Tall towers, innovative parks

Iconic. Bold. Inspiring.

These are the kinds of words New Yorkers can relate to. And the kind that echoed through the World Financial Center's Winter Garden this week as some of the world's greatest architects unveiled their visions for ground zero.

From two structures of steel scaffolding that have buildings and parks suspended within, to a glass double helix that rises above the skyline with the same dissonant dominance of the old World Trade Center, these designs provoke a reaction. Which is exactly what New Yorkers said they wanted last July after they greeted the first set of designs with a resounding Bronx cheer.

Indeed, the amount of public input into development of these 16 acres that are at once sacred, symbolic, and a center of commerce is unparalleled. So, too, is the international interest. Within hours of Wednesday's presentation, millions of people from around the world had already logged onto websites to view proposals - and register their own reactions. It's a testament to the power that the scar in lower Manhattan still wields - both in terms of the emotion it evokes and the possibilities it represents.

"The designs they have created are born not only of the designers' minds, but also of their hearts," says John Whitehead, the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. "The architects have responded in great depth to the question, What does Sept. 11 represent?"

In doing so, Mr. Whitehead says the designers embraced and extended the original ethos of the trade center, which represented the "value of global commerce over global conflict."

They were also given a set of guidelines that came from last July's unprecedented town meeting, during which almost 5,000 New Yorkers registered their opinions. Their assignments included the restoration of a striking skyline, preservation of the footprints of the twin towers, and the reintegration of the site into lower Manhattan's daily bustle.

But most of all, they wanted any new building to make a bold statement to reflect the nature of this big gritty city that's not shy about laying claim to the title "capital of the world."

At first blush, it appears these architects have succeeded in giving the people what they wanted. "You can't compare them. These are imaginative and creative, while the others were pedestrian, ordinary, and unimpressive," says Cynthia Moten, who lives nearby at Battery Park City.

Four of the proposals include towers that could claim to be the tallest in the world. One, submitted by the British firm Foster and Partners, is an environmentally efficient crystalline tower that mimics the design of the original trade center. United Architects, meanwhile, presented a cathedral-like collection of five cantilevered buildings that culminate in a single tower. And a consortium of architects called Think presented three proposals, including the one with steel scaffolding, whose parks at the top would offer the same stunning view that drew millions to Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the original trade center.

Architect William Morrish, a member of the Think team, says their vision was to develop public spaces first and leave room for the commercial development to follow as appropriate. "There's a tendency to only see public space as that void between private- sector buildings," he says. "We thought it was important to have the public space be the lead and the object of the site, from which the corporate and private sector follow."

One of the main criticisms of the other proposals comes from the very mandate that the architects were given - which is to create between 6 and 10 million feet of office space. Some urban planners and neighbors think it's too early to go ahead with a grand design for a commercial-financial center.

When the World Trade Center was built in the 1960s, its purpose was to anchor the city's foundering financial sector. But downtown has changed dramatically in the past 40 years: It's diversified from its primarily wing-tipped businesses to embrace the pierced and tattooed of Silicon Alley, the survivors of the dotcom revolution, and a variety of artists. It's a community still evolving, particularly since the terror attacks changed the corporate notion of having one concentrated urban headquarters.

"You have to let the community develop and get a sense of where it's going," says John Ciardullo, a New York architect who specializes in taking a social approach to development. "You're now going to build buildings in a market that can't sustain rents that are needed to cover it. It's crazy."

Mr. Ciardullo and others worry that will damage the surrounding neighborhoods as well as drain resources from midtown and the city's economy.

David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute and coordinator of the Labor Community Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York, would like to see the planners focus first on the community development money that's available for job creation. "You need to start from, What's the vision for the city?" he says. "You can develop a beautiful building, but you have to ask, What's that going to do to the neighborhood or the economy?"

There are still a few voices that would like to see nothing built there. "The only way to make that memorable forever is to take it out of development and make it a brilliant public place like Central Park," says Alan Balfour, dean of architecture at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "That's something that would have to be forced upon the commercial interests, but that's the kind of thing that makes great cities more gracious."

But even victims' families have given up the idea of having the whole 16 acres made into a memorial. Indeed, for many New Yorkers, there's a sense of urgency to replace the towers, sending a message to the world that the city cannot be kept down.

The plans go on view Friday at the Winter Garden for public comment. The planners will pick a model from which to go forward by Feb. 1.

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