Negotiating the Future of Ground Zero

By PON Staffon / News

To some, the 16 acres of Ground Zero represent an opportunity.

They envision a reestablishment of the old street grid and a mix of retail and residential space that will help create a 24-hour downtown community. Others want to rebuild the towers-all 110 stories of them-as a giant symbol signifying that the terrorists have not won. Some see a beautiful new transportation center finally bringing some order to the tangled subway and commuter train lines of lower Manhattan.

To others, the 16 acres are as sacred as a cemetery.

These are the voices of those who have been touched most directly by the attacks-the family and friends of those killed. Building commercial or retail space on the site, they say, would be the equivalent of putting up a mall over the rusting hull of the USS Arizona sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

An Oct. 6 conference run by the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation, titled Negotiating Common Ground, sought to create a dialogue between such disparate views. Organized by a group of dispute resolution students from across numerous Harvard faculties including law, divinity, government and education, the conference brought together experts to discuss the various constraints on use of the space and to explore how dispute resolution professionals could assist the decision-making process.

But before the conference was held, many prominent voices had already been heard.

Writing in Time magazine, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani argued for devoting the entire space to a memorial: “A soaring structure should dominate the site. … It should be visible for miles to demonstrate the spirit of those who gave their lives to defend freedom.”

Others think the most fitting memorial would be to devote the entire space to a grassy park, an idea that HLS Professor Gerald Frug ’63, an expert on local law and author of numerous articles on urban planning, dismisses as the equivalent of doing nothing. “There’s a lot of potential here to change the face of lower Manhattan,” he says. “[But] doing nothing is the only thing we trust ourselves to do now.”

A muddled process

It is not merely the question of what will be built that has planners vexed; it is also unclear who will ultimately make the decision and within what constraints.

In theory, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., a joint city-state agency created after Sept. 11, is guiding the rebuilding of the area. However, the reality is far more complex.

By the time the LMDC appointed the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle to create plans for the space, a number of competing interests had already started their own planning. Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, had hired the firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill to design plans for the site; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the owner of the site, had made its expectations known; and families of the victims had begun to organize to ensure that their vision for the space will become reality.

The process was further set back when Beyer Blinder Belle released its preliminary design concepts for the space. The six plans were met with near unanimous disapproval and the process was quickly reopened, slowing down the momentum that LMDC had tried to build.

Many argue that the designers did not think big enough. “The idea [should be] to do a bold moment in planning for the city of New York, the same way the people in Boston did when they created the Back Bay,” says Frug. “That was an idea that took an enormous amount of imagination; it changed the face of the city in a way that one cannot imagine the city of Boston today without it.”

It is just that sort of big thinking that has some New Yorkers brimming with excitement and others concerned that their views will be trampled.

“What to do with the World Trade Center site is a hugely complicated and emotional problem, and everyone has an opinion,” said Susan Hackley, managing director of the Program on Negotiation. “How do you reconcile the needs and wishes of victims’ families and the community with the legal and financial constraints of rebuilding?”

Courtney Cowart, cofounder of the NYC 9/12 Community, urged the audience at the PON conference to think beyond walls and buildings. “Constraints are not just physical. There are psychological, emotional and spiritual constraints too.”

She described running through the cloud of debris on Sept. 11 as an enlightening experience: “In the apprehension of death, you discover humanity.” It was in these moments of kindness between strangers, Cowart suggested, that the common ground of the conference’s title was found. The goal of the planning process, she said, must be to recreate the interaction-the humanity-that was found in the moments immediately after the attacks.

While Cowart set the emotional tone for the discussion, other speakers focused on the cold, hard numbers that will govern the process. Marcia Van Wagner, deputy research director and chief economist at the Citizens Budget Commission, first discussed the aid package given to New York City. The numbers-$20 billion in aid and an estimated $5.5 billion in tax benefits and incentives-seem large until one considers the expenses involved, she said. These expenses grow significantly when the goal changes from merely rebuilding to revitalizing.

Asserting that the real problem for lower Manhattan, even before Sept. 11, was a poor transportation system, Van Wagner listed some possible projects: $3 billion for a new transportation hub, $5 billion to modernize the South Ferry subway station and to create a connector between the two separate Rector Street stations, and $2 billion to bury West Street, which runs along one edge of Ground Zero. However, she said, none of these projects actually add any transportation capacity. And, of the $20 billion in federal aid, only $4 billion is earmarked for transportation infrastructure.

Other speakers focused on the mix of office and residential space on the site. For years, planners have tried to create a 24-hour community in lower Manhattan. Hugh Kelly, a New York-based real estate economist, said that it would be a mistake to believe that only housing should be built on the site. Housing and commercial real estate “are not opposing concepts,” he said.

The role of negotiators

The dispute resolution experts explored ways to bring about consensus. Maria Volpe, director of the dispute resolution program at John Jay College, described the town meetings and forums that have already occurred, including a July town meeting of more than 4,300 people and more than 230 smaller workshops sponsored by the Municipal Art Society’s Imagine New York program.

“We cannot have every single citizen at the table,” said Kennedy School lecturer Brian Mandell. There must be, he said, people who have the ability to speak on behalf of others.

Despite Mandell’s assertion that too much involvement could be problematic, Frug notes that the public must have their voices heard. He cites Robert Moses’ years as head of numerous agencies, including the New York City Parks Department and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, as a cautionary tale of concentrated power: “[If] you empower somebody with public power but outside of the electoral mandate, you give them enormous authority and let them ride roughshod. It’s not an attractive ideal.”

According to MIT Professor Lawrence Susskind, the moderator of the discussion, it is the role of dispute resolution specialists-and centers like the Program on Negotiation-to prevent runaway power yet move the process toward a decision. By teaching the skills necessary for problem solving, negotiators can bring disparate parties to the table and find the common ground.

All agreed it will not be an easy task.