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The New Versus Old WTC and Revisiting BPC

by Sandy Ikeda
Fri, 26 Sep 2008 at 8:52 AM

In response to my post "The Dark Side of Metropolis," my very loyal reader Benjamin Hemric writes in reference to the original versus the current plan for Ground Zero:

The old plan, with just a few minor corrections, was actually more conducive to public interaction and "the culture of congestion" than the current one, in my opinion. And I say this as someone who's lived nearby since before the WTC was finished and as someone who was thoroughly familiar with the site. (Plus it should be noted that Jane Jacobs herself thought it might be a good idea in this instance to keep the superblock.)
He'd actually elaborated these points quite a bit more in later e-mails, so here's a link, which he kindly provided, to his related comments on another blog (numbers 15, 20, 33, 38).

I've heard from others who were close to Jacobs that she did indeed view the WTC favorably. Benjamin is more familiar with the area, with its pathways and pedestrian patterns, than I am, but, based on my own experience there, it's still hard for me to fully fathom why (though Benjamin has done his best to explain). I remember clearly the vast, empty, above-ground spaces. True the below-ground mall was lively, but hardly exceptional.

One of the things I like about the new design is the restoration of one or two streets (such as Liberty Street?) through the former superblock, which I thought would partly restore the advantages of the "short blocks" about which Jacobs wrote in her "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" — that is, more corners and ways to get from point A to point B, which promotes visual variety and alternative patterns of movement. (Interested readers should consult Chapter 9, "The Need for Small Blocks" in DLGAC.) However, for the most part the superblock remains.

I also like the idea of more attractors in the public spaces than before, such as the memorial and museum, to increase public use at different times. The more the better as far as I'm concerned. Of course, as I argued in that earlier post, even if the new design might do a good job of encouraging such things, they can be offset by heavy-handed security measures.

***

Last Sunday my wife and I took a walking tour of Battery Park City, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York and led by Francis Morrone, an architectural historian who writes excellent articles for the Sun. In my post back in July, "Battery Park City on a Weekday Evening," I said that despite my general aversion to district-size building projects, I found myself rather charmed by the place. Now I think I know better why.

Francis explained that the designers and architects who took over the project from Nelson Rockefeller, after it stalled during the New York fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s (remember that one?), had been schooled on the urbanism of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and, to some extent, Andres Duany. The resulting design guidelines emphasized, somewhat traditionally, stone facades on the lower outer floors of buildings transitioning to brick with a distinct vertical termini, intimate walking paths and parks, and an overall feeling of old-fashioned, pedestrian-oriented livability. Elements of the Brooklyn Heights with its Promenade and other successful neighborhoods also found their way into the site plan.

Again, however, the construction has taken place over the better part of three decades — time enough for a more unplanned "fit" to emerge from within the guidelines with the passage of time. And it's still not quite complete, as its population is expected to grow from its present 10,000 eventually to 14,000. One further fact: The density of the 92 acres site is slightly higher than that of Manhattan.

I highly recommend this and other tours sponsored by the Municipal Art Society. Check them out here.

***
For those with gaps in their knowledge about the current housing situation, which I dare say is most of us, over at Market Urbanism, Adam Hengels blogs Russell Roberts's posts on the "government intervention in housing." Excellent background reading on the public-policy roots of the present fiasco.

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