February 24, 2003

The Future at Ground Zero

Later this week we'll know which of the two designs for the World Trade Center site has been selected, the one by Studio Daniel Libeskind or the one by the Think team, which includes the architects Rafael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz. But it's worth pausing to consider where we are and how we got here. The city will be the winner no matter which design is selected. It's not hard to see how either would transform Lower Manhattan. And the very process of arriving at this point has already changed the city. At first, the clearing of what had become an almost consecrated mountain of rubble took place in ad hoc fashion. As time passed, the excavation progressed in a more systematic way, allowing the debris to be cleared away in less time and for less money than anyone had expected. The chaos of that first day gave rise to a meaningful and resourceful order. This page hoped, as did many New Yorkers, that something similar would happen in the process of planning a new Lower Manhattan. The question wasn't just whether a design would emerge that would match the symbolic power of Ground Zero. It was also how the design would emerge. When it comes to development, this city is a maze of intersecting interests, and the potential for cronyism is enormous. Yet this was no ordinary real estate. It's safe to say that New Yorkers probably know more about these 16 acres, and about the leases and contracts that shaped them, than they do about any other place in the city. The tragedy of 9/11 gave the public a civic claim to that site, and the knowledge that has built up over time has given the public what it needed to use that claim wisely. That we are where we are — about to learn which of these designs will move forward — is the result of unprecedented public participation in urban planning. None of this has been perfect. The effort to reach a consensus on these designs, even the effort to find designs worth consensus, has been a learning process. But the city will reach an important moment this week when it becomes clear which proposal has been chosen. That decision will speed the competition and planning for a memorial. To a certain extent, it will also ratify the openness of this process and the perhaps unexpected capacity of the major institutional players, like the city, the state, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority, to find common ground. Things will get trickier when the money starts to flow and the contracts start to be doled out. But in a city as full of civil and commercial frictions as this one, in a time as financially difficult as the present, with the need to move forward rapidly pressing on all of us, we have nonetheless found our way to a set of choices that are far better than we might have hoped for through a process that was far more democratic than history would have led us to expect. That alone is a fine memorial.
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