Volume 16 • Issue 37 | February 13 - 19, 2004


Careful what you preserve at the W.T.C.

By David Stanke

The environmental reviews for World Trade Center redevelopment include historic preservation studies that are more focused on saving the site as it was months after 9/11 than restoring meaningful visual reminders of the Trade Center itself.

The Federal government is taking its place as a new player in W.T.C. redevelopment discussions. Current plans for the site are going through the Environmental Impact Statement process. The objective of the E.I.S. is to fully detail the ramifications of proposed development projects for public scrutiny. The E.I.S. includes a review mandated under the National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106. This review requires federal agencies to identify historic properties for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, paraphrasing a Lower Manhattan Development Corp. draft of the review document. In short, a new set of ears is in town to discuss the historical significance of “the footprints.”

The L.M.D.C. has hosted sessions attended by selected consulting parties to assist in drafting a Determination of National Register Eligibility. The parties include preservationist organizations, W.T.C. victims’ family organizations, Native American representatives, and representatives of local businesses and residents. I attended these proceedings as a representative of residential concerns. The discussions followed the pattern of so many previous public discussions. The fundamental question is what remaining artifacts at the W.T.C. site are suitable for inclusion on the national registry. This process will make those determinations, but it will not, we were told, determine how designation of artifacts will impact future development in the area.

There are two important overarching questions concerning the W.T.C. First is how to reflect the absence generated by a devastatingly successful attack on an architectural symbol of the U.S. free enterprise system? The second is how to rebuild what was destroyed with respect for those who died. This process makes fundamental decisions affecting both of these questions, but takes no responsibility for directions that might be based on their findings. The process was designed to preserve historic treasures after a 50-year waiting period. Application of this review to the remnants of a terrorist attack within 3 years of the attack creates unresolved issues, issues which the process itself cannot address.

The preliminary findings found that the period of significance must be expanded from 9/11/01 to cover the full period of the recovery. This was done because what little remained after 9/11 was carted away as part of the search for remains. In reality, the only recognizable remains of the W.T.C. on 9/12/01 were sections of the exterior facade and the smashed sculpture from the plaza. It was not clear from the discussions that the facade was even available for reconstruction, as the Port Authority is still cataloguing the surviving artifacts stored at J.F.K. Airport. But preservationists justify their efforts in one way: finding things to preserve. It would be hard for them to justify a statement as simple as that made by Michael Arad’s memorial, essentially. “In the absence of anything to preserve, we’ve decided to preserve absence.” Instead, they grasp at straws for items of significance.

While the time frame under consideration was expanded beyond the day of significance, the geographic considerations were constrained to the 16-acre site. So the bathtub wall, virtually unseen in its pre-9/11 life, may now be on the National Register simply because it is still there. On the other hand, the condominium building south of Liberty St., where I lived on 9/11 and where I hope to return when the repairs are complete, is not up for consideration. It is not sufficient that this 1900-era building withstood a glancing blow from a piece of the W.T.C. falling from 100 stories in the sky. And the Deutsche Bank building and 90 West St., the damaged buildings that still give the site its most powerful integrity of feeling and location are also sensibly excluded from consideration.

On the other hand, the list of items to preserve includes a series of remnants that were uncovered only after months of demolition and/or were built during the recovery. Following is sampling of items: vehicular entrance ramps, cooling water pipes, tiebacks (installed post-9/11 to keep the bathtub from collapsing), PATH tunnel access, post-9/11 egress stairs, the new PATH train tracks, and, of course, the perimeter tower footings. These are the steel beams that were implanted into the ground and encased in concrete when the W.T.C. was built. In its entirety, the artifact list is a description of all identifiable components of the bathtub wall and all temporary structures on the site.

It is interesting to compare the preliminary report generated for the W.T.C. with the results of the same process which, we were informed, was also performed for the Pentagon. The Pentagon was severely damaged by a plane on 9/11, with substantial loss of life. The Pentagon had already been listed on the National Registry prior to 9/11, an honor for which the W.T.C. was not yet eligible due to its age. Aside from the fact that terrorists were better at identifying our national symbols than our federal government, the Pentagon and the W.T.C. were identical situations separated primarily by order of magnitude. A tomb located beneath the W.T.C. memorial has addressed the one significant difference, the failure to recover identifiable remains of all of the victims at the W.T.C. Despite the similarities, the Pentagon, headquarters of our country’s military, was reconstructed and put back in action with a memorial respectfully located nearby. Meanwhile at the W.T.C., the national registry is considering “integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association”; factors evidently not important at the Pentagon. Historians are letting the W.T.C. and N.Y.C. bear the full weight of historic significance so that the business of Washington can continue undisturbed.

The L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority have done an excellent job in preparing for the Section 106 process. They have adjusted early plans to the point where essentially nothing of importance is situated within the bulk of the bathtub. They have moved tour bus and car parking into Battery Park City, infrastructure and vehicular access for the site beneath Deutsche Bank and the neighboring park, and retail and transportation facilities into a future bathtub to the East of the site. The cost of these moves will be borne, I presume, by government funds. Residents and workers in the area will also pay a price in duration and intensity of construction during the rebuilding. But the L.M.D.C. clearly realized that it could be disastrous to place any critical component within the bathtub when the section 106 review could stop progress in its tracks. Time is money, and with limited resources for rebuilding, delays are not an option.

It is ironic that government historians have come to survey the remains of the destroyed symbols of commerce; symbols that historians never officially recognized in their lifetime. In viewing the footprints of the W.T.C., do they see the symbolic foundation of our economic system? Our military strength and even our democratic political system lean heavily on this financial foundation for their success. If these government historians stay around for a while, perhaps they will realize that the history of 9/11 didn’t end with the end of the recovery. It continues on a daily basis as big and small businesses, real estate developers, residents and workers, and New York City and State struggle to put back the pieces of a devastated Downtown. It continues with the efforts of so many to piece together the finances and build the plans for a new W.T.C.. If they stay around for 10 to 15 years, they may find that there is more than a few sheared box beams on this 16-acre site worthy of inclusion in the National Register.

David Stanke is a Lower Manhattan resident and is one of the founders of BPC United.


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