Volume 16 • Issue 46 | April 9 - 15, 2004


Don’t let preservation delay W.T.C. redevelopment

By David Stanke

Photo courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

This sign recovered from the World Trade Center mall is now being stored at J.F.K Airport.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has retreated from its initial finding that there would be “no adverse affect” on historic World Trade Center site elements from currently planned development projects. Instead, it is proposing a programmatic agreement to “ensure ongoing and meaningful consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office and the consulting parties.” It is also expanding the list of historic elements. While this is a generous show of good faith by the L.M.D.C. toward the wishes of a few 9/11 families, it risks opening a Pandora’s box of complaints about every proposed piece of construction on the site.

As part of this process, consulting parties have toured W.T.C. disaster remnants stored at Hangar 17 at J.F.K. Airport and walked into the W.T.C. bathtub. In Hangar 17, many of the remnants from the World Trade Center are being preserved. A walk through the airport terminal is a step back in time, both physically and emotionally, to the events of 9/11. The smashed vehicles, the scattered W.T.C. antenna, a collection of random rubble, and sections of distinctive column structure all combine to recall the scenes on the street. The shear physical power of the event is captured in the structural beams bent out of recognizable shape. Some are crumpled in chaotic and random patterns, like massive twist ties. Others are curved in graceful arches, as a simple physics equation was imprinted on the beam by the force of 110 stories of imploding skyscraper. These pieces capture the chaos and emotional rawness of 9/11 and demonstrate the magnitude of the event in a way I have not felt since watching the fires smolder in the pile through the windows of my Liberty St. apartment.

As a consulting party to the Section 106 process examining the historical significance of the W.T.C., I have had the chance to take two walks — one through the hangar and the other to the bottom of the bathtub on the ground that once held the W.T.C. towers. This was the view that recovery workers left when their mission was completed, including the box beam “footprints” that were exposed when steel workers removed the final remaining columns.

The trip to the footprints communicated only one feeling: the vast emptiness that comes with the realization that the W.T.C. is gone. The huge bathtub wall, the column remnants, the temporary Path Station, even the remaining parking lot levels to the north say just one thing: it’s gone. There is nothing that recalls what was there before, nor does it communicate the personal and intimate details of loss. The historical feel of the site was removed with the recovery, and the touchstones of history are in Hangar 17 miles away. This void nature of the site will be preserved in a healing way by the Reflecting Absence memorial. Reflecting Absence will be an extremely costly memorial and it has stretched the design of the rest of the site, but it will not perpetuate the devastating damage that was the purpose of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The proposal would add several peripheral items to the list of artifacts to be considered for preservation. Why, with a vision of a memorial in place and space set aside for an exhibit of the remnants, has the L.M.D.C. agreed to add the following to the list of historical remnants: parking garage remnants under the customs house, a stairway completely outside of the bathtub area left after the demolition of W.T.C. 5, tie-back caps that were installed during the recovery to support the bathtub, and utility holes that had been installed in the bathtub?

There is no logical connection among these items that contribute to a meaningful definition of what is significant. If these items are historical, every building that was damaged or repaired is historical, everything that existed on 9/11 and was covered in debris qualifies. If we accept the criterion necessary for these items to qualify, we would have to stop repairs on 90 West St. and preserve Deutsche Bank building as historic monuments to 9/11. Giving serious consideration to these items, aside from being an embarrassing waste of energy, could lead to delays and expensive modifications of development plans.

Finally, they have added the I-beam cross to the list, without calling it a cross. This item should be donated to a church nearby and removed from consideration at the site. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists were killed at the site. To believe that God left a sign of Christian religion at the site is demeaning to people with other beliefs.

The reason the L.M.D.C. has taken these steps is obvious. The highest levels of our nation’s government are testifying in public under oath about their actions, thoughts, and intents in the periods before, during and after 9/11. This hugely enlightening and beneficial process was forced by a dedicated group of 9/11 family members whose response to 9/11 was to prevent it from ever happening again. The same power that allowed them to bend the office of the president of the United States to its will is focused on driving the Section 106 process. Political agencies have demonstrated the difficulty of directly saying no to a 9/11 family member, for fear of being perceived as unsympathetic.

In the Section 106 process, the emotional pain of 9/11 family members has been directed at preserving the destruction of Al Qaeda attacks under the banner of “preserve the footprints from bedrock to sky”. This campaign has already forced all major buildings onto just over half of the site.

Leveraging 9/11 emotional pains are groups, like the Municipal Art Society, dedicated to fighting developers. Normally their cause is to preserve architectural significance or cultural continuity. At the W.T.C. they are still fighting development, but for what cause? To preserve an empty whole? These groups have no stake in the broader implications of W.T.C. decisions.

The 106 process is being driven by a narrow selection of special interests, not based on historical expertise, but on a struggle for control of real estate at the W.T.C. The country and the city will pay the price for this struggle. Eventually, Americans will start to ask what we are doing in the name of 9/11, why are we preserving the product of terrorism? Why are we drawing out hearings on scattered ruins for 10 years, when government hearings on failure to prevent the attack will finish in a couple of months? Do the family members involved really want to agonize over pieces of concrete hundreds of yards from the towers years from now? How do they feel that preserving tie-back caps on concrete walls will honor their loved ones? Why do they want to stop the evolution of the city at a date nine months after 9/11/01?

David Stanke is co-president of BPC United, a group of Downtown residents, and can be reached at bpcunited@ebond.com.


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