Premature Hand-Wringing: Ground Zero’s (Non-)Revisions

So, is Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center site plan in danger of being modified beyond recognition—as the New York Times and New York Newsday suggested last week—or has it remained virtually intact? This was the question the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) tried to answer at a recent press conference.

A day before the event, the agency sent out an email release with a rather intriguing headline: “LMDC to Present Revisions to the Master Site Plan.” The word “revision” in this context seemed to cynical observers (i.e. everyone who follows the process closely) like the ultimate red flag. It may also explain why LMDC headquarters was standing-room-only the following day. A bank of TV cameras (I counted fourteen) lined the back of the conference room. Even Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times, showed up, sniffing news.

And what did we learn? I feel odd writing this, but based on the evidence offered—a dreary PowerPoint presentation that even the perpetually effusive Libeskind couldn’t enliven, a revised Ground Zero model, and comments from high-ranking Port Authority and LMDC officials—it appears that most major elements of the plan remain (gulp) intact.

“The single most important thing to note today is that the plan Daniel Libeskind presented to the world is unchanged,” said Roland Betts, an LMDC board member and one of the organization’s most influential voices. “There are revisions and improvements, but the fundamental plan has gotten cleaner, clearer, better.”

While I wouldn’t go that far (Who knew about the mammoth waterfall that was recently added to the scheme as an “acoustical barrier”?), it is fair to say that “Memory Foundations” (Libeskind’s cornball name for the plan) still possesses the same signature elements introduced in February: a 1776-foot tower, a below-grade memorial area, a section of the slurry wall exposed to bedrock, ten million square feet of office space, a cultural building for an unspecified group that is to be used as a physical buffer between sacred ground and bustling street, and Greenwich and Fulton Streets routed through the site (the last courtesy of former LMDC VP of Planning, Design and Development Alex Garvin—and by way of Jane Jacobs).

Most of the announced revisions involved below-grade infrastructure: truck ramps and security posts were moved out of the memorial area and the Port Authority added an extra track to its temporary PATH station. Retail has been dispersed onto five levels: one at grade, two below, two above. (Never mind that above-grade retail has a poor track record in the United States, or that Westfield, the mall developer formally attached to the site, pulled out last week.)

The New York Times didn’t exactly get the story wrong the following day. Edward Wyatt spun his piece to accentuate changes to the plan: slimmer, taller office towers (which won’t be designed by Libeskind anyway), a new park on the southern end of the site, and a revised retail scheme. Wyatt had his facts right, but I think he failed to understand a fundamental truth about site planning: Change is part of the process. No project of this size and complexity, with this many competing interests, can possibly remain static. Libeskind was quite forthcoming about future revisions. At one point, a reporter pressed him on whether the amount of slurry wall exposed to bedrock (a symbolic issue for family members) was “set in stone,” and he replied, “Nothing is set in stone but death.”

Even if Libeskind is wildly successful in preserving core elements of the plan, there are still literally hundreds of compromises ahead. And they won’t necessarily doom his plan. If the plan is strong, it will survive revision. In fact, a measure of its ultimate strength will be its ability to accommodate change.

This doesn’t mean that the plan is perfect—it’s still the product of a flawed program, driven by lease agreements signed prior to 9-11—or that there aren’t real threats to it. Nevertheless, the idea that the Libeskind plan has been revised beyond recognition is nonsense. For me, the scale model was convincing proof. “Jesus, that’s the same model that’s been hanging around their studio for the past three months,” said a close observer of the process, when the visual device was hauled into the conference room. Exactly. And I think that was the real story.

Click here to download a PowerPoint presentation of “Memory Foundations: Refined World Trade Center Site Master Plan.”

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