Forget, for a moment, the long-distance view of the World Trade Center in which the twin towers were compass points of the metropolis. Remember, instead, the vast and largely isolated Austin J. Tobin Plaza, which defied almost every effort to make it welcoming. Recall the tangled spaces along Church Street and the blank walls along West Street.
Plans for the new trade center are typically rendered from a far-off perspective. But the experience of the place will succeed or fail on a much more down-to-earth and pedestrian level: in its streets, sidewalks, plazas and parks.
That is why the request for proposals issued last week by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is so important. It seeks architects and engineers to recreate Fulton Street and Greenwich Street through the trade center super-block, to reconfigure Liberty Street, to design sidewalks along Vesey and Church Streets and the new Liberty Park opposite the memorial. In short, to shape the public environment.
This challenge may rival other difficult commissions on the site. That is because, like the others, it comes freighted with expectations that it can simultaneously accomplish seemingly conflicting goals.
It must reweave the trade center site into the historical downtown street grid, while creating a discernible visual identity that sets ground zero apart as a special precinct.
It must encourage the ceaseless pedestrian movement that creates vibrant street life and offer inviting places of respite, while establishing an impregnable security perimeter.
It must do so on a broad scale. Liberty Park is described in the request as a “public gathering place having pathways, benches, landscaped areas, park lighting,” next to the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church (whose members gathered yesterday on the site to celebrate the parish’s 90th anniversary).
And it must do so at a minute level of detail, taking account of Asian longhorn beetles and the Americans with Disabilities Act, presenting design options for streetlights, street trees, planters, grassy areas, benches, signs, paving, gutters and the sidewalk security posts known as bollards. Proposals are due Dec. 20.
“I don’t view this as an insurmountable task,” said Kenneth J. Ringler Jr., the executive director of the authority. “I think so much work has been done to this point, defining what people want the site to be.” Above all, he said, that means the memorial plaza, by far the largest public space in the project.
With 10 pages of architectural, electrical, engineering, environmental, geotechnical, security, structural and traffic requirements, the request for proposals is far more oriented to technical issues than to the broader questions of city planning. It asks designers to consider ways of controlling traffic to “reduce the opportunity and size of explosive and/or other contraband delivered threats.”
Even though the city will play no formal role in selecting the designer, Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff said yesterday that he was “confident that what we create will achieve all our goals” in the design of streets and sidewalks at the site.
“We’ve come light-years in terms of our relationship with the Port Authority,” he said. “The level of cooperation and mutual respect and listening is at a point now where we do pretty much everything together.”
Silverstein Properties has dealt with the trade center streetscape design twice.
The park in front of its 7 World Trade Center tower was designed by Ken Smith Landscape Architect, with a playful nine-foot-high sculpture by Jeff Koons. And the architects of the Freedom Tower, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, worked on the plazas around the building with Peter Walker & Partners, which is also the landscape architect of the memorial.
On the plaza at Vesey and West Streets, the designers call for tiered seating at the base of the tower to encourage pedestrians to linger. Trees would be planted on the plaza as well as the sidewalks. To cut down on wind — that bedeviling feature of Austin Tobin Plaza — transparent windscreens would be constructed at the north end. There would be broad stairs instead of blank walls. The bollards would be slender slabs rather than stout cylinders.
“We have to make this entire site very pedestrian oriented and very people friendly,” said Janno Lieber, the World Trade Center project director at Silverstein Properties, which is developing the Freedom Tower for the Port Authority and Towers 2, 3 and 4 along Greenwich Street on its own. “That means seating, plantings, art and smooth access to various uses including retail and other services.”
“The space has to be special at a pedestrian level,” he said. “We’re trying not to go back to Austin Tobin Plaza.”