The Not-So-Loyal Opposition

Saturday’s [July 20, 2002] event at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City was almost a case study in what the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and developer Larry Silverstein face should they try to dictate the tenor and pace of development at the WTC site.

Now I’m not so naïve as to I think that the voice of the people will rule, or that the usual real estate interests downtown won’t play big roles in what gets built there. In fact they should play key roles, because they have access to the billions of dollars. What makes this deal different is the scrutiny attached to it. Every move will be watched by a weary, informed, and cynical public that’s savvy, connected, and potentially well funded.

The demographics of the Javits event were a case in point. Bob Yaro, the leader of the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, along with the 80-some groups that make up the Alliance, did a masterful job of making sure that informed opinion was spread throughout the hall. Yes, there were members of “the public” on hand, but I can tell you that architects and planners and community activists were over-represented in this sampling of 4,000 New Yorkers.

And these weren’t passive types either. “I’ve already got my table converted,” architecture critic Michael Sorkin said to me no more than an hour into the event. “Now I’m working on my neighbors.”

In watching the deliberations at the tables, it was clear they operated with group dynamics similar to juries, where one or two members often exert a disproportionate influence. So the official policymakers not only have to deal with the families—who possess a kind of moral weight that no one can ignore—but must contend with an army of informed professionals who, in many instances, know more collectively than the planners hired to do the job.

There are also public relations complications. Thus far, The New York Times has lined up squarely in the civics corner. All this doesn’t necessarily mean that the public’s voice will be heard. The predictable power players (like the governor, the Port Authority, and developers) will still make the ultimate decisions, but this time around the civic opposition is strong enough to fight whatever they don’t like to a standstill, which in planning and development can often be a lot like losing.

Categories: Cities