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Rebuilding New York: A Monumental Challenge

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.”
— Daniel Burnham

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER and the debate over how to redevelop the site reminds us why real estate is no ordinary business. The buildings that we erect, buy and sell, demolish and fill with tenants help define the culture in which we live. When the towers fell, it was a blow to the nation, not just because of the horror that took the lives of 2,823 innocent people, but because the buildings were — as the evil plotters well knew — a symbol of American economic power.

The editorial writers, architecture critics and ordinary New Yorkers who have voiced objections to the initial land-use proposals have a common message: Like the great skyscraper pioneer Daniel Burnham, whose legacy includes New York's Flatiron Building that was completed in 1902, they want something that will stir the blood.

There are, of course, the economic and business realities of the situation: The landowner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, needs to earn a return on its property. And the leaseholder, Silverstein Properties, can't live with a project that won't generate enough income to cover its costs. In addition, the Wall Street area — the third largest CBD in the nation — is in desperate need of new transportation infrastructure that goes beyond what was lost on Sept. 11. Then there are the residents and businesses who will be affected by the projects, during and after construction — not to mention the concerns of the city, which very much needs to see a project that, unlike the original WTC, can spark a true revival of the sagging downtown market.

The job of accommodating all the competing interests at the WTC site falls to John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., who has one of the toughest jobs in America. The word “redevelopment” is anathema to the families of the victims, Whitehead acknowledges. “It's very difficult for them to accept the idea of anything being built on the site. Eighteen hundred of those families have no recovery of bodies or evidence that their loved ones were there. This site is literally a graveyard of their loved ones,” Whitehead remarked in June before a gathering of the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE) at 2 World Financial Center.

The commercial and civic impulses are not irreconcilable. Great buildings — magic buildings — can be erected for and by private interests. And some of them take on monumental status in the culture. Think of the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center. Indeed, says Whitehead: “I would like to feel that what we do will be akin to what was done in Rockefeller Center 70 years ago. It's still a highly respected, lovely building in what's still considered an outstanding part of the city.”

If such a feat can be accomplished, Whitehead believes, the property values in Lower Manhattan will be much higher than anywhere else in the city because a large part of the redevelopment will be brand new. And, perhaps, because the design will stir men's blood.

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