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New York Post


Downtown: Future Hijacked

October 31, 2002

By Steven Malanga

The heroism Gotham showed after 9/11 is giving way to sentimentality and defeatism that threaten the city's future.

The New York City that the world admired after 9/11—the city that rushed to the rescue before the towers fell and then strapped on its boots, searched the rubble for survivors and cleaned up the damage; the city that pledged to rebuild quickly and defiantly—is in danger of disappearing.

In its place is arising a city of victims seeking pity, rather than a great metropolis to be admired for the courage and resolve with which its heroic citizens brought about recovery and renewal.

Nothing illustrates this failure of nerve more than the way that the discussion about reconstructing Lower Manhattan has gone horribly awry.

It began hopefully, when Gov. Pataki appointed a blue-chip redevelopment committee stocked with notable business executives and sensible civic leaders. At first, these executives articulated an optimistic vision of a renewed Lower Manhattan. They advocated a dynamic reconstruction and studied promising concepts, like restoring the old street grid to create a vibrant new neighborhood connected to the rest of Lower Manhattan.

Though vowing to listen to many different voices, they also dedicated themselves to a quick rebuilding. In the early days, they even made frequent announcements of progress, so as to encourage New Yorkers with a sense of ongoing recovery.

But gradually, the committee members lost their resolve—or rather, have had it sapped by those who would deny New York's traditional place as a global center of commerce and capital.

Leading this effort is an alliance of anti-business advocates, anti-development activists, a small but vocal group of family members of 9/11 victims (backed up by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) and a too-willing media. Mired in a culture of grieving and sentimentality, this alliance would turn the World Trade Center site into a celebration of loss and a perverse tribute to our enemies.

Since the start of the rebuilding process, these groups have sown doubt about the ability of Lower Manhattan to regain its edge as a business district and have used the grief of the families to argue for transforming the area into a vast memorial park.

Their influence was clearly apparent at the July 16 press conference in which the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. released its six preliminary plans for the site. The very first questions seemed aimed at undermining the rebuilding process:

Wasn't there too much commercial building planned for the site? a reporter queried. Hadn't the committee put planners in a straitjacket by demanding so much office and retail space?

The plans had barely been on view, but the press was already loaded for bear—because anti-building forces had primed them in the weeks before to see any return to commerce on the site as profane.

If the members of the LMDC and the city's business community had responded vigorously in defense of an energetic rebuilding, they might have muffled these sentiments quickly. But everything about the process the LMDC set up has allowed the activists to control the debate.

Pataki has done little to help reset the debate. No one ultimately has more power over the process: The governor not only appointed most members of the LMDC, he also controls half of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which, as the site's owner, is ostensibly still in charge.

Just weeks before the LMDC was to issue its new designs, the governor suddenly blurted out to a gathering of family members of victims that he was against building on the "footprints" of the World Trade Center site. That pulled the rug out from under the planning process, tilting the debate away from the notion of a vigorous rebuilding and toward the idea of keeping much of the land as non-commercial public space—a pronouncement that thrilled the no-growth advocates dominating the discussion.

It resonated nicely with New York's big-government political culture, too. The state would take back much of the WTC land that, just weeks before the attack, the government had finally leased to the private sector, after having resisted decades of pressure to privatize the WTC.

Business groups have essentially been AWOL from the process. The few that are nominally involved are too timid to stand up to Gotham's activists and media. The only audible business voices are real-estate developers—who have their own reasons for hoping for a non-building: Many control properties that new building downtown would compete with.

These efforts to un-build Lower Manhattan really amount to an attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. During the latter '90s, Lower Manhattan went through a stunning revival, in which the commercial vacancy rate fell from above 20 percent to under 5 percent just before 9/11, in the process absorbing millions of square feet of empty space.

The area had successfully reinvented itself with a mixture of small high-tech firms in renovated older buildings, big financial players anchored in projects like the WTC or the World Financial Center, new residential development and a reviving retail landscape to serve these various markets.

The terrorist attack blew a gaping hole in that landscape, but nothing else fundamental has changed in the city's economy—which suggests that a vigorous rebuilding would jump-start the area all over again.

Since the attack, the city, in a weakened national economy, has descended into a recession that is mild by historical standards; Gotham has lost about 80,000 jobs. By contrast, in the recession of 1989 to 1992, New York lost 325,000 jobs.

In short, nothing in the current downturn suggests that the city's ability to regenerate itself and continue to produce wealth and capital has changed in any way that requires abandoning Lower Manhattan to parkland, tourism and New Age economics.

What these circumstances call for instead is a vigorous commercial rebuilding that aims to continue downtown's tradition as the city's second most important business district (and the third biggest in the nation).

What kind of city will we be, post-9/11?

On the one side stand the activists and advocates, so expert at controlling the debate in New York—people who often question the principles of capitalism on which so much of the city's success and power are based.

They would construct at Ground Zero a permanent memorial to the success of the terrorist attacks, a necropolis largely devoid of building, as if to suggest that the terrorists were right to hate the global capitalism of which Gotham is the center, that New York must rein in the commercial dynamism that makes it great.

On the other side are ordinary New Yorkers, who supply the energy and talent that make Gotham the city that it is. They will never forget 9/11, but recognize, as the president declared in his message to the nation on the first anniversary of the attack, that "our mission goes forward."

These are the New Yorkers who fill the stands at New York sports events these days, still singing the national anthem at top volume and cheering lustily as announcers ask them to honor our heroes at home and serving overseas.

These are the New Yorkers I walked with on the morning of Sept. 11, 2002. As I headed across Midtown with the clock approaching 8:46, the exact time of the first attack, workers from a handful of nearby construction projects started streaming out of their work sites and into the streets lining Fifth and Madison Avenues, standing there quietly.

Other New Yorkers slowed down, too, looking at their watches and then quietly joining the construction workers along the avenues. Then, suddenly, the din that is ever present in Midtown seemed to fade away, and the city became hushed.

By this time I had made it to Vanderbilt Avenue, so I stepped into the side entrance of Grand Central. There, in the main waiting room, hundreds of people had simply stopped and were standing still, looking up at the flag in the middle of the room.

There were no speeches, no formal ceremonies; no one had called all of them together. They were just ordinary people finding their own way to remember. Then, it was over. Slowly, everyone just began moving again, heading back to work, back to the business at hand.

That is the New York City that needs to be embodied for the ages in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

Adapted from the Autumn issue of City Journal, where Steven Malanga is a contributing editor.

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