The towering challenge of the WTC project

Henry C K Liu

This article appeared in AToL February 12, 2003

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York destroyed 13.4 million square feet (nearly 1.25 million square meters) of downtown office and retail space, caused the death of more than 2,800 innocent civilians from all walks of life, destroyed a major transportation hub underneath the 6.5-hectare site, and rendered much of Lower Manhattan uninhabitable for months. By all measures, it was a tragic event of massive dimension. That New York has managed to continue to function as a world-class city with only minor disruption is a testimony to the vitality and resourcefulness of its people and its civic institutions.

That vitality and resourcefulness are now being concentrated on replacing the WTC with a new structure that fulfills practical needs and at the same time honors the dead and stands as an appropriate legacy. It is by no means clear, a year and a half after the tragedy, that these goals will be achieved.

Eight years before the September 11 attacks, in 1993, terrorists set off 500 kilograms of explosives packed into a minivan parked in the basement parking garage at the WTC. And despite a violent blast that left a crater more than 6.5 meters wide and five stories deep, with six people killed and 1,000 injured, the towers stood and were repaired, cleaned, and reopened in less than a month with new security precautions. That experience added to the false myth of the invincibility of the 110-story twin towers.

The twin towers of the WTC were more than just buildings. They were a living testament of New York's faith in its own boundless destiny. Built more than 30 years ago through sheer power of will at a time when New York's future seemed uncertain, and in the face of weak demand, the towers restored confidence and helped bring a halt to the decline of Lower Manhattan. Brash, glitzy and bigger than life, they quickly became symbols of a tenacious New York, the city of superlatives in a nation of superlatives.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New York Governor George Pataki and then-mayor Rudolf Giuliani created the Lower Manhattan Development Corp (LMDC), a joint state-city corporation governed by a 16-member board of directors evenly appointed by the governor and the mayor, as a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp, the state's construction arm, to help plan and coordinate the rebuilding of the WTC and the revitalization of Lower Manhattan, and charged with "ensuring Lower Manhattan recovers from the attacks on World Trade Center and emerges even better than it was before". According to the mission statement issued by the LMDC, "the centerpiece of its efforts is the creation of a permanent memorial honoring those lost, while affirming the democratic values that came under attack on September 11".

The LMDC has committed itself "to work in cooperation with its partners in the public and private sectors to coordinate long-term planning for the WTC site and surrounding communities, while pursuing short-term initiatives to improve the quality of life in Lower Manhattan during the revitalization effort". The LMDC is committed to an "open, inclusive, and transparent planning process in which the public has a central role in shaping the future of Lower Manhattan". Several advisory councils representing a broad spectrum of groups affected by the WTC attacks - including victims' families, business owners, professional organizations and downtown residents - regularly consult with the LMDC on issues of concern to their respective constituencies. The LMDC said it will work with the general public in developing a memorial process, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the leaseholders, and all of the groups and agencies involved. The LMDC also conducts public hearings, participates in Community Board meetings, and continuously meets with community groups, civic organizations and public officials to ensure that the opinions of those who were affected by this tragedy are taken into account.

The preliminary components of a blueprint for rebuilding Lower Manhattan include respecting the site of the WTC as a place of remembrance and reserving an area of the site for one or more permanent memorials well integrated with its surroundings, including a museum of freedom and remembrance. The LMDC vows to establish an international design process to produce the most moving and appropriate memorial possible. The memorial is to become "a symbol known around the world", as "an eternal tribute to the victims, the enduring strength of democracy, a celebration of freedom, and a testament to the resurgent power of the city and the nation".

Neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, including Battery Park City, the Financial District, the South Street Seaport, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, TriBeCa and SoHo, experienced serious disruption from the attacks. The LMDC seeks a balance between reconstruction efforts and the need for residents, workers and businesses quickly to resume normalcy in their daily lives, working with the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of City Planning, State and City Departments of Transportation, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, Con Edison (energy), Verizon (communication), local Community Boards (planning), the Downtown Alliance, local businesses, community-based organizations and other involved groups and agencies to identify and complete interim actions to clean up and restore essential services in Lower Manhattan and to come to agreement on a final plan.

Public hearings have produced outline redevelopment goals that include expanding the residential population and enhancing residential life to create a strong sense of community throughout Lower Manhattan. Creating a critical mass of permanent residents will require that a significant amount of land area be devoted to housing for a wide range of income levels, in safe and accessible neighborhoods with educational, health, recreational and cultural facilities to make Lower Manhattan more attractive for families with children.

Future developments will aimed at supporting Lower Manhattan as a mixed-use community, with retail and commercial amenities to service a critical mass of businesses, residents, workers, visitors and tourists. Premier retail and commercial offerings will enhance Lower Manhattan as a desirable destination for the city, the region and the world, with retail and commercial ancillary services to attract and retain businesses and financial and professional firms.

Lower Manhattan will be conceived as a Freedom Park, linking the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Federal Hall, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and the proposed WTC memorial. A critical mass of dynamic, enticing and diverse cultural venues will be developed and sustained to make Lower Manhattan a vibrant center for culture and the arts, with a new museum dedicated to "American freedom, tolerance and the values that the WTC represented", a new home for the City Opera within a new performing arts center to include facilities for other musical and theater groups, a new downtown Guggenheim Art Museum, expanding the programs and facilities of the South Street Seaport Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Skyscraper Museum, the Museum of Financial History and other cultural institutions in Lower Manhattan, a museum building in connection with the permanent memorial structure that will house a WTC museum and other smaller museums currently lacking adequate facilities, a "world university" that would be a center for international education and an accessible, attractive, and a comprehensive park and open space system for Lower Manhattan.

There is also a call for support of sustainable design, "green building" technology, state-of-the-art safety and security in design and engineering, and accessible design features and a continuation for Lower Manhattan as a "showplace for world-class architecture", in part by exemplifying environmentally friendly design, even an ambitious call to amend building codes and/or zoning restrictions to make "green buildings" easier and cheaper to build. Lower Manhattan will be developed as a magnet for tourism, education, culture and the arts that celebrates New York's and America's heritage and leverages the historic institutions of American freedom.
All the goals identified by the LMDC are highly commendable and if the tragic terrorist attacks can make such ideals a reality, then the victims would not have perished or suffered in vain. Unfortunately, the reality of urban-redevelopment politics and economics have not vanished along with the twin towers, and the final results may turn out to be something that no one can be proud of.

The Urban Renewal Program in the United States during the decades of 1950-70 was also framed with admirable ideals, supported by a coalition of interests that included inspired political and civic leaders, progressive social reformers, visionary urban planners, enlightened municipal governments, creative bankers, entrepreneurial private developers, talented architects and engineers, and an innovative construction industry. Yet by the 1970s, the program was widely recognized as a dismal failure, evidenced by concrete results. Some critics labeled it the "People Remover Program" through which poor yet functional neighborhoods were summarily vacated and cleared wholesale from the urban core to make room for private developments that enriched only private developers, and the poor were relocated in new, remote and inaccessible highrise housing projects without adequate support facilities such as schools and clinics and community centers and playground. The result was high-density housing that turned out to be worse living environments than the old low-density slums. The architect who designed the WTC towers, Minoru Yamasaki, also designed a huge award-winning low-income housing project in downtown St Louis that had to be demolished with dynamite in the 1970 because of inhabitability. The spectacular controlled collapse of the highrise housing slabs from strategically placed explosives was widely televised on the evening news.

It took architects, planners and economists decades to understand, and perhaps some still do not, that slums do not cause poverty. It is poverty that creates slums. Slum clearance itself does not eliminate poverty and often exacerbates it. Slums can only be eliminated through the elimination of poverty itself. The solution to low-income housing is to eliminate low income, not to institutionalize low income with substandard housing. Good low-income housing is an oxymoron, for the social problems of low income inevitably follow the poor into their housing, no matter how well it is designed. There is no good living without a good living wage. If you move the poor into the White House without eliminating poverty, the White House will turn into a slum within a week.

The municipal governments did not fare much better from the Urban Renewal Program. The tax incentives and exemptions city halls had to give away, on top of the municipal debts they had to assume to finance infrastructure improvement to attract private redevelopment, created severe difficulties for municipal budgets, forcing cutbacks on vital services needed for a livable city. Most downtowns became sterile ghost towns of vacant lots as low-income neighborhoods were cleared wholesale overnight and new developments took years to arrive, unable to reverse the flight of the middle-class to fast expanding suburbia, encouraged by massive federal subsidy for the automobile as a private mass transit system, while neglecting public mass transit that served the urban core. The only group that made out like bandits were the private developers who got control of choice downtown parcels practically free, plus liberal government-subsidized and -guaranteed loans and real-estate tax exemptions.

The initial approach taken by the LMDC to rebuild the WTC had been less than inspiring. It took courageous and sensible public denunciation from respected Pulitzer-winning architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, formerly of the New York Times and now with the Wall Street Journal, to jolt the authorities from their complacent and pedestrian initial mindset of business as usual.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the 6.5-hectare site on which the WTC once stood, is a public body. Its revenue comes mostly from the tolls collected from the public on bridges and tunnels financed by agency revenue bonds, and from fees from the operation of the region's airports and ports. As of June 30, 2002, it had assets of US$6.8 billion with a net of $5.6 billion after liabilities, mostly in the form of outstanding bonds. For the six months ending June 30, the Port Authority received $1.3 billion in gross revenue, yielding a net income of $384 million. Recoverables related to the events of September 11, 2001, came to $198 million. Depreciation expenses for the period were $201 million.

The mission of the Port Authority is to serve the public interest by providing transportation infrastructure and operating transportation facilities while staying within the bounds of sound public finance. This mission has become murky in recent decades, as is natural with long-standing public agencies. When the WTC was being planned in the 1960s, critics argued that the authority should reduce the tolls on bridges and tunnels that had long since been fully amortized, instead of investing in further institutional empire-building, such as venturing into development of commercial office space for profit.

Much of the land under the WTC, occupied mostly by discount electronics retail tenants with leases from small landlords, was condemned under eminent domain and assembled through street closings into a superblock by New York City and turned over to the Port Authority for the controversial project. Eminent domain is a well-established sovereign right to take private property for public use, with appropriate compensation, by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction.

Yielding to neo-liberal pressure to privatize, the Port Authority in July 2001 granted developer Larry Silverstein and Westfield Holdings Ltd a 99-year lease on the WTC's 1 million square meters of office space and 42,000 square meters of retail space, at a total price of $3.2 billion. Some have suggested that this was a sweetheart deal for a politically well-connected developer, as the true worth of the 99-year lease was estimated to be more than $8 billion. The lease gives the private leaseholders the legal standing to protect their private property rights should the public interest interfere with potential private profits over the 99-year period of the lease.

Huxtable has suggested that the Port Authority should buy back the controversial lease from the Silverstein-Westfield team, which was merely two months old at the time of the September 11 attacks, so that the Port Authority can fulfill its public-interest mission as a public agency unencumbered by conflicting private profit interests. Silverstein has answered in a terse letter to the New York Times that the lease is "not for sale", understandably, for if he should win his lawsuit against the insurance companies, he stands to collect $7.5 billion in claims, doubling the value of his lease, not to mention the 99-year stream of future profit from maximum development rights. The city is reported to be seeking to negotiate a land swap that would give it authority over the WTC site, while transferring ownership of the city's two major airports to the Port Authority in return. Rudolph Giuliani, while still mayor, advocated postponing any decisions about commercial development until after a memorial is designed, and he also suggested compensating Silverstein's group by giving it development rights elsewhere in Manhattan.

Now the issue of private property right threatens to stand in the path of the public-interest objectives of the LMDC. It is curious that no one, except Huxtable, has raised the question why the principle of eminent domain should not be applied to the Silverstein-Westfield lease.

Even among private developers, disagreement has been aired publicly over how and when the complex should be rebuilt. Silverstein, the ink of whose signature on the 99-year lease had hardly dried before the WTC was destroyed, was engaged in a public verbal duel with Michael Fascitelli, president of Vornado Realty Trust, a large New York landlord. Silverstein was determined to rebuild the complex as quickly as possible, although realistically the rebuilding of the WTC will not begin for a number of years because it will take at least four years to clean up the site and rebuild the subway and transportation network and hub beneath it. Fascitelli questioned whether it made sense for the city to rush to begin rebuilding when the economy is slowing and vacancy rising and recovery uncertain in the foreseeable future. In response, Silverstein pointed out that the World Trade Center would stagger the delivery of the million square meters of space in the complex at the rate of 232,000 square meters (2.5 million square feet) a year for four years. Silverstein also stressed that it was vitally important to the city's and the region's economy to restore the 100,000 jobs and billions of dollars in wages that downtown Manhattan lost in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, although he was vague about how empty office buildings could do that.

Underlying the public verbal duel was predatory market economics. Silverstein hopes to lure tenants back downtown with attractive rents because the cost of reconstruction will come entirely from insurance proceeds. "When you build without debt, you can build affordable space," he told a real-estate trade paper. "If we can build affordable space, people will come." What he did not say, and what Fascitelli feared, was that the new tenants would come not from economic recovery or expansion, but from existing buildings that charge higher rents in a distressed economy, repeating a process that decimated the New York commercial space market after the 1987 stock-market crash, as bank-foreclosed vacant buildings returned to the market with below-cost rents to steal tenants from financially sound buildings, turning the New York real-estate market into a decade-long predatory jungle of the weak eating the strong.

Silverstein and his insurance carriers are suing each other over how much must be paid under the WTC's policy that entitles him to $3.5 billion in coverage "per event". The Silverstein lawyers from the formidable firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz claim he is entitled to $7 billion because the two plane attacks amounted to two events under the rules of the "Traveler form" of coverage. The insurance companies say the terrorist attack was only one event under the rules of the "Wilpont form" of coverage, which defines the two attacks as one event.

The insurance companies tried to have the dispute resolved by a private arbitration panel in London rather than in a United States court. Wachtell contended that recently passed federal legislation makes Manhattan's federal courthouse the exclusive forum for resolving claims related to the September 11 attacks, regardless of the language of any contract in particular. The venue of legal proceedings is important because Silverstein may receive a more sympathetic and favorable hearing in New York, and because a decision there would most likely bind several or all the insurance firms involved. The case is a test for the new law passed in the wake of the attacks.

Silverstein and his fellow investors need a quick decision because they will soon need money to continue to make mortgage payments to their lenders and lease payments to the Port Authority when the transitional insurance cash-flow advances run out. Final plans to rebuild also depend on the outcome of the insurance dispute. Sources in the legal profession say that it would be risky to bet against Wachtell, so awe-inspiring is the fearsome reputation of the small but invincible firm, which routinely annihilates worthy opponents with overwhelming force of creative legal logic.

If Silverstein gets $7.5 billion in total insurance proceeds and rebuilds, or even $3.5 billion, he would likely be able to charge annual rents of below $40 a square foot ($430 a square meter) and still make enviable profit. That would pose a threat to Vornado, which has massive holdings of office buildings in midtown and would likely be hurt if millions of square feet of discounted space come on the market during a protracted economic downturn. Vornado needs rents of $80 a square foot at its new development rising at the site of the old Alexander's department store in the East Side of Midtown Manhattan, with Bloomberg News as an anchor tenant.

Populist political sentiment growing from a slow economy caused by the bursting of an unsustainable debt bubble linked to fraudulent corporate accounting is moving against Silverstein's plan to rebuild all 11 million square feet of office space destroyed on September 11, 2001. A general consensus on how Lower Manhattan should be rebuilt seems to be emerging among political and business leaders, though the details remain vague and sharp conflict can surface over them. There is some hope that the massive project may avoid being snarled by the city's tradition of fractious politics, and the rebuilt project will be a vast improvement over its original banal office towers framing a wind-swept plaza that was unfriendly, if not outright hostile, to pedestrians, disconnected from downtown neighborhoods, faced by an undistinguished hotel and a depressing underground retail concourse. Instead, a balanced mixed use for the site seems within the realm of possibility, including educational and cultural facilities, perhaps a performing-arts center and museum, possibly affordable residential units, as well as an appropriate amount of retail and office space, or perhaps even low-rent studios for struggling artists, filmmakers and writers.

Current thinking has set aside at least 2.4 of the site's 6.9 hectares for a memorial, making about 6 million square feet of office space reasonable from a city planning perspective, assuming the lackluster market can support or even need that amount within the next decade. Silverstein has pushed for a replacement of all the 11 million square feet of office space and the 500,000 square feet of destroyed retail space. But his efforts have alienated powerful constituencies, and angered surviving families of attack victims. Giuliani, while still mayor, advocated postponing any decisions about commercial development until after a memorial is designed, and he even suggested compensating Silverstein's group by giving it development rights elsewhere in Manhattan. John Whitehead, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who is now the public-spirited head of the LMDC, stressed the importance of the memorial and outlined a mixed-use vision for the site, including residential, cultural and educational facilities. He also cautioned that phasing of the project will be conditioned by market demand for space in the next few years.

Much depends on the amount of federal aid finally forthcoming beyond the $20 billion that President George W Bush made available for cleanup and renewal - especially for the transportation projects. Congress had approved $12.4 billion of the cleanup money before the end of 2002, while an additional $5 billion is proposed as part of the much-debated Bush stimulus budget. As the federal budget deficit climbs, and with war costs unpredictable, it is not at all certain that the federal government will give New York all that it needs, when the initial emotion from the terrorist attacks subsides against a long list of other national priorities.

Falling real-estate prices and rising vacancies had begun to hit New York long before September 2001, as the US economy started to slow at the beginning of 2000. Since the attacks, bitter landlord-tenant wars, terrorism insurance problems and nasty court battles continue to create a murky outlook for the quick recovery of Lower Manhattan, which had survived more on hope than market fundamentals for several decades, despite strong support from powerful interests.

Some 13 million square feet of prime class A space had been destroyed and as much as another 20 million square feet was temporarily lost as a result of falling debris and fires to neighboring buildings on September 11. Some 652 tenants occupying 28.6 million square feet (nearly 2.7 million square meters) of space were temporarily or permanently displaced. Yet vacancies, which had been rising in Manhattan through 2001, did not fall sharply, but incredibly rose as firms relocated part of their operation on a permanent basis to the surrounding suburbs and across the river to New Jersey, to avoid the dangers and upheaval of having all of their operations share the same transportation hub and power grid should another attack occur. The situation is exacerbated by unending massive layoffs in the financial and corporate sectors. More than 10 million square feet of sublease space came on the Manhattan market in 2002. Office vacancies in downtown Manhattan rose to 13 percent of at the end of February 2002 from 6.5 percent on September 10, 2001, despite the loss of 33 million square feet. The vacancy rate now is about 17 percent and still rising.

There is a serious question whether downtown Manhattan will ever rebound despite the fact that downtown rents are now 30-40 percent cheaper than comparable space in midtown Manhattan, where the market is also softening. For the first time in history, Lower Manhattan can compete with the New Jersey waterfront developments on price. Aside from the cheaper rents, businesses are also being lured to Lower Manhattan by government incentives. Governor Pataki and newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled programs late last month that offered grants ranging from $3,500-$5,000 per employee for companies that commit to remaining in Lower Manhattan for five years. Business Recovery grants - ranging from $50,000-$300,000 - are also offered to reimburse companies for lost revenue during the disruption. Insurers warned that they may not be able to offer terrorism coverage without some kind of government backing or, even if they did, coverage would be limited and premiums would skyrocket. Once an afterthought in standard coverage, terrorism insurance has now become a front-end issue that threatens the core of future real-estate developments, as well as other industries, such as airlines, hotels and cruise ships.

The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, a coalition of New York civic and cultural institutions such as the Municipal Art Society, League of Conservation Voters, Guggenheim Museum and Ford Foundation, argues that the rebuilt site should restore the street pattern interrupted by the WTC superblock. The street pattern represents the urban fabric of city life that links the city as an organic whole. To Australia-based shopping-mall giant Westfield Holdings Ltd, which holds the 99-year lease on all retail space in the project, urban streets are the antithesis of the concept a shopping mall. Westfield has a bigger market capitalization - $12.9 billion - than any industry rival. The Lowy family owns a controlling 30 percent stake in the company, which is publicly traded in Australia and owns 108 facilities there, in the United States and in Europe. From 1960, when it went public, through 2000, its shareholders received a 34 percent average annual return on their investment.

The lease gave the Australian company authority to expand the large existing retail mall that ran along the street level of parts of the WTC and, in some places, underground. Westfield planned to raise the large pedestrian plaza between the twin towers 15 meters and add another 18,600 square meters (200,000 square feet) of shops at ground level. The destroyed WTC mall, a typical mix of stores selling clothes, books, watches, toys and fast food in a less-than-pleasant environment, was one of the most lucrative in the United States. It generated annual sales of about $900 a square foot, or three times the national average, from some 250,000 people, mostly captive workers in the towers and surrounding buildings, passed through its concourses three times a day on an average work day, during morning and afternoon rush hours and lunchtime.

The attacks on the WTC turned the towers into a heroic symbol of American values. But though largely subdued out of respect for the victims of the tragedy, there was also near-universal criticism for its poor design and planning as well as the high-handed development process that brought it into existence. Not many who worked in the twin towers had fond feelings for the architectural monstrosity.

The WTC was conceived in the early 1960s by the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Development Association to revitalize the seedy "radio row" dominated by cut-rate electronics stores. David Rockefeller, founder of the development association, as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, which was headquartered in downtown, and his older brother, then New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who after World War II had donated the land for the United Nations Headquarters on the East River, pushed for the project as part of a grand plan to revitalized Lower Manhattan, the commercial viability of which ironically had been challenged by the successful Rockefeller Center in Midtown built during the 1930s Depression by their grandfather, John D Rockefeller.

The 1960s were the Rockefeller decade in New York. The oldest Rockefeller brother, John D III, was leading the charge to build Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on urban renewal land on the West Side. In 1962, the Port Authority began plans to build the center. Critics charged that the proliferation of gargantuan centers would rob New York neighborhoods of their historical character in general, and the WTC in particular would ruin the skyline, disrupt television reception, and strain city services. However, the project was approved in smoke-filled back rooms of politics and money, and construction began in 1966.

In order to create the 6.5-hectare WTC site, five streets were closed and 164 buildings were demolished. Construction required the excavation of more than 900,000 cubic meters of earth, which was used to create 9.5 hectares of landfill along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan now know as Battery Park City. During peak construction periods, 3,500 people worked at the site on any given day. A total of 10,000 construction workers worked on the towers; 60 died during construction, which was considered a fair record for the 110-story towers, for a death rate of one worker per floor was not uncommon for New York skyscraper construction.

The North Tower was opened in December 1970 and the South Tower in January 1972; they were dedicated in April 1973, as the world's tallest buildings, a distinction held for only a short time, since the taller Sears Tower in Chicago was completed in May 1973. (However, the North Tower's 114.3-meter radio tower technically allowed it to claim to be the tallest.) The towers were ranked as the fifth- and sixth-tallest buildings in the world at the time of their destruction on September 11, 2001.

The WTC was more than its signature twin towers. It was a complex of seven buildings with four smaller buildings and a hotel built around a central nondescript landscaped plaza. The retail space at the WTC, which was located below the plaza, was the largest shopping mall in lower Manhattan. The six basements housed two subway stations and a stop on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) commuter trains to New Jersey. Some 50,000 people worked in the buildings, while another 200,000 visited or passed through each day. The top-floor observation deck had 26,000 visitors daily, who could see for 70 kilometers on a clear day. From the ground, the towers were visible from at least 32km out. The complex had its own zip code: 10048. Though the complex, which opened in 1973, at first was an empty towering white elephant, it eventually filled up after years of enticing blue-chip tenants with low rents, which upset competing private developers.

As the new millennium began, downtown was riding the late-1990s technology bubble and the robust debt economy. The area had added close to 70,000 jobs in last five years of the 20th century, and its office vacancy rate was near an all-time low. Residential development was booming, with rents and sale prices skyrocketing, serving yuppies who worked on Wall Street, new information-technology (IT) and financial services companies were moving in and the NYSE announced plans to develop a gleaming new headquarters. The WTC was enjoying close to its highest occupancy ever.

The September 11 terrorist attacks turned downtown's dream into a nightmare that may last into the indefinite future. One year after the attacks, despite public announcements of unflinching optimism, most involved in the rebuilding still are privately unsure whether the area will ever restore the tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of companies that were displaced or lost on that tragic day. An estimated 100,000 employers were forced to relocate from downtown at least temporarily after the attacks and not many have returned, especially survived workers of the WTC who are still suffering from trauma.

Former tenants of the destroyed complex have since leased 6.7 million square feet of new space, but, of that, only 350,000 square feet, or 5.2 percent, has been leased downtown. The companies now gone from the area include some of the biggest names in finance, including Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc and CIBC. The return of major corporations, including American Express Corp and Merrill Lynch & Co, has filled some of the gap but far from eliminated it. Downtown has lost some 65,000 jobs since the terrorist attack, more than 17 percent of the 368,000 people who had been working there before September 11, 2001. The bulk of those worked for companies in buildings that were destroyed, but more than 30,000 jobs also have vanished because of the weak economy, failing retailers and restaurants and corporate bankruptcies.

Nor is there much hope for any job growth in the short term. New York's economy is hurting, especially its technology and financial services sectors, on which downtown depends. Even now, businesses are continuing to downsize, adding to the glut of more than 4 million square feet of sublease space on the downtown market. About one-third of the estimated 1,500 small retailers in the area have closed. The NYSE canceled its new 60-story headquarters project, which would have received a subsidy of more than $1.2 billion from the city in the form of free land assembly at a cost of $450 million, generous construction-cost contribution and tax breaks. The city's taxpayers lost $110 million in planning cost and deposit forfeiture on the aborted deal, which had been criticized for lucrative subsidies to a gilded trading complex that is destined to face an obsolescence challenge from electronic trading in the not-distant future.

Like the late-1990s boom, the next upturn could inject new life into the area. And today's downtown office vacancy rate of close to 17 percent is still lower than it was in the slump after the 1987 crash, which lasted through the early 1990s. But downtown Manhattan's growth historically has come from the expansion of its indigenous businesses, not the relocation of companies from elsewhere. A big part of that growth engine was destroyed by the terrorist attack.

Making matters worse, some downtown tenants that came back are considering leaving when their current leases expire, despite low rents and huge government incentives that make occupancy costs in the Financial District about one-third less than in Midtown and competitive with some high price suburbs, such as Westchester County and Stamford, Connecticut. The city and state have offered special tax breaks and other benefits customized to the 145 downtown businesses that have more than 200 employees in exchange for committing to the area for at least seven years. But only 50 have accepted, and some of those are retailers and hotels that have little choice but to stay. The rest are keeping their options open as they watch the progress on rebuilding Ground Zero and restoring the vital transportation systems that were lost. Serious rebuilding is not expected to begin for another four years at the earliest and final completion would be at least a decade away. Most businesses simply do not have such a long perspective in this business environment of quarterly earning concerns.

The gargantuan superscale of the WTC towers and the barricade-like lower mass blocked vistas and sight lines of closed streets and sunlight from neighboring areas, interrupted traffic flow with abrupt bottlenecks, and set the project up as a fortress detached from the rest of Lower Manhattan, even from the old Financial District to the south. Planners and civic leaders now see the rebuilding as an opportunity to correct this mistake by reconnecting the site to surrounding neighborhoods and to restore the torn urban fabric. Within a month of the attacks, the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York circulated a memorandum advocating restoration of the old street grid. The idea also gained important support from the LMDC planners. Area residents generally favor reopening the streets as a way of reconnecting neighborhoods cut off by the WTC.

Meanwhile, Westfield and Silverstein had a plan of their own to restore Greenwich Street, a major north-south thoroughfare to both cars and pedestrians. Some minor streets, such as Fulton, would be open at least to pedestrians. But in a concession to the retail leaseholder, two other restored streets, Cortlandt and Dey, would exclude cars, and Cortlandt would be enclosed in glass between buildings. Silverstein also proposed to elevate the office lobbies of the buildings on the east side of the site to make more ground-level retail space available to Westfield.

As part of the initial official design process, the Port Authority and the LMDC jointly announced six alternative designs, with the private leaseholders' proposal among them. Any plan ultimately backed by the leaseholders will carry considerable weight, especially if endorsed by the Port Authority, because these entities are the legal principals. The six initial design plans for the site released last July were roundly criticized. As a result, a new competitive design process was hastily adopted and the date for completion of the plan has been extended until the first half of 2003.

The concept of a superblock is a modern city-planning idea and there is nothing wrong with it if it is properly linked to the existing urban structure. Instead, the WTC complex was dropped like a fortified fortress into an existing neighborhood without any regard for vital connection and context of scale and transition. And there is nothing wrong with skyscrapers except that they cannot be placed on postage-stamp-size lots and hope to function properly.

In New York, the sidewalks are 4.5 meters wide on side streets and six meters wide along avenues. This was an adequate dimension when buildings were six-story walkups, and sidewalks were public social spaces where people could sit on benches and chat. Yet with modern buildings now rising 60, 80 or 110 stories, the sidewalks remain 4.5m wide, rendering pedestrian circulation unpleasant and even dangerous, and people get upset with those who stop to chat or walk too slowly for the rush-hour flow.

When Mies van der Rohe designed the Seagram building, he pulled the tower back from the sidewalk and created the only successful urban plaza on Park Avenue, which ironically private security guards used to wave people away who try to sit and enjoy the noontime sun on the beautiful green granite ledges lining the sides of the plaza. When the great French modern architect Le Corbusier visited New York in 1946, he proclaimed in his When the Cathedrals Were White that New York "is a city in the process of becoming", that the New York skyscrapers were too small. He wanted larger mixed-use skyscrapers set in superblocks of landscaped parks.

It was not that Greenwich Street was interrupted that was bad, but the way it was interrupted without a sense of destination was objectionable. Park Avenue was punctuated by the Grand Central Terminal and Fifth Avenue ends majestically with Washington Park. Separation of pedestrian movement and vehicular traffic is a time-tested planning principle, but to work it must be done in ways where the connecting points between cars and people become celebrations of the joys of urban life, which the WTC complex failed to grasp.

In a scalding condemnation of the original design proposals, critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2002): "I avoid dignifying these retarded exercises in crushing commercial square footage and meaningless memorial voids with the term 'concept plans' - that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority have provided for the rebuilding of the tragically maimed World Trade Center site are six cookie-cutter losers. We do not need a necropolis of the urban-renewal mistakes of the '60s. The titles only dimly disguise the fact that the phalanxes of massed office buildings are the revealed reality of official intentions. Called Memorial This and That as a gesture to the universal desire for commemoration, they are dedicated to maximum return on the land, while obviously begging the future.

"There is talk of buyouts and other economic escape hatches, and rumors that the Port Authority may even cancel that onerous lease, at considerable cost, freeing Larry Silverstein to act like a hero. Although it would be naive to think that the process is being re-scripted in response to public opinion, the protests may indeed be awakening dormant instincts of civic responsibility in the face of unspeakable tragedy and the political shadow of an election year. The city has suffered a tremendous loss. Profit-as-usual hardly seems appropriate. What Silverstein had in mind when he swore to rebuild is too awful to contemplate, now that we have contemplated it.

"It is fashionable to say that greed at a grand scale has made New York great. That's a dismal outlook. Our buildings are great to the degree that their architecture is great; where the city is great, as at Rockefeller Center, it is because there are subtleties of scale and relationships that elevate the urban experience. If size and square footage is where all office buildings begin, they do not end there with landmarks like the Woolworth, Chrysler or Empire State buildings; they are not memorable for their visibility (like the twin towers, which were neither architecturally distinguished nor a trade center), but for their quality and character. This is not the same thing as building big with trim.

"Successful, city-enriching plans are achieved by those trained and talented specialists who have surprised us ever since Michelangelo miraculously transformed the impossibly mismatched grades and buildings of Rome's Capitoline Hill into the superbly synthesized Campidoglio."

On August 12, Huxtable wrote again: "The gentlemen upstate and downtown who control the future of Ground Zero seem to have gotten half the message - 11 million square feet of commercial space plus a hotel and 600,000 square feet of shopping in a blockbuster cluster looming over what Governor Pataki refers to as 'hallowed ground' is no one's idea of what to do on the World Trade Center site except the Port Authority's and those who hold the leases of the twin towers and its shopping mall.

"The only interests served are those of the Port Authority, which owns the World Trade Center land and buildings, the developer, Larry Silverstein, with a 99-year lease on the twin towers, and Westfield America, the shopping-mall developer that operated the stores beneath them. This is deja vu all over again for those who remember the urban-renewal destruction of Lower Manhattan in the 1960s.

"The other half of the message is taking much longer to get through. This is the obvious (to everyone else) fact that Ground Zero is part of Lower Manhattan. You would never know it from these proposals; it might as well be on the moon. That understanding should have been step one in the planning process. The reconstruction of the World Trade Center site has been conceived in a vacuum, unrelated to the needs of a downtown that was changing radically before [September 11, 2001].

"Whatever is built must function organically with the rest of Lower Manhattan. The developers' specifications need to be studied in the context of existing conditions and future needs that include office space and housing, updated transportation and communication networks, and the essential revenues and services to maintain and strengthen the area's economic base while encouraging a mixed-use community. Vision is knowing how to make this happen. It means being able to conceptualize solutions, turning statistical projections, land-use patterns and legal and financial tools into real places. It supplies the connective tissue that brings it all to life.

"Inevitably, market conditions will be a controlling factor. But the formulaic sterility of all six proposals suggests that this creative assessment of conditions and options either never took place, or was aborted early on. That is why starting with the plans as they exist now will take us nowhere.

"The Port Authority and the LMDC failed to identify potential development sites beyond Ground Zero, including land, buildings, roads or rights of way owned or controlled by state and public agencies, opportunities for linkage, trades, or air-rights zoning transfers, and the list does not end there.

"These devices are all available, but both the Port Authority and the Empire State Development Corporation, New York state's construction agency, to which the LMDC answers, have much stronger planning and development tools. They can override local zoning completely, issue bonds to finance construction and use the power of eminent domain to condemn and purchase land. These instruments open the door to much broader planning possibilities than have been presented.

"Caught by surprise by the negative response of a public far ahead of them, and mindful of upcoming elections, officials are beginning to look for other answers. Talk has begun about properties surrounding the World Trade Center site affected by [September] 11. There is an encouraging report that the city is offering to trade the land it owns under La Guardia and Kennedy airports, for which the Port Authority pays a substantial rental due to increase shortly, in exchange for the World Trade Center site, which would bring Ground Zero and its rebuilding under city control and get the Port Authority out of the downtown real-estate business and back to the airports where it belongs. This shows how creative the political establishment can be when the pressure is on.

"One important message doesn't seem to have been communicated at all. Just widening the pool of talent - a concession in the making - is not going to get the right results; all the talent in the world cannot produce a plan without a program that offers more information and wider opportunities than were given to those who produced what we have seen. The process has been controlled by the developers' wish list; its only concession has been to honor the mandate for a memorial.

"There is no law that says everything that was on that spot has to go back there. What is at issue are revenues, which will be generated wherever the new construction takes place. The critical mass of consumers and captive commuters that the twin towers provided has been a gold mine for Westfield; the location has been more profitable than any of its suburban malls. Just as Mr Silverstein has hastened to prepare potential semi-skyscrapers with the hope of jumping into construction, Westfield's plans are well beyond the concept stage; this includes the travesty of a glass-enclosed shopping street on the reopened old street pattern. They don't cross streets in suburbia. That even drew protests from the consulting architect.

"Rebuilding Ground Zero must begin with a commitment to both physical and symbolic renewal and the hopes and concerns of those whose losses were so great. The memorial cannot be separated from the planning process ... From the ideas being floated it is clear that whatever form the memorial takes, it will be both conspicuous and controversial. Style will be an explosive subject. Its constituency, the bereaved, already feel shut out of the design process. No one has dealt with how memorial space should co-exist with commercial or residential development. A soaring something has already become the pious fallback for politicians who are unable, or unwilling to come to grips with the larger planning problem.

"The last opportunity to create significant open green space in Manhattan was the building of Central Park a century and a half ago. Quite possibly, it will never happen again. There are new parks of elegance and originality - Barcelona has built a number of them - but none here. Paris's recently designed Parc Citroen has changes in scale and elevation, open spaces and intimate areas, lyrical, programmed fountains and pavilions that can be adapted to active and passive pleasures or simple remembrance and contemplation. Genuine memorabilia could be incorporated. What could be wrong with a similar work of landscape art devoted to memory and open to all in this overcongested, hard-edged city?

"New York is known for its creative talent and negotiating skills. This is an unparalleled opportunity for great city-making, if we still have any idea in the age of bottom-line building what that means. The city's land-swap offer is a heartening development. It would be both ironic and fitting if Ground Zero were rescued by a beautiful deal."

The Huxtable criticism energized diverse rumblings of opposition to the initial designs into a focused public outcry that forced the LMDC to reconsider its redevelopment approach and to recommit itself to its mission of protecting and enhancing the public interest.

Beyond sensible rebuilding plans, Manhattan's oldest financial-business district has been fighting for decades to survive the natural evolution of New York northward. The destruction of the WTC has posed the biggest challenge yet to Lower Manhattan in its decades-old struggle to maintain its status as a premier business location.

Forty years ago, an earlier chapter of that struggle led to the birth of the WTC. Planners and government leaders believed they could stem a flood of businesses moving to Midtown Manhattan by offering modern space in the world's tallest buildings. That aim was still not fully successful at the time of the WTC's destruction.

Downtown is full of potential, but its future rests not on office development alone. In addition to the financial center, downtown has colorful ethnic communities, such as Chinatown, Little Italy, and East European neighborhoods, a vibrant art scene, educational institutions and historic buildings, a successful South Street Seaport to provide a rich urban experience to residents, visitors and tourists. Its residential neighborhoods have bounced back some since the attacks and developers are moving cautiously forward with new apartment buildings. Ground Zero is rapidly turning into one of the city's main tourist destinations and will likely become even a bigger draw once a memorial is finished.

With $21 billion in federal aid promised to the city to finance a new commuter rail and subway hub downtown, dreams to exploit these potentials fully are closer than ever to reality. Additional funds are still needed for submerging West Street, which now cuts the WTC from the Hudson River and numerous other projects on the wish lists of different groups. Already, behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts have begun by the influential Brookfield Properties Corp, a major advocate for submerging West Street, which not coincidentally could increase the value of its office towers at the World Financial Center facing the superhighway width of West Street. It would be reasonable for Brookfield to contribute to the cost of submerging West Street from the expected appreciation of its property resulting from such public improvement. The promised federal money might also finance a rail connection to Long Island through existing subway tunnels, affecting service on those subways for years and potentially triggering opposition from those affected. Up until now, when the unifying spirit generated by the attacks is still fresh, the multiple government agencies involved in rebuilding have shown unusual cooperation, but none of the tough choices have been made among the competing projects and will not be made for years, by which time the poisonous weed of politics as usual may resurface.

The rebuilding process could deteriorate into another of New York's infamous land-use wars. At Ground Zero, initial plans made little progress in reconciling the emotionally charged need for a memorial with the desire of commercial interests to restore the 11 million square feet of office and retail space that was destroyed. The unanimously negative public reaction forced the Port Authority and LMDC to begin considering ways to spread commercial development to other downtown sites so that all of it needs not be squeezed into Ground Zero.

But such enlightened goals may not by themselves persuade the smart money that downtown is coming back. Tenants have been reluctant to consider the area until an approved plan for Ground Zero with popular support and sufficient financing is reality. Existing tenants are discouraged, especially when they see little progress even on badly damaged buildings on the periphery of Ground Zero. New tenants shun downtown because of new security concerns raised by September 11, and continued security alerts associated with war plans on Iraq and elsewhere in this era of superpower unilateralism. Many that were centralizing their offices before the terrorists struck are now racing to disperse their operations and shun conspicuous corporate headquarters. The NYSE, instead of planning a gleaming new trading floor on Wall Street, is now considering developing a backup operation outside of downtown and even outside of New York. American Express came very close late last year to relocating permanently to Midtown because it was worried about future terrorism downtown. It was only after the city promised a wide range of additional security measures that the financial-services powerhouse agreed to return to it downtown location.

Architect Yamasaki and engineers John Skilling and Les Robertson worked closely on the twin towers to integrate the towers' design and structure. Faced with the difficulties of building to unprecedented heights, the engineers employed an innovative structural concept: a rigid "hollow tube" of closely spaced exterior steel columns, braced by floor trusses extending to a steel central core. The steel columns, finished with a silver-colored aluminum alloy, were 47.6 centimeters wide and set only 55.9cm apart, dominated the design, making the towers appear from afar to have no windows at all.

Also unique to the engineering design were its core and elevator system. The twin towers were the first supertall buildings designed without any masonry, thus reducing its dead weight, among other advantages. To prevent the intense air pressure created by the towers' high-speed elevators from buckling conventional shafts, engineers designed a solution using a drywall system of plasterboards fixed to the steel core. For the elevators, to serve 110 stories with a traditional configuration would have required half the area of the lower stories be used for shaftways. Otis Elevators developed an express and local system, whereby passengers would change at "sky lobbies" on the 44th and 78th floors, halving the number of shaftways.

These construction innovations, designed to combat the wind load, which is generally acknowledged as the critical force in tall buildings, contributed each tower's unexpected vulnerability to the impact of a fully fueled Boeing airliner and the effect of the ensuing jet-fuel fire on the structural strength of steel insulated only against normal office fires. The absence of a top-to-bottom concrete core of elevator shafts with fire stairs made safe escape problematic, as the tower could not provide enough time for the occupants to exit safely through as central core that would stand even when the office floors collapsed.

Skilling and Robertson are highly respected world-class engineers. It was not their job to design against forces of terrorism. That was the government's job. Thus the collapse of the WTC towers was not a technical failure; rather, it was a political failure.

Another problem that has not been receiving adequate attention is the fact that when the WTC was built in the early 1970s, asbestos was applied as insulation to steel columns and beams up to the 39th floor of the North Tower before a ban on the use of the carcinogenic mineral took effect in 1971. Asbestos fiber was a common protection against fire and heat in many products, especially building components, until its heavily toxic effects became publicly known. The American Lung Association warns that "if asbestos should become airborne and is inhaled, it can remain in the lungs for a long period of time, producing the risk for severe health problems several years later". The incubation time can last up to 30 years. Health effects can include asbestosis, lung cancer and other diseases, depending on the concentration. It is estimated that hospitalization, oxygen, medication and home care can cost a victim $300,000-$500,000 during the course of the illness.

WR Grace asbestos containing insulation was used at the WTC. Grace Vermiculite was 2-5 percent asbestos. A total of 100,000 36-kilogram bags of this vermiculite were used in the WTC. In addition, 4,150kg of 20 percent asbestos MonoKote 3 was used. Therefore, in total more than 91,000 kilos of pure asbestos fiber from Grace was used in the WTC. Grace filed bankruptcy in April 2001 over its multibillion-dollar liability from asbestos lawsuits. Unfortunately, Grace was not the only supplier.

T&N, formerly the largest asbestos company in Britain, reached a favorable settlement with the Port Authority on a $600 million lawsuit against 37 defendants, including T&N, for asbestos contamination of municipal buildings, including the WTC. Further, the Port Authority lost a 10-year court battle to get its insurers to pay more than $600 million for removing asbestos from its properties, including the World Trade Center and New York's airports. The judge ruled that asbestos-abatement costs by themselves do not constitute "physical loss or damage" under the Port Authority's all-risk policies.

The collapse of the twin towers released asbestos into the air for months, yet concerns for the long-term effect on the health of the population in the region are curiously under wraps thus far from public health organizations. Not even the normally inquisitive press seems to be paying much attention. The official statistics of the WTC towers boasts 97 elevators for passengers and six for freight, 181,000 tonnes of steel, 325,000 cubic meters of concrete below ground, 43,600 windows, 19,300 kilometers of electric cables, 319km of heating ducts, 23,000 fluorescent lights, but nothing on the amount of asbestos used.

Some have predicted the end of skyscrapers, as people would be concerned about their vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Yet more than a year after the attacks, people continue to go to work in highrises, and tall buildings continue to be built around the globe. Four of the nine new design proposals for the WTC site call for again building the world's tallest building, taller even than the destroyed towers. The public is paying close attention. More than 6 million visitors have viewed the proposals on the website of the LMDC and another 80,000 have seen the drawings and models of the proposals in person. The debate is bound to be one of the largest open architectural critiques ever.

The initial proposals called for office towers ranging from 32-85 stories - modest heights by Manhattan standards set in part by the destroyed twin towers. The second-round proposals are more ambitious in both form and concept. In addition to featuring much taller structures, most of the new plans call for 8 million to 10 million square feet of commercial space - less than the 11 million destroyed - plus a museum and a transit station. In addition to debate over the shape, size and scope of the building plans, there will likely be concerns voiced about safety and security. The WTC was twice targeted by terrorists, and the structures that replace the twin towers would also be likely targets.

Nine plans for the 6.5-hectare site and its surroundings, offered by seven well-known architectural teams, were unveiled in mid-December. Four of the plans proposed the world's tallest buildings, as the 110-story twin towers were for a short time in the 1970s.

The second-round proposals were evaluated against a 43-point checklist, with an emphasis on what the LMDC calls "workability" - construction in phases over a decade, their connection with the neighborhood, and integration with the transportation infrastructure that is being built first underground. A memorial to nearly 2,800 people killed at the site on September 11, 2001, will be the first project built at street level, after an international design competition that begins this spring. Towers of any kind are destined to be the last project built, depending largely on the market demands for office space.

Two teams, Studio Daniel Libeskind, the firm headed by the Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, and the Think team, headed by the architects Frederic Schwartz, Rafael Vinoly, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban of Tokyo, were selected as finalists and will now work with rebuilding officials on refinements to their designs. One team is to be selected as the winner by the end of February.

Libeskind proposed a 533-meter (1,776 feet, a height that symbolizes the year of US independence) tower, with "life-affirming" indoor gardens filling the top floors. He would leave large portions of the 21-meter-deep Ground Zero pit open, exposing the concrete foundation walls that survived the towers' collapse. He created two large public places, the Park of Heroes to commemorate the victims and the Wedge of Light: "Each year on September 11 between the hours of 8:46am, when the first airplane hit, and 10:28am, when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage." These ideas indeed move into the realm of conceptual art and may make further memorial design redundant.

Libeskind's plan includes an open pit on the western portion of the site, where the memorial to victims would be located. The pit, including the footprints of the WTC towers, would be outlined by the concrete-slurry walls designed to hold back groundwater from what were formerly the concourse and basement levels of the WTC. The proposal is conceptually brilliant and executed with inspirational beauty that one would be safe to conclude that only an architect of Libeskind's creativity and caliber can deliver. Yet the program calls for the final design to be executed by many other architects, whose selection will be based on factors besides talent. It is doubtful that such a process can deliver the full quality inherent in Libeskind's brilliant proposal.

The plan by the Think team proposed a pair of 500m open-latticework tower structures, looking like echoes of the fallen twin towers, rising from their footprints, and housing plug-in cultural facilities such as a commemorative museum and a concert hall. The memorial tower structures would contain viewing platforms near the top and project beams of lights into the sky at night. The team proposes as many as eight mid-sized office buildings below.

The Think team imagines New York's rebirth in soaring towers of culture while Libeskind sees the foundations of democracy in the concrete walls surrounding Ground Zero. Each of the designs includes what would be the tallest structures in the world, though in both plans, the towers' upper reaches are not occupied by offices, but by a memorial observation deck in one case, and a hanging garden in the other.

The Think team proposed a plan based three components - Sky Park, The Great Room and The World Cultural Center. The Sky Park is a 10-block, 6.5-hectare rooftop public park that floats above the street grid, gradually climbing to 10 stories and culminating in a cantilevered 1.2-hectare lawn with sweeping views of the Hudson River and the New York Harbor. The memorial location is defined by the open squares of the footprints of the WTC towers and includes the space above, below and surrounding them. On the park's perimeter, three large office towers (including the world's tallest) complete the program in subsequent phases. The towers are designed as independent buildings and rise high above the park to redefine the skyline of the city.

The Great Room is a vast, covered public plaza connecting all the elements of the program under an enormous free-span glass ceiling. A soaring living memorial, encompassing 5.25 hectares, serves as the Gateway to the City and as the Great Hall of the Transportation Center - an unprecedented place for arrival, celebration and civic events.

The World Cultural Center, built above and around the footprints of the WTC towers, but without touching them, two open latticework structures create a floating "site" for development of the Towers of Culture. Within these soaring structures, distinctive buildings designed by different architects are phased to complete a program of innovative cultural facilities: the memorial (from the footprints of the original towers to the top of the highest platform in the world), the September 11 Interpretative Museum, a performing-arts center, an international conference center, an open amphitheater, viewing platforms and public facilities for education, arts and sciences reconstruct the skyline of the city with the icons of the Public Realm. The towers emerge from large glass reflecting pools that bring natural light to the retail and transit concourse.

The Think team proposal is in essence a three-dimensional urban design framework, so strongly structured that even different architects of uneven talent cannot ruin the overall plan.

The two finalist designs can be viewed at the LMDC website

Officials from the LMDC, the Port Authority and the offices of the mayor and the governor vowed that while the final winning design would require modification, changes would not alter the design's central vision. The office buildings that will be constructed there over the next 10-12 years could look significantly different from the renderings created by the winning team. That is because these two plans, unlike some of those that were rejected, have the memorial, rather than office towers, as their centerpiece. The architects themselves have acknowledged that the design of the office buildings in their drawings are merely massing outlines and subject to change.

The final site plan will include parcels where office buildings will eventually be located, including the size and shape of each building's footprint and the anticipated height. But the specific design of the office buildings will depend on when they are built and by which developer. Silverstein, who holds the 99-year lease on the site, sent a letter to LMDC the very day of the finalists' announcement, asserting that the lease gave his group the right to rebuild the site as the group sees fit and to choose the architecture firm that will design it. The LMDC responded that it "had a number of consultants looking at all the issues that were raised in that letter and we came to different conclusions".

The Port Authority and LMDC have clashed in recent weeks over priorities for the site. The Port Authority has been primarily focused on infrastructure, encompassing everything from the layout of a new transportation complex to the location of truck ramps into the basement levels of the site. The LMDC has been more interested in esthetics, including which architect's concept makes a more desirable impact on the skyline and on the memorial. The LMDC maintains that it will continue to oversee and guide the redevelopment process.

The Regional Plan Association, a planning advocacy group, rightly criticized the planning process as one that seemed to have been made up as it progressed, not so much as improvisation with clear conviction, but more as bending with the political wind of public opinion, which is not a sign of leadership. So far, public opinion happens to be in the right direction. There is no telling, with the other-directed record of the LMDC so far, that if public opinion should turn the wrong way, as Parisians turned against the Eiffel Tower, whether the LMDC would be able to stand the heat and stick to its conviction.

At the Paris Exposition of 1889, Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) demonstrated the dynamism of French creativity by unveiling his Three-Hundred-Meter Tower, known simply as the Eiffel Tower in modern times, amid vocal hostile establishment reception. Thomas Edison (1847-1931) paid an admiring visit to Gustave Eiffel in the great engineer's tower in 1922. The historic occasion of the great inventor paying homage to the great engineer would be recorded in motion pictures, the then-novel medium just invented by Edison. The show of support by the great inventor helped save the Eiffel Tower from demands from critics for its demolition and gave France and the world a monument of great beauty in perpetuity.

The problem of the design of the memorial is superhumanly difficult. An international competition will not by itself guarantee success unless the question of what the memorial should represent is properly and clearly framed. Obviously it is a memorial to all the innocent victims and the LMDC mission statement mentions vague notions of American values, democracy and freedom under attacked, sounding almost like banal jingoism.

While the definitive specific political or organizational identity of the attackers has yet to be established, it is generally assumed by US authorities that al-Qaeda was the responsible party. Yet the principal goals of al-Qaeda as espoused by the broad movement are narrowly focused on driving US armed forces out of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia, and not a clash of civilizations as claimed by Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington. So far, no group has openly claimed responsibility or taken credit for the attacks or enunciated the political objectives behind the terrible acts. Blaming terrorism on evil is too simplistically convenient. The fact is that the tragic events of September 11, 2001, seem to have started indiscriminate, endless cycles of violence.

A memorial needs to radiate universality that represents all humanity by transcending individual tragedy and transient political disputes.

Next: Building on the lessons of history