The Ground Zero Architectural Competition: Designing without a Plan

By Peter Marcuse


Nine proposals by teams of internationally-renowned architects were unveiled by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) in December, 2002. They made the front pages of every New York newspaper, and have been subject to extensive comment ever since. Both praise for imaginative ideas and criticism for overblown gigantism have been heaped on the designs, but some major points are missing from the discussion.

Whatever the merits of the nine proposals, the basic problem is that the program they were given by the LMDC, developed without adequate public input, was the wrong program at the wrong time. The LMDC has set out a planning process that is hasty, undemocratic and evades the critical planning and policy questions.

How the Nine Proposals Happened

The LMDC is a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation. It was created by New York Governor George Pataki to oversee development at the World Trade Center site, Ground Zero. It has been the chosen vehicle for significant federal and state funds to be spent below Houston Street, its jurisdictional northern boundary. It also has powers of eminent domain and can override local zoning, but those powers are of limited use here, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is the owner of the land where the World Trade Center stood. As a federally-created bi-state agency, the Port Authority is exempt from local zoning and condemnation procedures.

The seven handpicked architectural firms and consortia (drawn from a field of over 400) produced nine different schemes for Ground Zero. The participating architects and firms include Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Steven Holl, Rafael Vinoly, Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith, Shigeru Ban, Greg Lynn, Ben Van Berkel, Jesse Reiser, Kevin Kennon, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Peterson/Littenberg.

An earlier proposal, outlining the massing of towers that would hold eleven million square feet of commercial space, had been roundly criticized as unimaginative; the charge to the firms this time was to be imaginative. All of the new schemes included large office towers as their major structures. The firms followed a program established by the LMDC, which included the following guidelines: respect for the footprint of the two World Trade Center towers; space for a memorial (to be designed later); 6.5 to ten million square feet of office space; one million square feet of retail; and a major transit hub serving the region. A “master plan” for the site, presumably focusing on infrastructure and including a decision on the nine proposals, is to be released at the end of January.

Barely a week before the release of the results of the competition, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward a plan for all of Lower Manhattan, which included a major transit hub, a proposal for a one-seat ride linking Lower Manhattan and the New York airports, ground-level community-scale development, some housing, and a reference to the fact that the large-scale office development of thirty years ago, including that involving the Twin Towers, originally had a negative effect on the office market elsewhere in Manhattan.

On the day before the results of the architectural competition were announced, the Civic Alliance, a coalition of some seventy civic and professional groups, completed a set of workshops in which it developed three detailed alternative proposals for Lower Manhattan. The proposals were designed around three concepts: Lower Manhattan as a global center, Lower Manhattan as a 24-hour/7 days-a-week community, and Lower Manhattan as a center of creativity.

The Imaginative and the Gigantic

All of the proposals in the competition are imaginative and interesting from a design standpoint. All respect the program, and in design and in rhetoric emphasize the symbolic importance of the site. All pay attention to “green” (environmentally-friendly) construction and many have gardens. All reserve space for a memorial, with one (Libeskind) suggesting a specific placement seventy feet below ground where the enclosure for the foundation of the Twin Towers had been. All at least pay lip service to integration with the street grid of Lower Manhattan, and allow view corridors from outside the site. The suggestions for cultural centers, museums and ground-level gardens are imaginative.

So far so good.

But all showcase big towers, four of them the highest in the world [heights range from 1,111 feet (Richard Meier) to 1,400 feet (Peterson Littenberg) to 1,620 feet (United Architects) to 1,776 feet (Libeskind) to 2,100 feet (the Think group)]. Leaving aside the question of whether tall buildings symbolize that we have not been defeated, or that we have learned nothing from the attack, there is a general consensus that there is no demand for this much office space in the foreseeable future. Today there are seventeen million square feet of vacant office space in Lower Manhattan. According to Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, “It’ll probably take a decade to fill the space that is currently vacant.” From a planning point of view, it is highly questionable whether an investment to induce such demand in Lower Manhattan is desirable (as opposed to, for instance, Midtown West, or to the other major subcenters elsewhere in Manhattan and in the other boroughs that are under consideration for development). Such concentration further runs counter to the idea of increased residential uses in the area, and would certainly raise rents or sales prices for housing. It is likely to run counter to the idea of diversity, mixed-income occupancy or the kind of creativity associated with start-up organizations.

Public uses are spoken of in many proposals, but come off badly. United Architects creates a “public space” 800 feet in the air, and SOM proposes a “public garden” on the fifty-second story. The Think team has a park ten stories above ground-level. Peterson Littenberg has gardens at the tenth floor. Viewing platforms would of necessity by tightly controlled for security purposes. Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of The New York Times, speaks of one plan with “security precautions at a level not seen since the golden age of castle keeps.” Informal public uses, easy communication and diversity would be discouraged.

Costs and, indeed, uses of the massive structures are not considered in the proposals. These are not serious proposals for a client. They are not responsive either to public or private demand for specific space for specific uses. They have nothing to do with economies of construction or land use. As a director of the LMDC said, on condition of anonymity [sic!] to the New York Times,”Fundamentally it’s a sideshow, because none of these things will be built.”

The designs also do not fit into any wider plan for Lower Manhattan. David Kallick, coordinator of the Labor Community Advocacy Network, told the New York Times that they “turned their back on Chinatown.” At best, the designs view the site only in terms of its immediate neighborhood (except for the transit hub, which in turn is designed with no reference to costs, regional priorities or the impacts of changed transportation patterns). Economic development, jobs and social justice in the distribution of benefits and costs should be key considerations. They play no role in this program.

The Wrong Program at the Wrong Time

The seven architectural firms cannot really be faulted for what they have done. They did what they were asked to do, and by and large did it well. The fault lies in the program and in the process.


• The program is wrong. It asks for too much office space, too little housing, a transit hub that is not in the best location for New York City airport connections and whose dimensions and purpose are not yet clear. It leaves open the memorial to fit in later, gives no sense of the desired balance between public and private uses, has no provision for mixed housing, takes into account no market research, pays no attention to costs or available budgets, and is not based on any developed vision for how Lower Manhattan as a whole should develop.

• The program is premature. Planning should precede, not follow, a design competition. Design alternatives are important once the overall plan is established and uses determined, not before. Both the city and the LMDC are involved in a planning process (possibly, but not necessarily, coordinated), and so apparently is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but they are far from complete.

• The program is misleading. It suggests that the LMDC can produce what one or more of these designs suggest. It cannot. It does not control the land, cannot do the building, cannot make the decision as to uses, and will not be the client for what eventually is done. Debate should not center around whether a tower should be 1,111 or 2,100 feet high. To act as if this architectural competition and its results will determine what is in fact built diverts attention from what decisions really need to be made, in what order and by whom.


• The process of developing the program was wrong. Its justification, at best, was that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owned the land, and this is what they wanted. But clearly the Port Authority will not be the only decisive voice. The city, the state, and the public all have substantial leverage to affect what happens, and the Port Authority itself is a creature of other entities that can effectively control what happens. There is a need for a fully transparent planning process involving all of the entities that have an interest in the site or are impacted by its development.

• The process is misleading. By making a show of public participation–by setting up models for public viewing, holding a hearing, claiming to listen to civic groups and advisory committee proposals and concerns–the LMDC holds itself up as open and responsive. But the sole power of decision-making lies in its sixteen-member board, dominated by those with pre-existing connections to the real estate industry and the financial community. There may be participation in the sense of an opportunity for the public to express itself, but they will not participate in making decisions.

• The process is undemocratic. No public discussion, let alone democratic decision-making, went into the formulation of the program. Over many years the people of New York City have fought for and established a planning and decision-making process that is at least on paper highly democratic. It includes a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that involves local community boards, the City Planning Commission, City Council, and the Mayor. It has mandated public hearings and votes, public disclosure and environmental impact review procedures. These established processes are being ignored. The Mayor’s plan may (or may not) signal the beginning of a turn in the direction of using these planning mechanisms. The architectural competition should be dependent on them, not the other way around.

Lastly, the timing is all wrong. Decisions that will affect the future of New York City for years into the future are being rushed, without adequate information, discussion, planning, analysis and thought. The LMDC wants to go from the design competition to decision-making and a plan within less than two months. As New Yorkers know, you can’t get a license to open a sidewalk hot dog stand that quickly. Other planning processes, more broad-based than that of the LMDC, are under way and not yet complete, including the work of the Civic Alliance and the Imagine New York project of the Municipal Art Society (see the article by Penelope Duda and Eva Hanhardt in this issue). The Department of City Planning is reported to have studies underway, the results of which should also be useful. Granted that prompt action can itself have a positive effect, nonetheless a well thought-through timetable with a clear sense of feasible priorities is needed. It does not yet exist.

How To Refocus on Planning

While the imaginative and provocative character of the proposals should be recognized, the focus needs to be on the real decisions that are being made and who is making them–on where the power really lies. That means that attention must be paid to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Governor, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the private real estate developers and owners in the city. For democratic decision-making, the role of the Mayor, the City Council, and the involved city agencies should be highlighted.

Attention needs to refocus on the key questions in planning for Lower Manhattan:

• What private activities and what public programs (in addition to global and financial) best serve the economic development interests of the majority of the people of New York, in terms of jobs, wages and opportunity?

• What can be done to meet critical housing needs, including those of very low-, low- and moderate-income New Yorkers?

• What measures will best protect environmental quality in the city, both in Lower Manhattan and elsewhere?

• What are the citywide and regional transportation needs and where is infrastructure investment most needed?

• How can communities, here and elsewhere, be strengthened?

• How does the allocation of public resources here fit in with other citywide needs, e.g. for schools, libraries, cultural activities and healthcare?

• And, of course, how can the built environment contribute to meeting these concerns?

The planning process must be more transparent, open and democratic. The city must, with its formal structure of participatory planning, regain and keep the initiative in planning and decision-making following 9/11. The Mayor’s proposals can be accepted as the beginning of such a process, but should be seen as only a beginning, both in substance and process. A good start might be a series of public hearings by the City Planning Commission, whose absence from the discussions thus far is remarkable, and by the City Council, which has hesitated to assert its role.

For more information, visit: and , to view the architectural designs;, to read the analysis of the Labor Community Advocacy Network; and, to see other proposals related to rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

Peter Marcuse is professor of city and regional planning at Columbia University in New York City.

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