The Battle For Ground Zero

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Though it may never feel right to describe the place as clean, the cleanup of the World Trade Center site is done. What was "the Pile," a jagged mountain of knotted steel and concrete, is now a hole, a neatly squared-off, rectangular cavity of 16 gray-brown acres. On May 30, in a ceremony to be attended by thousands of recovery workers, uniformed officers and family members of the victims, an honor guard will carry a flag-draped stretcher out of the pit. With that, the search for bodily remains will effectively end. The fire fighters and construction workers who have raked through the dirt for shoes and fingers, for any last trace of the dead, are going home.

What they will leave behind is the most contested ground in America. From the moment the Trade Center fell, people everywhere, but especially New Yorkers, have had fierce opinions about what should rise in its place. In a city with more than its share of bristling constituencies, a whole collection of "stakeholders" now claim the place. One is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that built the Trade Center and still owns the site. The towers, with their 10 million sq. ft. of office space, were a crucial source of P.A. rental income that it badly needs to get flowing again. Then there are the well-organized residents of lower Manhattan, people who want their neighborhood brought back to life, but not just any which way. Plus there's Larry Silverstein, the New York City developer who was leasing the towers from the P.A. for 99 years. Silverstein is developing plans for the site too.

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But so is Monica Iken. What she has in mind is "a place to heal, a place of peace." Her husband Michael was a 37-year-old bond trader who died on Sept. 11, 11 months after they were married. Shortly thereafter, she founded September's Mission, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating and sustaining a memorial. Of the 2,823 Trade Center victims, the remains of only 1,058 have been identified. Iken's husband is not one of them. "It's important that we understand that's sacred space," she says. "It's a cemetery without tombstones."

The various family groups have no real legal power over the site. What they have is an emotional hold on the public that makes them a force to be reckoned with. "We're here to make sure the business interests don't override the possibility of doing something dignified and poignant," says Marian Fontana, head of the 9/11 Widows' and Victims' Families Association. "There are ways to make the area economically viable and satisfy our needs too."

Some family members would still like the entire site reserved for a memorial. Increasingly they recognize that that's unlikely. Yet they are prepared to fight for every inch of quiet space. Silence may be the only response that can equal in power the atrocity that was Sept. 11. But in a city like New York, where commotion is everything, silence has few advocates. "We want a reflective area where people can mourn and be quiet," says Rick Bell of the American Institute of Architects. "But a district that's revitalized is also a living memorial."

Now that the cleanup is over, the impulse to rebuild is gaining speed — too much speed for some of the families. "The powers that be are moving at a pace that we're having a hard time keeping up with," says Iken. "The families are going to become very vocal about how they're feeling." As much as anything else, it's election-year politics that is driving the process. George Pataki, New York's Republican Governor, is seeking a third term. Andrew Cuomo, the front runner among Democratic contenders, has been criticizing Pataki's management of the rebuilding effort. Pataki's aides say he's indifferent to Cuomo's taunts. The Governor is well ahead in the polls. But he also knows that by November he needs real momentum at ground zero. At the same time, Pataki can't afford to speed things along so briskly that the families go public with complaints that he's driving bulldozers over their grief.

The players in this uneasy game are not at war yet; they are prepared to imagine a rough consensus. The job of mediating among them has fallen largely to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a panel formed by Pataki to oversee rebuilding issues, including a design for the memorial. To head the group he chose John Whitehead, a former cochairman of the Goldman Sachs investment firm, who understands that whatever emerges at the site must not only satisfy the owners, the leaseholders, the locals and the families. It must also be superb. In what is now one of the most profound public spaces in the world, the usual run of mediocre Manhattan office boxes will not do. "I know how important it is to keep the standards high," he says.

Whitehead has brought on as his director of planning Alexander Garvin, a highly regarded urban thinker. But the L.M.D.C. also operates in a not-always-comfortable partnership with the Port Authority. Last month, when the L.M.D.C. invited urban design and architecture firms to submit proposals for developing the site, the P.A. leadership, angry that it had not been consulted, started throwing its weight around. Whitehead's group had to withdraw the requests. Soon after, new ones went out over the names of both bodies, but they bore the plain stamp of the barreling Port Authority. Whereas the L.M.D.C. had called for a plan to be ready by next April, the new schedule wants it by December.

For months Whitehead's board, which is heavy on figures from finance, banking and real estate, has been in listening mode. Whitehead formed advisory panels from small businesses, commuters and the families, among others. At an L.M.D.C.-sponsored gathering in July, 5,000 people will exchange thoughts at an interactive "town meeting." But the faster calendar has unnerved family and community groups, who say it cuts them out. Charles Gargano, P.A. vice chairman, insists the schedule is still open to outside influence. "We moved quickly where we had to," he says. "But we have reached out to all the stakeholders."

The Port Authority, which built and operates the New York-area port facilities, airports, tunnels and bridges, is famous for its engineering achievements. Its judgment in architecture is another matter. It was former P.A. chief Austin Tobin who chose Minoru Yamasaki to design the Twin Towers. Just a few years later, the city of St. Louis, Mo., blew up Yamasaki's much despised Pruitt-Igoe housing project. A large crowd there turned out to cheer.

Even so, in the stunned weeks after Sept. 11, there was a powerful impulse to simply rebuild the towers, all 110 stories, to show that Americans could not be brought low by terrorists. Then people remembered that however much we love them in retrospect, the Twin Towers were a botch. At their completion in 1973, they were already anachronisms, products of an imperial Modernism that destroyed human-scale neighborhoods and in their place erected mammoth towers on desolate plazas.

By taking down the towers, Sept. 11 blew a hole through the errors of the past. New York's phalanx of city-planning types and regional thinkers has looked through that hole and seen an opportunity. Right away they started dusting off long-cherished schemes, some of which may very well come true. It's likely that any final plan will envision a major new terminal linking the Manhattan subways with suburban commuter rail systems. It will also probably re-establish several city streets that were covered over by the much despised "superblock" of the Trade Center plaza.

The towers were symbols of "the midcentury arrogance of architects," says architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. "What they did to lower Manhattan was an act of vandalism just as complete as Sept. 11." Childs, a well-regarded figure in the architectural world, has been commissioned by Larry Silverstein, the developer, to draw up proposals for the Trade Center site. The Port Authority and L.M.D.C., of course, are shopping for their own design team. How their eventual plans will be reconciled with Silverstein's remains to be seen. But for now the project has Childs thinking big. Granting that very tall skyscrapers are out of fashion these days, isn't there still an impulse, he asks, to see something tall and triumphant at the site? So what about, say, a 70-story office tower with a sculptural steel lattice at the top that climbs to the 110-story height of the original Twin Towers? And what if it becomes more delicate as it rises, suggesting spirits released into the sky?

Then again, where will you find a developer willing to pay for 40 stories of unprofitable frosting on his cake? Great architecture requires a great client, one who is committed to excellence in the design, even when other factors, like cost or convenience, stand in the way. Does anyone in this process have the willingness — and the authority — to assume that role? Stay tuned.

Childs has already completed much of the design work on 7 World Trade Center, the other office tower that caught fire and later collapsed on Sept. 11. Excavation on that site began last week. Unlike the Twin Towers, that structure was built by Silverstein, so he had a freer hand to begin construction there. But he and Childs have adjusted the design in important ways in response to concerns from the other players.

Silverstein has never been known as a patron of architecture: 7 World Trade Center was one of the uglier buildings in lower Manhattan, which is saying something. But this is a historic undertaking; it brings out the visionary in everybody. And at age 71, Silverstein knows what the word legacy means — or what it might mean. "I want this to be a timeless development," he says. Then again, who doesn't? All that we need now to achieve real greatness — to produce something that does honor to the people who died there, to the people who loved them and to all the rest of us — is for everyone to live up to those sentiments.