They want twin towers. They don't want twin towers. They want tall buildings. No, they want safe buildings. They want the streets open. They want the streets closed.

What about the skyline? Isn't that more important? Restore the skyline! Stick it to the terrorists! Make grand architectural designs that soar, that look heroic.

But these new designs, the ones presented just last month? They look from "P.T. Barnum," one man said. Enough already of this "urban renewal orgy" with "bin Laden as your urban planner," as another one put it at a public hearing Monday night.

New York's wide-ranging civic conversation about the World Trade Center site degenerated into rhetoric that ricocheted off on all sorts of tangents at the start of the second round of public hearings on the fate of Ground Zero. The meeting, held at Pace University in Lower Manhattan, was called to discuss the latest set of nine designs produced by some of the world's leading architects, designs that civic leaders and architectural experts have praised for their imagination and muscle. And many of those architects were present Monday night, though they drifted away as the hours wore on and the rhetoric took flight.

Like the birds, and the perils they face. Manhattan needs "bird-friendly buildings," said E.J. McAdams, a soft-spoken man from the New York City Audubon Society, troubled by the deaths of thousands of birds who splatter head-on into high rises, lured by glass and lights.

But a Queens resident who identified himself as Bob Frederick had had enough. With headgear evoking pirate couture, Frederick stood and delivered a classic "get a grip" speech to everyone, especially the bird man.

"What about a people-friendly building? Are we building for birds? Or are we building for people?"

In the midst of such pointed debate, the body of architectural work seemed only a proverbial dart board. Both the architects and their client -- the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC) -- were subject to bitter verbal attacks.

Their assailants were activists and stakeholders and would-be demagogues, many of them Manhattan malcontents, or mainstays of the civic barricades, or people who've made it a vocation, since Sept. 11, 2001, of pooh-poohing all redevelopment efforts. To be fair, relatives of trade center victims also attended, as did some folks who surely must have been earnestly interested in the city's fate. But that did not mean the event was free of theater.

Jonathan Hakala's eyes flashed. His face bore that Elmer Gantry look, of a devoted believer in a cause. He spoke for an organization called Team Twin Towers. He said he is a former business tenant of the twin towers. Pinned to his lapel was a picture of one of his friends killed in the terror attacks.

After painting a verbal picture of the city's power brokers cutting backroom deals on Ground Zero's future, Hakala virtually yelled: "DON'T YOU DARE." Taking another slap at officials from the LMDC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agencies that control the site, Hakala asked audience members to stand if they believed a better job could be done. And, of course, clusters of people stood as if on cue in what seemed as much programmed political rally as public forum.

"We will rebuild at least 110 stories of occupied height, and we will go back," Hakala declared dramatically.

It started at 6 p.m. Some 750 people filled the auditorium. Satellite linkups carried the forum to sites in the four outer boroughs, where officials hoped hundreds also would gather. By 7 p.m, moderator John Schiumo, a cable TV reporter, announced flatly that there were but 20 people in Brooklyn, 20 in Queens, 10 on Staten Island and five in the Bronx. So much for public interest.

In the first phase of this civic drama, last summer, the people turned out by the thousands and participated in a thoughtful dialogue about what elements and values should guide the redevelopment process. But this latest public hearing seemed to suggest the limits of public involvement -- or perhaps its perils, for public officials.

The LMDC came in for particular criticism for what skeptics see as its contradictory statements and policies. Alexander Garvin, an LMDC official, said Monday night that "creating a memorial is the LMDC's main priority." And yet full-blown designs have been solicited that merely leave space for a memorial; the memorial process has, so far, lagged behind the push for a commercial and land-use plan.

Though two waves of development designs have been presented to the public, the LMDC has only now released its mission statement for creating a memorial, which will be thrown open to a design competition this spring. A public hearing on the memorial mission statement was held last night.

After calling the new designs "things that P.T. Barnum might approve of," Peter Gadiel, father of trade center victim James Andrews Gadiel, lit into the Port Authority, the agency that owns the trade center land. He demanded that the new buildings -- however they turn out -- no longer be exempt from state and city fire codes, as the twin towers were.

"We want to see the Port Authority subjected to the same building and fire codes as the rest of New York City," Gadiel said. "We want to see them stripped of their special immunity."

His anger rose with each word.

"I don't think that it's appropriate to build this way again -- not under the current circumstance. If you really want to do this, then have the Port Authority offices at the top of these buildings." (Wild applause.) "The FBI, the CIA on the tops of these buildings." (Sustained applause.) "Have Senator Clinton and Senator Schumer have their offices at the tops of these buildings."

"I learned a lesson on Sept. 11 with the death of my son, and I think you should learn a lesson."

And so it goes: New York's civic conversation, not only about rebuilding but, obviously, still about healing.

Participants engage in an angry show-and-tell at a public hearing on architectural designs for the trade center site.One of the recent designs for the World Trade Center site is projected for the audience at a public hearing Monday night on the fate of Ground Zero.