Substantial Public Input Muscles Its Way Into the Urban Revitalization Process

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 28, 2005

A few decades ago, redeveloping a portion of a city could be relatively simple. Today, carrying out large-scale redevelopment, such as that envisioned for the site of the recently demolished D.C. convention center, has become extraordinarily complex.

Municipal authorities once enjoyed a relatively free hand in reshaping neighborhoods they thought needed a make-over, whether land was already vacant or was cleared of structures.

Office holders thought most citizens expected such projects. Both voters and public officials were more than willing to trust the recommendations of professionals as to how urban redevelopment should be designed, financed and carried out.

In those days gone by, cities could readily draw up plans, float bonds, obtain federal funds, condemn properties, demolish buildings, close streets and construct freeways with a couple of public hearings and relatively little opposition. Ambitious urban redevelopment czars could offer parcels to private developers, at prices well below market value, with minimal public scrutiny. Getting building permits was no big deal.

Now there are many more stakeholders, more regulations and regulators, more meetings and more accountability. The redevelopment process takes much longer and may involve countless cycles of planning and re-planning in response to dynamic political and economic forces, and to competing interests.

Controversy and delays associated with the former convention center site show the challenges of redevelopment.

Another and even clearer example of extreme redevelopment complexity is the Byzantine, ongoing saga of Ground Zero in New York, the site of the World Trade Center demolished by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

With plans and projects currently stalled, the saga's plot thickened last week. As an alternative to those stalled plans and projects, Donald Trump unveiled an absurd but unmistakably Trump-ish proposal for Ground Zero: rebuilding the twin towers.

If Trump can jump in, why not others, especially those who previously made proposals that were, in fact, more viable than the plan now in limbo?

Like many who observed and some who participated in efforts to plan the future of Ground Zero, I find none of this surprising. Figuring out what to do with 16 acres of land in lower Manhattan has been a tortured, messy process.

Perhaps messiness was inevitable.

Legal dominion over the land was divided among multiple, competing public agencies -- the city, the state and the Port Authority -- and multiple real estate ownership and leasing interests. Added to this were the interests and influence of civic groups and organizations, plus local businesses.

Who can count the number of different architects and designs associated with Ground Zero, with plans and projects ridiculous or sublime, too practical or completely impractical? The latest and most official plan was the work of architect Daniel Libeskind, who in 2003 won the Ground Zero design competition.

Since then, another competition produced a design for the Sept. 11 memorial, although it is not yet built. What has been built -- or more correctly rebuilt -- is the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train station.

The project most at risk is the 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower slated for the site's northwest corner abutting West Street and intended to be the world's tallest skyscraper. Designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, with input from Libeskind, the Freedom Tower has met serious obstacles.

In a recent article, Post staff writer Michael Powell reported that tenants are not exactly clamoring to lease space in Freedom Tower. Moreover, other nearby properties are suffering. Powell noted that Goldman Sachs has decided to stay away from downtown, and developer Larry Silverstein's 7 World Trade Center building is without a single corporate tenant because of its very steep rents.

The commercial vacancy rate in lower Manhattan, Powell wrote, is "dauntingly high, at about 17 percent."

Meanwhile, according to Powell's report, the housing market around Wall Street is increasingly hot as office buildings are converted into condominium apartments. Given this residential market pressure and the reluctance of major financial institutions to move back into the neighborhood, the economic viability of Freedom Tower as well as the future of New York City's financial district are in question.

As if the real estate market weren't enough of a problem, Powell also reported that city police officials consider Freedom Tower, especially in its proposed location next to busy West Street, an easy target for truck bombs. They suggest moving the tower to the northeast corner of the site, much easier said than done.

Of course, not long after 9/11, much of this was predicted. There were repeated warnings about probable lack of real estate market demand and persistent security risks.

Many, including me, also expressed profound urban design and architectural concerns, questioning the misguided quest for spectacular, heroic, soaring architectural symbols.

What's happening now suggests that authorities should have adopted a plan yielding a rational urban fabric that would enable market-responsive development, accommodate a wide range of uses, inspire great architecture and embody beautiful, appropriately scaled streets, parks and public spaces, including a memorial and new public transit facilities. And if the process had been properly managed, such a plan could have enjoyed strong support from most stakeholders.

With such a plan, development of Ground Zero already might be well underway, and Trump would not have felt the urge to intervene.

I wonder what Trump would propose for the D.C. convention center site.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company