Despite Terror Threats, New York Keeps Building

This morning I attended what might have been an ordinary press conference, a groundbreaking ceremony for a new skyscraper, One Bryant Park; the building, situated at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, is scheduled for completion in 2008. What was different was that this morning, the first thing I heard was that there were specific new threats targeting, among other things, New York’s financial institutions. It just so happens that Bank of America will be headquartered in this new, 945-foot-tall skyscraper, which will be called the Bank of America Tower; it will occupy nearly half of the building’s square footage. Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg were on hand to celebrate the project’s economic significance.

I wasn’t feeling particularly “plucky,” as Senator Charles Schumer described New Yorkers when speaking about the latest threats. In fact, something about the nature of the reports and the gossip that preceded them—“No one knows what it will be, but they are absolutely sure something is going to happen during the Republican National Convention,” “Sotheby’s and Christie’s are closing their offices that week,” and “If you have to be in town during the convention, be sure to have bottled water, tennis shoes, and cash with you”—struck a nerve in the way past threats hadn’t. Twice I’ve walked home from Manhattan to Brooklyn on hot days in bad shoes—on September 11, 2001 and after last summer’s blackout—so perhaps it was the most practical, least incendiary gossip I heard that put me on edge. Still, feeling ill at ease didn’t seem reason enough to skip the event.

From the start it wasn’t an ordinary press conference—at least not the kind I’m used to attending. There were an unusual number of police in the Times Square subway station, and I actually had some trouble getting into the event. When asked for my press pass, I replied, “I don’t have one, but I have a business card.” That was a perfectly acceptable alternative, but the over-anxious woman operating the entrance only heard that I didn’t have a press pass. It took a few minutes of negotiation before she finally insisted, “I can’t let you in without a business card or some kind of identification that you are with the press.”

Once inside the packed tent, the static of security walkie talkies and the protest cries against Mayor Bloomberg’s economic cutbacks were in constant competition with the presentation.

One Bryant Park is an interesting project, what real estate developer Douglas Durst described as the last piece in his family’s efforts to redevelop the neighborhood. It’s also the culmination of those efforts. While the green elements of Robert Fox’s 4 Times Square building got plenty of attention, they weren’t nearly as ambitious as the plans for One Bryant Park. In fact, Cook + Fox (the firm Fox has formed with new partner Richard Cook) are working with the city to make the building a case study for sustainable design. Among other things, the new skyscraper will feature a fresh-air shaft, an onsite storm-water treatment facility, a cogeneration electrical plant, a graywater cooling system, and waterless urinals (which, so far, have never been allowed in the city). The architects are also considering the viability of having onsite a geothermal well and an anaerobic digester.

However, the substance of the design wasn’t on the agenda for this gathering. Groundbreakings are always symbolic, and this one was particularly loaded. “There is no better day than today to break ground on this project,” Pataki began. Bloomberg went on to compare One Bryant Park to the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, which rose during the Depression, when people said the city had no future. “If you don’t have a smile on your face today, I don’t know what it would take to make you happy,” he concluded.

Walking out of the tent past street cordons and numerous policemen, I can’t say I was smiling. But the fact that a developer and a bank are willing to invest $1 billion in what the architects are billing as “the world’s most environmentally responsible high-rise office building” and a showplace for a financial institution in the heart of New York City, was certainly meaningful. Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg managed to cast the symbolism, at least on this warm summer morning, in favor of New York.

Categories: Cities