alliance to take immediate action to lobby not to rebuild the structure on the same footprint, but to open views down Greenwich St. and allow the street to pass through the former building’s site. Others joined the cause and 7 WTC was redesigned to no longer close Greenwich St. Although the building would project into Greenwich St.’s right-of-way (this time only five feet), we still considered the effort a victory.

However, during the presentations of the planned project, the site’s contextual nuances didn’t show up, were missing, or were downplayed. For instance, many lanes on West Broadway and Greenwich St. converge at the site in an obvious constriction; the buildings at the intersection (the post office, the BMCC’s Fiterman Hall, and now 7 WTC) have conflicting multi-angled facades; the Bank of New York—which is nestled between the intersection and 7 WTC—is set back from Greenwich St., so anything at the street’s edge will look, in comparison, like it’s in the street; the ground plane of the area falls; and it remains unclear how the pedestrian arcade of the adjacent Verizon building will link with the new 7 WTC.

At the time the 7 WTC design was presented, there were no plans for the rest of the WTC site, so the community was operating blind; also, all drawings and models were presented only in context of existing buildings and streets. Furthermore, in the case of Greenwich St., the plans for 7 WTC advanced quickly, without the knowledge of how the street would be treated in the core WTC site.

During the remainder of the WTC and downtown planning, let’s take the drawings and models to the site to conduct a more in-depth analysis of the plans. Let’s get a clearer idea of the surroundings, and ask more questions about the impacts, pro and con. When one problem is solved, the cause-and-effect on other aspects of the plan must be examined.

Words and drawings often elevate and isolate a single new design. Is Greenwich St. an important gateway to the WTC? Should it go through the whole site, connect neighborhoods, serve as an artery for what and whom—residents, cars, office workers, deliveries, tourists, buses? And overall, what is the entrance experience to be, what’s to be the language of the street, and what opportunities (and problems) are we leaving for the next generation of Greenwich St. advocates and planners?

A landscape architect, Nancy Owens co-founded the Friends of Greenwich St., Inc. in 1996. She also was, from 1992-2003, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board One, the local government representation for Tribeca, South Street Seaport, Battery Park City, the Wall St./Financial District, and parts of Chinatown.

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