Lerner: Say, hypothetically, that they do parcel it out. How do you get past the influence of the Port Authority, the LMDC, Larry Silverstein, who holds the commercial lease on the World Trade Center space, Westfield America, the company that holds the retail lease?
Whitaker: I think this is another thing that needs to be thought out. If I were king, the Silverstein portion, in my opinion, is relatively easy to answer. You can give him a certain amount of land in the site and tell him that he’s free to build at whatever schedule and pace that he wants, consistent with the market, and you’re not going to put any restrictions on height. Which is encouraging because if you go higher, the one thing you are going to require is that all drawings be submitted for public review, because we’re going to look at buildings on the skyline. Mr. Silverstein isn’t known for grand and innovative building. I showed you guys that Lucite cube that is passing for Seven World Trade. It’s not what I would call a particularly handsome addition on the skyline.
So, you say, here’s so much acreage. You plat it. I think you plat it after studying where the break points are for buildings, in terms of elevators and floor space. You could maybe give him plots of different sizes; it’s very easy to do. In our plan, we had commercial real estate running up Church Street, and across Vesey Street. And with just those seven parcels, we were able to get it all in, all 11 million square feet. But I think you’re able to turn the political argument on its head by saying. OK, you’ve got these parcels, and you can go as high as you want. Now maybe if he gets to 11 million square feet before he’s used them all up, you’ve got one that can be dedicated as a public park. But I think you probably, in negotiations with him, get a finer tune on it. Showing the developers where the break points are is something that KPF [Kohn Pedersen Fox] and SOM [Skidmore Owings & Merrill] and Fox & Fowle do every day of the week. They can quickly produce for you the elevator core and you subtract that from the footprint, and Otis can tell you where the break points are for adding more elevators. And it’s a very quick calculation to have a developer know what the optimum building size is for that particular plot.
I showed this to the Real Estate Board of New York, to Steve Spinola, whom I often poll on these. Steven and I are not always on the same side of an issue, but he was intrigued with it as an idea of both giving Silverstein room to move, and at the same time taking him out of the rest of the process. He said essentially, "if I understand what you’re saying, you’re saying ‘Larry, go do what you want to do, and the only restrictions we’re going to put on you is that we want street-fronting buildings, and we want the tops of those buildings to be interesting, however we define that.
We should have learned our lesson with Riverside South. There we got Ueckered by Trump. I mean, after all that elaborate site planning that went into that Riverside South project, Trump got out of the deal of making those building tops interesting, something that could have been done for relatively small amounts of money.
When it comes to the retail, it’s a little more difficult. Westfield wants one large concourse mall. I have no faith that one’s going to be building 400,000 square feet of mall down there next week; there just isn’t the market for it. One hundred and twenty-eight thousand jobs were lost according to some recent article in the New York Times. But what I think you have to do is you have to grapple with, as a separate component, alternative ways of laying out the retail. Most people, immediately after 9/11 saw this as an opportunity to get surface retail, at-grade retail. We spent some time looking at Century City and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, both of which are large tracts of land, owned by one developer, with surface retail, in the case of the Embarcadero, separated by streets. I think it’s entirely possible to answer the Westfield question with surface retail, and allow him to go below-grade when he wants to. Maybe the whole thing is tied together at the concourse level with parking and truck access and storage and put the kitchens and the inventory and whatever else you’re going to have down there. But I think the whole retail layer of this thing needs to be explored as a single item.
But I think the public also needs to understand that 400,000 square feet of retail, if it’s at one level is nine acres, nine-plus acres out of the 18. More than half the site would be mall, unless you find a way to build above it. Now, you can’t build retail, build a mall, and put in foundations for the buildings above it. No shopping mall can be profitable if you’re required to put in columns for fifty- or sixty-story buildings through the stores while you’re building the stores, ostensibly waiting for the commercial development to occur on top of that. The public doesn’t understand that. So I would say to you, there’s one whole component that is worthy of being looked at in the alternative, and that’s how to meet the retail component. And if you can’t, in some way, using that as a tool to create an amendment in the lease between the Port Authority and Westfield.
So you’ve got the residential, you’ve got the retail, you’ve got the commercial space, you’ve got the framing of the memorial, you’re going to have to, under the National Environmental Policy Act, look at the West Side Highway as a component. There is a veritable welter of transportation issues and problems. No transportation planner that I’ve talked to really understands what this "transportation center" is, up on Fulton and Broadway. Is it just a glass shell over the rabbit warren of walkways under there? Are they going to bring buses in? Who knows? So that has to be brought before the public.
There’s an extraordinary study going on sponsored by the MTA and Brookfield. [Brookfield Properties manages most of the World Financial Center, including its retail operations.] That in itself is an interesting public policy question. This is the first time that I’ve ever heard of a private real estate entity cosponsoring this kind of study. Clearly it’s in the World Financial Center’s interest to get better access into Manhattan, and particularly to get better access to the west side of lower Manhattan, because that feeds the World Financial Center. But I’ve never heard of what is essentially a transportation study being sponsored by a private real estate group.
The issues, the parameters, the choices, the alternatives, the cost, and the construction time for all of these alternatives ought to be brought before the public as a separate piece. LMDC, which is the focus for all of this, could be doing it. Does this mean that there’s a hellacious amount of coordination needed between LMDC and all of the other players down there? It sure does. And this country is very good at that. If this were a large European redevelopment project—well, the best example I can give is the Rhine-Mine Canal. I have no idea whether or not it’s a good idea, but since the middle of the eighteenth century, they’ve been trying to link the headwaters of two rivers in Germany. Well, they finally did it. But they combined all of the various constituent pieces into one administrative setup. Well, we don’t do that in this country. We have transportation over here, and housing over there, and health care’s in a third place, and highways in a fourth. And I recognize completely, that you have the transit authority with its perks, and the MTA with the larger, broader questions of railroad access. You have the New York City Department of Transportation, you have the LMDC, you’ve got the Port Authority, and you’ve got the City Planning Commission. Is that easy? No. But if I were in it, I would be into these kinds of meetings every day, with a direct connection to the mayor and the governor, with the expression of these alternatives coming through the LMDC.
The highway department has its own whole set of rules, and they’re not going to build the West Side Highway down there, and then give it to the LMDC to do. It’s going to be a state project, just as it was with the Westway. Now there, the administrative structure was simple, clear, and worked. Lindsay and Rockefeller knew they had to make a deal, so they created a kind of Westway directorate, but that directorate worked by consensus. There were two from each side, the city transportation commissioner and the head of the City Planning Commission, and two from the state. But there was a clear understanding that once we’d decided what to do, it would be the state’s responsibility to build it. None of this has, in my judgment, been worked through yet for the World Trade Center site.
Let me give you another small example. The ferry terminal. The Port Authority is planning on spending 40 million bucks for a ferry terminal that’s going to hang out in the river; it’s moored to the seawall at Battery Park City. The Port Authority is putting it there because there’s been a hue and cry from many of the residents about bringing the ferry into North Cove. Ferries, which were once the greenest of green transportation are now, in their eyes, smoky and noisy. It’s wonderful. We all ought to pause and think about that. It’s a minute and a half to two minutes less commuting time to bring the ferry into the North Cove, but largely because of the objections of the residents, the ferry terminal is now going to be moored to the outside wall, in navigable water. They had to go get a special waiver from Congress to do this. Shouldn’t we be looking at alternatives there? Shouldn’t we be looking at what travel times and distances are? What questions of turbulence are? Can you put in sailboats as well? None of this has been brought before the public for public discussion. So there’s another component.
Lerner: It’s hardly ever been mentioned in the press.
Whitaker: Yeah. So what’s happening is there’s a veneer of public involvement, but a lot of decisions are being made without that. Do I think it makes sense? Well, if I were Napoleon III, I suppose I would. Or if I were Baron Haussmann, I probably would. If I were Sixtus V, I probably would. But we’re dealing with a wound to the body politic and to American values that has gotten as much scrutiny as anything in American history. I don’t think that once having started this process, you can easily get out of it, and if there’s a slip here, blame will begin to be moved from Beyer Blinder Belle [the firm in charge of the redevelopment plans, at the time of this interview] to the people who are managing the process. So I think it’s a way of defusing this.
Go back to Muschamp where I started. I told you I thought it was enormously irresponsible, because it avoided all of the problems that would have to be solved to make these images real. You can’t build it, so why are we discussing it as an alternative, other than to showcase these people? And because irresponsibility in this instance rules the day, so LMDC can’t win that battle. Or, if they show a good looking image, they’ll be able to honor it in the breach, when market forces come into play. That doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is mediocre, or needs to be mediocre. I think you can do brilliant work down there, but you can’t do it playing the game the way it’s been played down there so far.