On Tuesday, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. released six preliminary plans for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. The proposals really amount to variations on two ideas—or two separate visions for the downtown Manhattan of the future—and there is a stark choice between them. New York can either repeat the mistakes of the past by giving government a powerful continuing say in managing this site, or it can make a complete and much-needed break with the past by fully reintegrating the WTC site into the fabric of the city and by returning most of it to private development and private commerce.
To understand the choices now before us, recall the building of the original WTC—a massive, misguided public project, in which the state commandeered a large tract of lower Manhattan, obliterated the commercial neighborhood that existed there, and built an oversized, government-run office development that the market didn't need or want. Compounding the harm, the WTC's massive 16-acre plaza, with its inhuman-scaled towers, formed a barrier to traffic, discouraged pedestrians, and cut off the surrounding neighborhoods from the rest of the city.
If there was one guiding principle that most observers seemed to agree upon after the tragic destruction of the WTC, it was that government—specifically New York State and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—would not be allowed to assume such a role again. The proper function for the state in the reconstruction was to rebuild the area's infrastructure, replace most of the street grid that the WTC had eradicated, and then shepherd through a renewal plan that would place much of the site back into the private sector's hands, with an appropriate memorial on the location.
But those aims seem to have gone astray, and one can't help but be alarmed that New York State is about to make the same kind of land grab that it carried out during the construction of the original WTC. Under the guise of being sensitive to the wishes of the families of the victims, four of the proposals the development group put forth would keep big chunks of the site—half of it or more—in government hands, while attempting to create a state-sponsored tourist attraction in downtown Manhattan: a Disneyland of Death, nine acres or more, replete with a massive memorial park, a museum of 9/11 and other cultural institutions, all presumably built and managed by some public authority and staffed by political appointees.
In creating these plans, the designers were apparently influenced by Gov. Pataki, who surprised a meeting of victims' families three weeks ago by saying that "we will never build where the towers stood." Thus, to accommodate the memorial park and still replace the 11 million square feet of commercial space lost in the attacks, the designers have envisioned dense, massive buildings, with little public thoroughfare—in effect repeating the mistakes of the original WTC design.
No one disputes that the families of those who died deserve a considerable voice in discussions about a memorial on the WTC site. Nor does anyone doubt that, as part of the site, America wants a fitting memorial to Sept. 11. But looking over the plans debuted this week, it's clear that the wishes of family members and of Gov. Pataki and his circle run counter to the best interests of the city, and are not what most Americans want. Polls have shown that most people sensibly favor returning most of the site to commercial use. And downtown businesses and residents have been equally adamant: They don't want their neighborhood turned into a gigantic, government-sponsored graveyard.
Two of the ideas presented this week by the LMDC's planners—doubtless designed before Gov. Pataki's pronouncement on the site undercut the planners' work—were in keeping with local wishes. They dared to propose building on the footprints of the original towers and reserving less land for memorials, thereby ensuring that lower Manhattan will remain one of the city's two main business districts and a powerful engine of the economy. These plans would allow builders to construct more, but smaller and less dense towers, which would be more in harmony with the rest of lower Manhattan's urbane scale and would be more easily digested by the real estate market as they rise.
This version of the rebuilding would also allow the area's through streets, which were eradicated by the state 35 years ago, to be restored, along with their shops, restaurants, and bustling street life—thus re-creating a sense of neighborhood in the area and helping to reconnect it to the rest of lower Manhattan, which began to develop during the 1990s into a 24-hour residential and commercial community. In addition to recreating the street grid, these two plans would also—and appropriately—improve the area's infrastructure by building a central public transportation hub to connect the area's various subway lines to the downtown ferry service and the trans-Hudson subway to New Jersey, and to which suburban commuter rail service might some day extend.
At the public presentation of the plans, the members of the LMDC and their planners would express no preferences among the six options, but they clearly favored the two schemes that broke with the hubris that built the WTC. Explaining the virtues of the proposals that turn much of the site back to the private sector, the LMDC's head, former Goldman Sachs chairman John Whitehead, compared them to the design of Rockefeller Center, pointing out that this paragon of urban development is in fact a series of architecturally linked buildings on intersecting streets, interspersed with small but brilliantly designed and beloved public spaces—all of which makes the Center distinctive yet fully integrated with the rest of midtown Manhattan.
But the free-marketers on the LMDC know that they are up against a powerful tradition of state-sponsored capitalism in New York. Inexorably, the principles enunciated at the beginning of the rebuilding process are being undermined, and in their place we have government appropriating a large portion of this site and decreeing that a new, and probably inappropriate, industry will go there.
Isn't this just another version of what New York did 40 years ago, and which we were told wouldn't happen again?
Mr. Malanga is a contributing editor to City Journal.