What Exactly Is a Design Study?

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) held a strange press conference today at the New York Design Center. The accompanying press release announced “an invitation to the most innovative architects and planners around the world to participate in an LMDC design study regarding the future of the World Trade Center site and surrounding areas.” If you read that quickly, you might easily get the impression that the LMDC has seen the light of day and decided to hold a global competition for a master plan.

“One of the things we heard at the Listening to the City event was, quite candidly, that a lot of the [initial] proposals looked mundane, they lacked spunk,” said Roland Betts, the LMDC board member who heads the design advisory group. “That’s the purpose of this press conference today.”

Of course it was neither as simple nor as straightforward as that. On August 19, the LMDC will release a Request for Qualifications—a design RFQ—open to licensed architects, professional planners, and landscape architects. The deadline for responses is September 19. New York New Visions, the design community collective spearheaded by the American Institute of Architect’s New York chapter, will then assist the LMDC in narrowing the field from the anticipated thousands of responses to between ten and twenty (a Herculean task that they expect to accomplish in less than two weeks).

In late September an LMDC committee will select five firms to develop new ideas for the site. At the same time, Beyer Blinder Belle and Peterson Littenberg, who worked on the unpopular proposals released last month, will continue their WTC work. In November the five firms will present their schemes to the various parties, and sometime near the end of the year, out of this thick brew, will emerge three proposals to present to the public.

In its press release, the LMDC outlined nine areas of public consensus, which it said would be incorporated into new design schemes hatched later this fall. They include the desire for a distinctive skyline; preserving the sanctity of the WTC footprints; a new commercial program (with presumably less office space and retail); a grand promenade on West Street; a new street grid; a downtown transit hub and station; residential development on and off the site; cultural institutions; and a sequence of public open spaces of different sizes. All of these worthy considerations will then be folded into whatever new ideas the five firms come up with, in addition to whatever other ideas Beyer Blinder Belle, Peterson Littenberg and their consultants might be working on.

Confused? You should be. After the press conference, I asked Alexander Garvin, vice president for planning and design, why the LMDC didn’t simply sponsor an open competition for the site. “Because this isn’t an abstraction,” he sputtered defensively. “You’ve got the PATH tracks, the 1 and 9 [subway] tracks, all sorts of very complicated infrastructure issues that have to be dealt with.” And why can’t those infrastructure issues be part of the RFQ? “This isn’t some greenfield development where holding a competition is a fairly easy matter,” he said, avoiding the question.

The creative strategy appears to be about generating as many ideas as possible, which will then be mixed and matched by the various stakeholders.

Obviously I’m not against soliciting the best minds in the world. It’s absolutely essential. I just don’t think a visionary solution is likely to emerge using the buffet-table approach. Unfortunately this clunky method is primarily about pushing the development process forward close to its original schedule, despite last month’s setback, not about soliciting innovative ideas. Careful not to call this Rube Goldberg-like process a competition, the LMDC instead resorted to architectural euphemism. So what exactly is a “design study”? As far as I can tell, it’s sort of a competition, but not really.

Categories: Cities