Dont rush the rebuilding of Church St.
By David Stanke
At a recent Community Board 1 meeting, a Battery Park City board member mused about the prospective age of his grandchildren when the World Trade Center is finally completed. Through his extended soliloquy to the Bloomberg administration, I realized that the rush at the W.T.C. has become a dogma, accepted without full consideration of the implications. The real issue is the start date, not the completion date. The focus should be to bring a steady stream of the best possible facilities into service, not simply to get it done and claim victory.
The Freedom Tower, the memorial, subway lines, and the Path Station will all be under construction by this April. The second tower, on the northwest corner of the site should begin in mid-2007. These projects comprise about 75 percent of the original site, including substantial retail space. These projects alone will lift the neighborhood. Construction on the remaining two sites on southern Church St. cannot be started before mid-2008, when excavation and development of a retainer wall is complete. Given natural limitations on absorption of both office and retail space, it makes little sense to accelerate this development, especially with projects that undermine the full potential of the site.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Mayor Bloomberg, C.B. 1, the business community and Sen. Chuck Schumer are all pushing for progress on the rest of Church St. But the rhetoric veils very different agendas. Silver, Gov. Pataki and Schumer all indicate an understanding of the future potential of the W.T.C. as a commercial site. They rightly emphasize the need to finalize the framework for rebuilding according to the governors site plan. But on Church St., they would be advised to leave the flexibility to enhance the designs to meet the infinitely bright future of the W.T.C. Once built, these buildings cant be modified and empty buildings are a very shallow victory.
All delays to date have been caused by indecision. I have opposed preservationists and special interest groups who have blatantly disregarded the urgency for four years. But with a plan now in place, the process of redevelopment itself will lift the prospects and add vitality to the area. As long as work proceeds, a grandchild (very young, of course) witnessing the final topping off ceremony may not be so offensive.
I personally have faced the challenge of balancing speed and quality in post-9/11 redevelopment as the president of a 10-person condo building that was damaged and contaminated by the falling towers. We could certainly have gotten back sooner than 2004, if we had cut corners on decontamination or living with a damaged infrastructure. Wed have done a quicker, lower-quality project if we had listened to FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the city Dept. of Environmental Protection, our insurance company, or even some residents who have not moved back. People who dont care do things in a hurry.
Ownership and the decision-makers timeframe make all the difference. People selling an apartment dont invest in it. If you are responsible for the site for nearly 100 years, you might focus on quality, even with a delay of a year or two. Mayor Bloomberg is a four-year outsider. Silverstein Properties is a 90-plus-year lessor. The difference in their approach is obvious: speed versus quality and patience.
Battery Park City itself is an excellent example of how time changes decision-making. Its current success was unimaginable when only Gateway Plaza rose from the mud flats on the Hudson River. Who would have predicted that a Ritz Carlton hotel and residences would become part of the mix? If B.P.C. had been completed in five years, it would not have evolved so well.
Todays first priority is to complete and occupy the first phases of development. As Sen. Schumer recently pointed out, the two biggest issues are funding and populating the Freedom Tower. Resolve these by 2008, and the commercial viability along Church St. soars. At that point, retail and commercial interest in the area will be much greater. Anchor tenants might even invest in completing buildings. An additional year of planning at this point might draw corporate headquarters Downtown and enhance the remaining retail space. Cultural facilities could even be designed into the buildings. If impatience overwhelms thoughtful considerations, these possibilities will be lost.
The two southern blocks of Church St. are among the best at the W.T.C. They offer large, open blocks on top of two transportation networks. In a city that always needs new office space, the W.T.C. is the ideal location. If quick development is what the mayor wants, he could put up a Duane Reade, a McDonalds and a Krispy Kreme. If he cares about effectively utilizing New Yorks assets for long-term growth, vitality, and tax revenues, he will get behind Patakis master plan.
The Bloomberg plan for speed is to make quick hits and take shortcuts. He would take two prime office sites and make them a hotel, residential space, and government offices. He would substantially reduce the retail space. For this, he would challenge Silversteins rights to build and risk delaying everything.
Downtown residents have had over four years to experience the positive impact of new development. We celebrated the reopening of the Winter Garden. New retail establishments made local news stories. New tenants in office buildings were welcomed. We still monitor the neighborhood for signs of growth or decay. The next 10 to 20 years of development here will be exciting. We can survive an extra year or two for a couple of office towers to be completed. We cannot tolerate more time with no construction.
The project to develop the W.T.C. is the birth of a new urban center. For humans, conception to birth takes 9 months. A couple anxious for a child doesnt try to deliver in 6 months. They race to conceive and then wait. As a (hopefully) long-term resident of Downtown, I can wait an extra year or two for this baby to go to full term. Just dont mess with conception.
David Stanke lives and writes in Downtown Manhattan. His e-mail is email@example.com.