New designers on the block: W.T.C. architects talk up Church St.


By Josh Rogers

The World Trade Center mall was the most profitable in the country per square foot, and Downtowners have been longing for the return of stores for nearly five years. When talk first began of what to rebuild, the subject of Borders Books, which used to be in 5 W.T.C., would come up repeatedly. The chain did eventually come back to Lower Manhattan, but of course there were still no buildings at ground zero, so the store found a smaller home near Wall St.

Last week two British lords and a renowned Japanese architect unveiled their design for three W.T.C. towers and each emphasized the lively shopping that will be at the east end of the site.

Lord Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize winning architect who designed the Hearst Tower visible all along Eighth Ave., said his design would be “intensifying the shopping experience here on Church St.” Later he told Downtown Express of the “heroic spaces” with ceilings 18 feet six inches above the stores’ floors.

When PBS talk show host Charlie Rose asked him during the Sept. 7 design presentation when construction would begin, Foster, 71, indicated he shared the frustration many Downtowners have about the pace of rebuilding. He said construction won’t begin until mid-2008, when the Port Authority expects to finish the protective “bathtub” slurry wall needed before foundation work can start.

“When that’s in place we go like hell because we are all impatient,” Foster said.

The Port only began building the bathtub this year. The sites for Tower 3 designed by Lord Richard Rogers, 73, and Tower 4 by Fumihiko Maki, 78, will be ready for construction by the middle of next year and all three buildings are scheduled to open in 2011 or 2012, assuming the trend of W.T.C. delays ends.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the frontrunner to become governor in January according to polls, told Downtown Express Tuesday that the new towers would “certainly be striking for Lower Manhattan. The more important question is the financing and whether they are going to get the million square feet.”

W.T.C. developer Larry Silverstein and the Port, owners of the site, are racing to meet a Sept. 21 deadline to finalize a deal adjusting their development roles. Gov. George Pataki pledged to find one million square feet of federal and state office tenants for the Freedom Tower as part of the deal’s framework. Kenneth Ringler, the Port’s executive director, said last week that he expected to have tenant term sheets signed for one million square feet by the deadline.

Several hours before he won overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary, Spitzer said he hoped Ringler was right. He said the government leases were “critical” to the project proceeding, although Spitzer said he would not speculate as to whether he would halt Freedom Tower construction in January if he were to take office without the commitment from tenants.

Another potential setback is security for the Church St. towers. The N.Y.P.D. has reportedly not yet signed off on the security plan, and similar concerns delayed Freedom Tower construction by two years.

Silverstein said the three new towers will have tight security office entrances on Greenwich St., but the Church St. stores will have to be more open in order to be attractive to retailers. “People have to be able to walk into them,” he said.

W.T.C. tower chart

The Tower 3 and 4 designs allow for Cortlandt St. to run through the site to the W.T.C. memorial. The city and Port had been arguing over whether to keep the street closed or not and the city prevailed. The Port argued the retail space would be better if it was more like a mall, and the city emphasized creating more street activity.

Steve Coleman, a Port spokesperson, said a drawn-out fight with the city would have been counter-productive. “It’s not the kind of issue we’d want to hold up the development over,” he said. “We think the retail will still be effective.”

Although they didn’t make the decision, Rogers and Maki said their towers will be better next to an open street because the alley would provide a striking view of the tree-filled memorial plaza as visitors descend down Cortlandt St. from Church to Greenwich, which has a lower elevation.

“You have to have a really good reason to close a street,” Rogers added.

Maki said it is also important to keep the street open for emergency vehicles. Cortlandt St. is also supposed to get a double row of trees leading to the memorial plaza. Maki, who also won the Pritzker, said he did not know what sort of trees could grow in such a small space between two towers but that it would be up to a landscape architect to figure out.

Madelyn Wils, a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s board of directors, said originally she was in favor of opening Cortlandt, but after compromises were made with the Port, the street will be so slim, it hardly seems worth it.

“It’s a very narrow break,” Wils said. “Can you see through [to the memorial] from east to west? Yeah, but it’s very narrow.”

Cortlandt looks like it will be about 30 feet wide, Wils said. That may be how wide it will seem in between two skyscrapers, but the Port’s Coleman, said the distance between Towers 3 and 4 will be 47 feet.

Wils had warned several months ago that the Port Authority was proposing large train station entrances on Church St. The entrances were moved to Greenwich, but she is concerned about a large escalator down to the train station in Maki’s large retail atrium

“They did move the entrances as we suggested strongly a few months ago,” she said referring to L.M.D.C. recommendations. “[The plan] moved in the right direction — the devil is always in the details.”

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, said she was happy the plans include so much retail at street level. “One of the big issues for us was to activate the street with retail at grade,” she said

She looks forward to seeing more details about Cortlandt St. and the rest of the plan. The board, which has taken a position on almost every W.T.C. debate, stayed neutral on Cortlandt because both the city and Port were able to win members to their side.

“It was one of the unique times the community board was split,” said Menin.

With over 400,000 square feet of retail space planned, it seems Century 21, the discount department store on the other side of Church and Cortlandt Sts., is adopting the old Macy’s-Gimbels theory – nearby competition helps everyone by attracting more shoppers.

“We never worry about competition,” said Betty Cohen, a store executive. “We want to see this area come back to life. That’s why we came back down here.”


Renderings of the retail atrium in Fumihiko Maki’s Tower 4.