Consensus on ground zero: Be bolder

Asuncion de Chavez is generally a quiet woman. But on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, she's determined to be heard.

So early Saturday morning, she arrived at New York's Javits Center. There, on one of the hundreds of tables in a vast room, the still-grieving mother set a picture of her son Jaycercyll. He was killed while working on the 95th floor of Tower 2.

"I want to make sure for him that where the towers stood – the footprints – nothing will be built but a memorial," she says.

Ms. de Chavez was one of the 5,000 people who came out to voice their opinions on the emotionally charged question of how to rebuild at ground zero. Touted as the world's largest town meeting, it was an extraordinary exercise in democracy that some say is unprecedented in urban planning.

The result was a resounding thumbs-down to most of the six proposals. People want bolder, more innovative, and less-commercial ideas.

While planners and public officials say the comments will be invaluable, many participants were less confident their input would be heeded. Still, they were excited to be part of the process, which is now beginning in earnest.

"Even though it was a centrally planned effort to have a grass-roots people's event, which is ironic in itself, the fact of making it a big public event will mobilize even more people for a long-term process," says Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. "So overall, it is good."

At the center of the discussions were six draft proposals put forward last week by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), which was created to guide the rebuilding. They were based on the premise that all the space lost – 11 million square feet of office, 600,000 square feet of hotel, and 600,000 square feet of retail – should be replaced.

Families of victims, survivors, people who lost jobs, others who were near the site when it was attacked, and many more who simply live here sat at tables of 10. They spent the day listening to the planners explain the restrictions, as well as their goals.

The people in turn discussed them, then tapped their reactions into computers and wireless keypads. They also offered their own ideas of what could spring from the 16-acre pit.

Some responses were tabulated almost immediately. On the space provided for the memorial, for example, a majority or a plurality rated each idea "poor." As the dismal showings were displayed on huge screens around the cavernous convention center, the crowd mumbled its approval, sometimes breaking into applause.

Other ideas took a bit longer to tabulate – such as the responses to particular features in each plan. Their conclusion overall: The proposals were timid and pedestrian. "Nothing here is truly monumental," flashed one comment on the big screens. "Looks like Albany," noted another.

People, like Tim Capalino from the Upper East Side, also made it clear they wanted far less commercial space and more mixed uses, such as apartment buildings and cultural institutions, to ensure that the area becomes a 24-hour tribute to urban life.

"We have a major opportunity that shouldn't be missed," he says.

There were also elements that Mr. Capalino and many others liked about some of the plans. Several would reestablish much of the 14-square-block street grid lost when the World Trade Center was completed in 1970. Another would connect the area via a promenade to West Street and the parks and majestic Hudson River beyond.

People also made it clear they overwhelmingly approved of the concept of preserving the "footprints" of the twin towers, although, ironically, they didn't like the specific proposals that managed to do that.

Again and again, the problem came down to how to accommodate the families' needs for a memorial with those of the community and the developers who control the land. The planners noted repeatedly that they were constrained by the $3.2 billion, 99-year lease the Port Authority gave to developer Larry Silverstein and his partners last year.

"I think it was important for people to understand this was not a clean slate, that there were certain legal obligations that needed to be understood as we begin the discussion," says the Port Authority's Michael Petralia.

But by the end of the day, city and Port Authority officials were signaling they'd heard clearly the people's concerns. "There's no question that there are legal rights, but they can also be modified with the consent of the parties involved," says Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, who heads up the city's economic development. "We're at a very early stage, and that's why I think the process will work."

Several more public hearings are scheduled for the following months. The LMDC, which had hoped to narrow the choice to three plans by September and to one by December, has indicated it may extend the timetable as a result of these meetings.

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