Ground Zero Decision A Tall Order

CAROUSEL - President Barack Obama gavels the start of a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009, at the United Nations headquarters. At left is U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
A public hearing Monday on the designs for replacing the fallen World Trade Center towers faces a key question: Would building the world's tallest building on Ground Zero demonstrate courage or hubris?

Five of the nine designs for a rebuilt trade center propose structures that would surpass Malaysia's 1,483-foot Petronas Twin Towers as the tallest in the world. The trade center towers themselves were once the world's tallest at 110 stories each, or 1,350 feet.

Some people believe the new structure must be a dramatic statement.

"Failing to rebuild full scale is what paints a bull's-eye on other landmarks," said Louis Epstein, founder of the World Trade Center Restoration Movement. "It emboldens the terrorists to do more."

Beverly Willis, director of the Architecture Research Institute and a founder of a community group called Rebuild Downtown Our Town, agrees that the "wound" in New York's skyline should be repaired with something tall and distinctive.

However, she said, creating the world's tallest building without regard to the neighborhood "just seems to be not only impractical, but ostentatious and generally in bad taste."

Indeed, one goal of the effort to rebuild Ground Zero is, in the words of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), to make sure the area "emerges even better than it was before."

Even before the tragedy of Sept. 11, the area around the Trade Center suffered from problems with traffic flow, a lack of access to key mass transit services and a dearth of residential housing that gave the area a "ghost-town" feel during evenings and weekends.

The desire to replace the grandeur of the towers is balanced by an effort to make the area more livable.

The nine designs by seven teams of architects were commissioned by the LMDC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Trade Center site. The two agencies together will choose one plan by next month.

While no one is suggesting the new construction will faithfully reproduce any of the models, officials will base their plans on one of the designs.

Some, like Norman Foster's "kissing towers," offer office buildings taller than the twin towers destroyed in the Sept. 11 attack.

Others would consist of airy structures that invoke the towers without replicating them.

Daniel Libeskind's design includes a spire with the symbolically significant height of 1,776 feet (533 meters), but only the first 70 stories of his building would house offices.

Above the office level, tourists could visit his "gardens of the world," Libeskind said.

"It's like going to the high point of the Eiffel Tower," he said. "You don't go there for more than a few minutes."

Greg Lynn, whose United Architects presented a design that combines five buildings into one crystalline structure, described a system of stairways connected every 30 floors by areas where people also could move horizontally.

"From any point in the building you have literally thousands of ways to get down to the ground, so it's a very safe complex," Lynn said.

His team's proposal also includes a 1,620-foot tower.

But if they build it, will anybody come?

Last August, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 53 percent of New Yorkers would not want to work in an upper floor of any new building at the trade center site. Fifty-nine percent said that whatever is built at the site should not be as tall as the towers it replaces.

A separate issue is whether a building larger than the original Trade Center could secure insurance.

Those worries could lessen in the decade it will take to build the new offices.

"By that time, I believe all of the safety concerns will have been addressed," said Meyer Feig, who heads the World Trade Center Tenants Association.

Feig, who ran a recruiting firm in the trade center's south tower, said his group consists of about 130 smaller tenants from the towers. Most group members who responded to a recent survey said they wanted to see at least a 110-story building on the site.

"It makes the statement that we may have been attacked, but we'll rebuild and come back stronger than ever," Feig said.