City grapples with challenge of building on hallowed ground

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 2002, 12:00am

New York is famed for its magnificent public works, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, but few projects have aroused as much emotion as that to replace the fallen towers of the World Trade Centre.

Enormous strides were made quickly early on to clear the million tonnes of rubble that remained after the attacks. In a testament to the dedication of the crews who toiled for nine months in Ground Zero, the job was finished ahead of time and under budget.

But then everything stopped as debate began on what should be erected on the 6.5-hectare site. The debate hinges on what sort of memorial to the victims should occupy the site, and to that end the families of the victims hold the trump cards.

They have enormous emotional power and political backing from an American public still seething with anger and withered with pain at the loss of the 2,800 who perished.

Their demands are modest; that a substantial monument be erected on the site and that other development meets their suitability criteria. Such is their power, however, that planners' reluctance to offend them has become an impediment to redevelopment. They have already put the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the quango set up to oversee the reconstruction of Manhattan, in a sticky spot. Praised for its speedy creation within weeks of the attacks, the corporation has since become bogged down in an effort to balance the demands of the families with those of the trade centre's owner, leaseholder and various business interests.

The Families of September 11, the largest of the victims advocacy groups, occupies a seat on the LMDC's advisory board.

Its objections to six short-listed redesign proposals that included skyscrapers, malls and residential buildings as well as a monument, forced the corporation to send architects back to their drawing boards. And last week, the group's complaints forced the rejection of plans for a much-needed subterranean transportation hub.

Families of September 11 president Tom Roger, whose daughter was a cabin crew member on one of the hijacked planes, said his group would continue to put up such obstacles until a design they felt happy with was presented. 'We will be reasonable - we do not object to commercial development on the site - but it has to be suitable and proportionate to what the site represents.'

But that could prove a difficult and time-consuming goal. Public canvassing, consultations with victims' families and surveys of architects suggest that finding a consensus on how to fill the site would be impossible. The public and families want nothing more than a memorial while the designers want grand architectural gestures.

Further troubling matters are the businessmen, who also have a legitimate hand in redevelopment. The site's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, wants to recoup the losses on its bejewelled property and install a multitude of commercial properties.

The hopes for speedy recovery dim with distance from the site. But while the sentimental forces that shape the debate are less pronounced in these areas, their need for redevelopment is no less great.

Chinatown, just a few blocks to the northeast, was the worst hit area in Manhattan. More than a quarter of all jobs were wiped out in the aftermath of the attacks and business in its key restaurant, retail and garment industries dropped by 70 per cent.