Lerner: How do you get around the problem of the emotional appeal surrounding the footprints?
Whitaker: You’re not going to be able to do this in one fell swoop. You’re going to have to do this with an education process. I had dinner with one of the prime spokesmen for the two footprint thing. She had called me because she had read something I said about context. Now, I didn’t convince her; I won’t say that I did. We had a very pleasant evening, but she came away for the first time, she said, with an understanding of what scale meant and what context meant, and how important it was to make the surroundings. I think if that debate is handled correctly, you’re going to be building a lot of support for this, even though there was a New York Times poll that showed that 61% of New Yorkers want the footprints kept. You can get those kind of results out of a poll where you said "do you want this memorial to have the same kind of impact of say, Rockefeller Center?" you’d get a different answer. And I think we haven’t heard from lower Manhattan on this. I’ve talked to dozens of people who say, "that two footprint thing…. Sounds kinda gloomy to me." I think that’s a whole other question. I don’t think I would too interested in spending a whole lot of time down there.
Think about this for a moment. Those two footprints go down 70 feet into the earth. Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to have to be spent getting us from zero up to grade if there’s going to be any kind of program in there. Or, alternatively, are we going to have two big concrete walls, two mini-"bathtubs," and then you dump fill around the outside? We’ve already begun to breach the sacredness of the two. There’s a small article that nobody’s picked up on, quoting Joe Seymour of the Port Authority, saying for the PATH train, they’re going to have to run the tracks through the southern footprint. I showed you the way the tracks went through it when I was up at the Record offices. So already, on the southern one, you’re going to look down and look at the tops of the trains, or maybe we’re going to bring it up a level or something like that.
We submitted for the current RFQ [a request for qualifications of firms that could be invited into the planning process], and one of the key members of my team is Bob Silman, who I think is the city’s best structural engineer. I don’t think anybody’s looked at the transfer girders at the PATH station, let alone anywhere else. And that’s what’s going to really shape it, after the emotions fade in another year or two, these kinds of decisions are going to make what comes up out of the ground have a certain shape. You know, it’s no accident that subways, for the most part, are in streets, unless you’ve got a corner you’re going to have to turn and you have no other choice, but in those situations, the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority, the New York State agency that runs New York City subways, as well as the Long Island and Metro North Railroads] will ask for all sorts of easements and rights and the costs of building over that place where you’re going to turn the corner become very nearly prohibitive.
Lerner: So what are the real "Next Steps"? You start with education…
Whitaker: First of all, in the quiet of the Port Authority and the LMDC offices, you’ve got to lay out a timeline for each of these decisions. And the bottom line ought to be: what can we do now to speed redeveloment? And what are the issues that need to be discussed? In what order? What is the build-out time? What are the alternatives to these issues? And then you begin, one by one, with some appropriate fanfare, to bring them in front of the public.
I get the sense that when I say these things to you, you’re thinking less about whether that building in scheme two has a doodlydiddle at the top or whatever else we might put up there, and you’re beginning to focus on what’s below ground. I got into this with my NYU students. I said, "I can tell you what’s going to happen here. There’s going to be a lot of image-making and a lot of froth above-grade, but the real public policy decisions, and the decisions that are really going to influence this thing are from grade-level down.
I’ll give you another one, because I’m having fun talking to you about this. This whole business of the underground moving walkway is preposterous. We’re going to put moving sidewalks in there? They don’t increase the capacity one bit. In fact, the last time I was in an airport was a couple weeks ago, waiting for a flight. So I took the sidewalk and I watched the people, and really thought about the issue. Nobody’s grappled with this. Is that the best way to move people? Do you need to move people like that? If you take out the sidewalk down there, is it just a grim underground concourse? If you’re going to put shopping down there, who’s going to put in the columns for the shops? How do you get light down there if you’re going to keep the street grid? This is some interesting stuff, at least from my perspective.
I think that talking about it publicly is a way of underlining the public education thing. We are an optimistic culture; we always have been. I was talking with a bunch of Russians the other night, and we were joking around. I said, by contrast that the Russian culture is one of gloom and sadness, and they said, "Oh, you’re so right." And that’s noy us. In order to get us moving away from this horrific event, we need to get the public involved in this process so that they really feel like their decisions or their input are leading to a redevelopment of lower Manhattan.
Lerner: Daniel Burnham said "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood." Is that an appropriate thought in the World Trade Center discussion?
Whitaker: The analogy with Burnham is an interesting one, because Burnham took a shot from [architecture writer] Thomas Hine, who noted the fact that most of Burnham’s plan was honored in the breach. But Burnham was able to paint a vision of the Chicago waterfront, and again, it was a very simple vision. He had marinas and boats, and the city hall had all of these baroque diagonal streets ending on it and all the rest, but what he really did say is that the livestock pens, the slaughterhouses, and the lake boat activity is leaving, and we have an opportunity to recapture the waterfront. Every time Monday Night Football goes to Chicago, I make sure to watch it, because of the view from the blimp over lake Michigan. [Urban design writer] Kevin Lynch was saying that Chicago’s so easy to understand. And some kindergarten teacher agreed. She said when she asked her students to draw the city, they always do the same thing: they draw a green line down the middle of the page, and then they start drawing little waves on one side, and buildings on the other.
Here, I guess the difference is that urban design doesn’t really look good. I’m trying to think of any project in New York that looks good from that altitude. We love the texture of looking down from the sky at things. But I almost think every plan looks boring. The good plans look more boring. If we’re going to redo the street system, and have street-fronting buildings, and squares that are going to be parks and memorials, that isn’t going to get people up and marketing. It may be wonderful in reality, but it isn’t going to make people go "Oooh."
I still think the LMDC and Port Authority are still looking for the image that’s going to get them off the hook. I don’t think that image exists.
I’m trying to think of comparably sized plots of ground, and there may be others but the only ones I can think of are Stuyvesant Town [a high rise housing complex in Manhattan], maybe Parkchester [a similar development in the Bronx]. I’m trying to think of any large-scale projects that would have that kind of appeal, and I can’t think of any. I think you avoid that view.
Lerner: Could it be said, then, that one of the mistakes being made in the planning right now is in thinking of this as one project?
Whitaker: Yes. I wish I had said it myself. Absolutely right. Take Battery Park City. It’s 30 years old and it isn’t even what? Two thirds of the way done? And if we start with the proposition that there’s no market down there—and for office buildings it’s going to be a long time. Now I have to tell you, you have to speak out of both sides of your mouth in this business. Many of the real estate owners in lower Manhattan are scared witless that Silverstein could get the $7.2 billion from his insurance settlement, and decide to use the insurance proceeds to build, which would have the same effect on real estate in lower Manhattan as the World Trade Center did.
I moderated a panel on New York 1 with Dan Rose and Steve Spinola from the Real Estate Board, and an executive vice president from [real estate developer] Cushman & Wakefield, and they were all a little bit cautious because they were speaking about this publicly. I think one of the things the LMDC could do is to run an education program on the way real estate really gets built. I think Philip Johnson said that best way to control these things is to write to Santa Claus. And I think there’s some truth to what he said in that the market will decide it, and it will decide things over a period of years. However, the wildcard in this is if Silverstein got his money and built immediately on the assumption that he’s using other people’s money. He could cause the same real estate depression that the World Trade Center caused.
There’s another quotient of folks who say "let’s put the two towers back." I think some education process that shows that the only reason the two towers were built in the first place is that regardless of whether or not the Port Authority self-financed this, they had all those nickels and dimes—now quarters and dollars—from the tollbooths to pay for this thing. They weren’t building this the way a private developer would. They could build as much square footage as they wanted. And in the course of planning this thing through with Tobin and the rest of them, they increased the amount of space they were building.
I rented office space downtown twenty years ago or so. It was comparable in cost to warehouse space in some other parts of the city, and that was still because of the World Trade Center. It sucked up all of the Class B and Class C office space, and then there were still 50 floors of state offices in there. Now I don’t really think the public is focused on this, but something that laid this out under the aegis of the LMDC would be very constructive. You have to take out each of these arguments, it seems to me.
You’ve already built a constituency if you do this right for the fact that this isn’t going to be one grand plan. It is going to occur over time. We want it to occur as market forces make it occur. And if they can’t get the 11 million square feet because there’s no office market, then we have sites that can be used for something else.
In Wilgus’s plan for Park Avenue, north of Grand Central, for 50 years, it was a gold coast, and then the Depression hit. Immediately after that, when some of those buildings started coming down, they were replaced with office buildings. So there’s a change of program right there, in a relatively short amount of time. The time between 1914 and the late 50s, when Lever House and the Seagram Building were going up seems like a long time, but it isn’t, in city building.
Lerner: And all of those changes were supported by the same infrastructure.
Whitaker: Yeah. Exactly. That’s the whole point. The infrastructure made it possible to do that. I’ve been approached by a firm in San Francisco that would like me to throw my lot in with them. They’re chasing a World Learning Center down there. They asked me if they have a shot at it, and I told them they need an anchor tenant. Once they have that… World Learning Center? Whew, would that ever be sexy. All the big guys are nosing around down there. Forget being an architect, if you’re a developer, you wake up in the morning thinking about these kinds of problems.
One of the things we’re trying to do at NYU is get students to more quickly understand the numbers. I hate reading those planning projects—west Manhattan was one a few years ago—and you get to the end and there’s a tiny paragraph that says now we’ve got to do a feasibility study. Well, developers can do that calculation on the back of a napkin. But he can’t make any calculations unless he knows the size of the site. Then he can know what he can pay per square foot and what he can put on it.
Now, if I’m LMDC, what am I doing? I’d be doing what Wilgus did, and that’s to get the streets in. I want to know where the front doors are going to be. It’s where real construction dollars are going to be spent. I don’t think many architects understand the relative costs of public works versus building a building. In the late 70s, Waterside went up. [Former New York Times architecture critic] Ada Louise Huxtable had taken a shot at it because it didn’t cover the East River Drive, and it should have. I was pointing out to her what the profit margins were in low-income housing, which is pennies on the dollar. That there wasn’t a nickel to build this infrastructure. So I think that’s where the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation with some $5 billion in funds ought to be spending its time and money.
I come back to where I started. Decisions have to be made below grade. You have to make it look sexy. You might need a median mall or a Park Avenue to advertise it, but you need to let the public know that you’re not in the business of building buildings. You might be in the process of introducing Meier and Graves and whoever to Silverstein.
As they say in baseball, Wade Boggs used to say, "My job is to set the table, not to do anything else." I was sad when Ted Williams died. I was a really scrawny kid, and my favorite guy was Billy Goodman who won the American League batting championship, and one of the reasons Williams’ RBI total was so high in those years was that Goodman was more often than not on base. And I think that’s the job of urban design, not to do the glitz. You can’t do the glitz. Because you don’t have the client, you don’t have the program, you don’t have the plans, and you don’t have the architect.