The W.T.C. superblock worked well for retail

By David Stanke

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s letter to the Port Authority about the World Trade Center site, which appeared in this space last week, had some good ideas about increasing the amount of retail space, but the fundamental assumptions of the letter are misguided and some of the proposed changes could reduce the vitality of the site. The Port Authority, which owns the land, should move forward with its own plan that has already been handicapped too much by political considerations.

The overall objective of the changes as proposed in the letter is to create an “exciting on-the-street shopping experience and unique anchor stores that do not exist elsewhere” in New York City. For starters, this objective is not achievable. Can you picture a shopping experience at the W.T.C. that you cannot get on Madison or Fifth Ave., in Soho or Chelsea, on 6th Avenue, in Times Square, or in Grand Central Terminal? And further, Mr. Doctoroff’s plan would reduce in size the one unique asset that the W.T.C. did have: a comfortable underground shopping facility directly linked to public transportation from the city and New Jersey.

The driving principle of W.T.C. redesign should be to take what was right and enhance it, and take what was wrong and change it. The retail mall at the W.T.C. was the highest volume commercial space in the country. Given this success, the more the new plan varies from the pre 9/11 configuration, the less successful it will be, regardless of what any expert might suggest. The space was successful because it was a comfortable underground retail mall beneath a huge office complex linked to a high volume transportation hub. The space was primarily on one level comprised of small to medium size retail outlets perfect for quick shopping stops. The mall enabled efficient movement through the site in all directions. There were design weaknesses, but the fundamentals of the superblock worked well. The Port Authority should be trying to recreate this, with adjustments to improve the viability of street level retail that will both complement and benefit from an underground mall.

The principal that drives the Doctoroff redesign is that street level retail and “the grid” must be restored, cutting the site into traditional city blocks. This assumes that the blocks of the W.T.C. should be like every other block in the city. The thought is that if the street grid works on the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and Midtown, it must be right at the W.T.C. These theories for W.T.C. redesign have been repeated like a mantra for two years, primarily by experts who I presume never lived or worked in the area, and thus, don’t realize how unique and functional the site was.

The good intentions of the letter begin to go astray by focusing on “street” life, when it is actually “pedestrian” life that is crucial. Most of New York life happens on the streets because it was built on the paradigm street level retail at the base of buildings designed for other commercial uses. The blocks are divided by heavily trafficked streets because vehicles need to get around the city. As buildings got bigger, the scale of retail grew along with it. The World Trade center took that scale to a new level expanding beyond the traditional block. This is still one of the few locations in Manhattan for large indoor shopping facilities.

While active streets are a trademark of New York City, most new retail space in the country has been in malls, where people shop protected from the elements. And indoor shopping has been already proven successful at Grand Central as well as at the W.T.C. Street life does not disappear simply because walkways are below ground and enclosed. The real benefits of this configuration are so obvious that only a theorist could miss them. New York has unfriendly weather through five to eight months of the year. A place protected from the elements to run errands, to shop, and just to stroll is a unique asset.

The one problem with the pre-9/11 W.T.C. was not the underground, it was the above ground configuration. It was not obvious how to traverse the site above ground. Approaching from the north, there were forbidding walls. From the south, a solid wall of buildings offered only narrow stairways into the plaza. The west side of the site butted up against the West St., drawing limited pedestrian traffic. Only the east side of the site was inviting to pedestrians, and it was primarily a point of access to the plaza.

But that didn’t make the W.T.C. lifeless. Even though it was located in the middle of a downtown area where street life was limited to the business day, the vitality of W.T.C. extended beyond hours under ground. Locals knew how to go in and out of the mall to shop or pass through the site. In bad weather, it became a destination. And though street life on the plaza was limited, retail (Borders, Cosi, and Krispy Kreme) was taking hold. This above ground retail space was developing in conjunction with the mall underground. With time, the plaza may have become a very active place. Street level and mall level retail worked together to enhance the vitality of the area as a whole.

Another errant assumption from the mayor’s office is that traffic flow through the W.T.C. is important for downtown. But traffic through the W.T.C. will not address any of the pre-9/11 traffic issues. The only two traffic issues were West St., driven primarily by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and difficulty in getting from east of Broadway to West St. by car. Extending Cortlandt St. one block closer to the pit provides no real benefit to either of these problems. The automobile is not a preferred mode of transportation Downtown and should be actively discouraged. The streets Downtown are too narrow for substantial traffic. The only necessary vehicular activities on the 16 acres are deliveries and perhaps public transportation. Opening Greenwich and Fulton Sts. to cars is questionably important and costly in terms of available acreage. One great feature of the W.T.C. was that 12 blocks on 16 acres without having to deal with traffic.

These mistaken assumptions result in a plan which forces people to stop shopping where they liked to shop previously so that we can shop where Mr. Doctoroff would prefer us to shop – in the cold, windy or hot, muggy, congested streets. And for commuters, instead of easing them into convenient covered passageways through retail concourses on their way to and from mass transit facilities, Mr. Doctoroff would force them outside above street level and walking around blocks and across streets to get to their destination. This inconvenience, is expected to generate street life and make people want to come back to the W.T.C.

To understand Port Authority designs, realize that they are trying to attract a commercial retail management company and to provide a quality facility for Larry Silverstein, the office-lease holder. This management company will bid on the space based on their ability to attract and sustain retailers. The Port Authority, a public institution, will get more money if the space is desirable for retailers. For much of the design process, the Port Authority had Westfield America as their primary customer. The designs and timetables for redevelopment were not sufficiently promising to Westfield, so they have left. This is not a good sign for the space. The suggestions from Mr. Doctoroff move the configuration in the wrong direction, away from what was there pre 9/11.

The design for the W.T.C. should include underground concourses connecting transportation facilities to retail shopping space. It should allow people to move in all directions from the hub. The majority of the retail space should be designed for one or two-level shops, convenient for quick stops by commuters. Depending on the weather, people will be able to choose to walk above or below ground. The worst aspects of the superblock have already been forced on the site by the restrictions of the eight acres of memorial and cultural space. The design of the blocks around the memorial should work to mitigate these problems by providing the best possible pedestrian environment.

Message to Joseph Seymour, executive director of the Port Authority: Listen to Mr. Doctoroff’s advice on expanding retail space, speeding development of retail facilities, and improving financial information on the various projects anticipated for the site and surrounding areas, but continue to design the W.T.C. to meet the needs of your commercial tenants and the commuters, office workers, and residents that will eventually determine the success and financial viability of the W.T.C.

David Stanke owns a condominium across the street from the W.T.C. site and is one of the founders of BPC United.

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