Planning After September 11: The Issues In New York

By Peter Marcuse

The following paper was drafted as the basis for discussion at a series of meetings planned by New York City Planners Network. It reflects the concerns expressed by Planners Network members who have been involved with some of the groups working on post-September 11 issues. Planners Network will explore and debate these issues in greater depth at the meetings, in which various groups working on post-September 11 issues and visions will be asked to present and discuss their points of view. This piece was drafted by Peter Marcuse with input from a number of Planners Network members.– Ayse Yonder 

Two groups of planning issues dominate discussions in New York City after September 11: What Is To Be Done? and Who Is To Decide What Is To Be Done (and For Whom)? Many in the planning profession in the City are focussing on the first; Planners Network should be drawing attention to the second as well.

What Is to Be Done?

From any point of view, What Is To Be Done? is not a simple question. It involves at least the following major planning issues, with short background statements followed by tentative positions on each:

Rebuild how much where? Estimates are that fifteen million square feet of office space were completely destroyed, and perhaps another twelve million rendered temporarily unusable, by the attack on the World Trade Center (New York Times 1/6/2002). This is twenty percent of the eighty-two million square feet of office space of the downtown financial district of Manhattan before September (New York Times 9/23/2001, S11, 1). The Midtown business district, unaffected by the attack, has 181 million square feet of office space; Midtown south another sixty-five million. In the three months after the attack, firms that had been in the lost space took up major blocks of space in Midtown, in other boroughs of New York City (particularly Brooklyn and Queens), across the river in New Jersey, and in the suburbs of New York City and southern Connecticut. There is today 14.6 million square feet of office space vacant in Midtown, 8.2 in Midtown south, and 7.2 in the downtown financial district; and there is an economic recession.

Position one: Rebuilding in the financial district will not be market driven. If it is to take place, it will require significant public subsidies. How much is warranted, and where, needs to be carefully examined. The benefits of subsidized new office construction to replace space lost September 11 are not dependent on locating that construction (only) in the financial district. The benefits of agglomeration economies, etc., there, must be balanced by how far those benefits might be obtained elsewhere and the public costs and benefits of steering investment to one or another location. Significant investment to deal with the consequences of September 11 should go outside of lower Manhattan.

Position two: The role of finance and related activities in the overall economy of the city should also be reexamined in this context. In the long run it is desirable to diversify the economy. Preserving manufacturing and cultural activities, retaining small creative and service businesses, and protecting the quality of residential life against displacement, should also be major concerns.

What kind of transportation is needed? The attack on the World Trade Center caused major disruptions to New York City’s mass transit network, the largest in the nation and central to the city’s functioning. Subway lines below Chambers Street on the West Side (the number one and nine lines) were completely destroyed, as was the PATH commuter rail line from New Jersey that terminated in the World Trade Center. Some 220,000 riders used the local lines or buses, some 60,000 the PATH commuter line every day. There is a major subway interchange at Fulton Street, near, but not connected to, the World Trade Center location. The PATH location was intimately tied in, at its inception, with service to the World Trade Center and the economic upgrading of that area, which had earlier housed multiple small businesses, many run by immigrants. A major multi-billion dollar investment would be required to accomplish the most ambitious proposal for reconstruction: moving the one and nine lines to the west to better serve Battery Park City and building a new PATH station with direct connections to the Fulton Street complex, including people mover underground sidewalks.

Position three: Major investments in transportation improvements in the financial district must be tied in to decisions about land use. If major rebuilding will not soon take place in the financial district, transportation investment there should have lower priority; it should not be used to stimulate building there unless that is desired as a matter of land use planning. There are major competitors for transportation funds: improvements in subway service, Grand Central — Penn Station connections and expanded bus service. Improvement of transportation infrastructure in the financial district should not drive or replace regional transportation planning.

What designs should be supported for the World Trade Center site? Proposals have been numerous, exhibitions have flowered, design contests have been discussed. There is common agreement that a memorial must be a major component. Safety and security concerns have also played a prominent role, for example in the Stock Exchange’s decision to abandon a high-rise proposal because it was no longer rentable after September 11.

Position four: It is too early to make even preliminary decisions on design, and design must not be allowed to precede or dictate the planning needed to establish uses and the desired program. Decisions establishing a transparent, democratic planning process must precede decisions about design. Public space and public use must be major goals; security concerns should not be allowed to interfere with accessibility and the free use of such spaces.

What are the priorities for public investment? To date the assumption has been that investment should go to, and be limited to, lower Manhattan, presumably south of Houston Street. The narrow prescriptions of FEMA have been implicitly taken as guidelines to be exceeded only where improvements to “rebuilt” infrastructure are involved. The result will be that the majority of public payments go to major businesses, land owners and financial interests. The consequences of September 11 extend far beyond lower Manhattan, however, as only a small minority of workers in the destroyed buildings lived in Manhattan (less than twenty percent), and even fewer in lower Manhattan. Economic damage to many workers and small businesses was much more painful than to the major business occupants of the area. Beyond that, to the extent that new budget decisions are being made, the city has other critical priorities–affordable housing, education, health care, welfare–that need to be weighed in determining what is spent where and for what.

Position five: Priorities must be established in the expenditure of public funds after September 11, and they should not be exclusively focused on lower Manhattan. The full range of needs created by the attack must be considered, and the distributional consequence of various allocations reviewed. Actions dealing with September 11 must be considered in the light of the city’s overall needs.

Who Is To Decide What Is To Be Done (and For Whom)?

The issue of Who Decides What is To Be Done (and For Whom)? is perhaps clearer in theory, but more difficult in practice.

Who decides? The conspicuous players thus far are the state and local governments, acting through the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, which they have just established. It is composed, in Herbert Muschamp’s words, of “captains of industry, including top executives from financial services and communications companies and from public agencies for construction and economic development” (New York Times 12/23/2001, S2, 1, 42). The chair of Community Board 1, the local planning body for the neighborhood in which the World Trade Center stood, and the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York are also members. The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation has powers to override most zoning and planning procedures. It has been appointed by the governor (seven members, four-year terms) and the outgoing Mayor (four members, initially one-year terms). The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation has thus far, at least in statements of its chair, defined the “stakeholders” it is responsive to, and around whose interests committees will be organized, as: “the families of victims, downtown residents, commuters, Wall Street firms, developers, retail shopkeepers, and cultural organizations.”

The city’s formal planning processes have been fought for by progressive groups over many years, and have resulted in some significant democratic gains. These include local Community Boards in every neighborhood of the city, a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in which such boards play a role, a “197-a” process for neighborhood-based planning, requirements for information and public hearings, etc. However, the City Planning Commission has not played any visible role in the current debates except to indicate its willingness to facilitate any development that is wanted. The newly elected New York City Council, new because term limits precluded the majority of its former members from running again, has not thus far played any role.

On the civic side, there was initially NYC Rebuild, a grouping of professionals whose early members were described as “a Who’s Who of major real estate developers and corporate architecture firms” (New York Times 10/28/2001). It soon broadened its base in the form of New York New Visions, including some twenty professional groups, largely led by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and including the New York Metro chapter of the American Planning Association. It has just released a fifty-two page report including some input as to process from progressive planners, not however highlighted in the summaries or major recommendations. R-DOT (Rebuild Downtown Our Town) is again a coalition of residents, business people, non-profits and others from the immediately affected areas, and is seeking to influence developments, as is a group in which Mobilization for Youth is playing an active supporting role. Chinatown residents are active in both the latter two. The Civic Alliance is probably the broadest of the coalitions focused explicitly on the aftermath of September 11. It now includes almost 100 varied civic organizations, and has an active Economic and Environmental Justice Committee. Among its members are such groups as the Community Labor Activist Network, a cornerstone of the EEJC, which includes representatives of major grass-roots community and labor and environmental groups.

And there are of course the extremely active private business groups. These include the Real Estate board of New York and its members; Larry Silverstein, owner of one of the destroyed buildings at the World Trade Center and holder of a ninety-nine year lease on the others; and the New York City Partnership, first formed by David Rockefeller to deal with the City’s fiscal crisis of 1975. With a web site billing it as the “voice of New York City’s business community,” the New York City Partnership formulated and pushed for $5 billion in tax incentives to companies that stay in lower Manhattan.

No one knows exactly how much money is coming to New York City from the federal government for various purposes, anywhere between $2 and $8 billion are in play. Substantial discretion will exist in its expenditure and city influence may affect federal guidelines. Existing proposals, e.g. by the Civic Alliance, include references to everything from major infrastructure investment and assistance to developers in building and/or modernizing to, somewhat in passing, investments in housing and education. No priorities, relative weights or costing out of any such proposals are included.

Position six: The city’s formal planning and land use and budgeting processes should be maintained for all actions having to do with September 11. If for any emergency reason real speed is critical (it is not for any building undertakings; it may be for major subway repairs, for instance), streamlining should be on a case by case basis, approved by the City council and mayor, not by revisions of long-standing procedures.

Position seven: The city has a City Planning Commission. It needs to be strengthened with good appointments, augmented staff and mayoral confidence. It needs to play a key role in leading comprehensive, long-term planning for the city, of which planning for lower Manhattan should be seen as a part.

Position eight: The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation must reflect the full diversity of interests affected by its actions. It must include, at the least: representatives of neighboring communities, of immigrant and minority groups of workers and unions, of small businesses, of economic interests outside FIRE., especially, manufacturing, cultural, and small businesses and retail).

Position nine: Professional groups as well as decision-makers must recognize that there are conflicting interests in deciding what is to be done and that priorities must be established. The quest for consensus can conceal those conflicts and is likely to reinforce the status quo in the distribution of power and resources. Who gets what, who benefits and who pays are critical issues and should be highlighted in every planning document and for all planning proposals. Priorities should be established and made plain with those considerations in mind.

Position ten: Planning must pay close attention to money. Budgeting is often where priorities are in fact established; they must not be allowed to be made piece-meal. An immediate overview should be provided of the likely sources of funding for September 11 related investment, existing plans for their expenditure, and the alternatives available.

The issues in New York City reflect a fascinating inter-play of global and the local interests, cross-cut by the interplay of the differences in economic and class interests. The general but implicit assumption is that lower Manhattan is the vital center of New York City’s global role, that it is key to the city’s global competitiveness, and that the global role is critical and a benefit to the whole city. In fact most of the business conducted in lower Manhattan was in fact either national or local, and whether its many ties to the global depend on location in lower Manhattan is at least questionable. The frequent repetition of the undoubted importance of global competitiveness for the city must not be allowed to obscure the fact that serving the interests of those benefiting from global competitiveness, including real estate developers and financial interests in the financial district, may or may not be of benefit to the majority who are involved in the more local aspects of the economy.

Peter Marcuse is a Professor of planning at Columbia University in New York City.

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