How the Civic Community Helped Remake Lower Manhattan

As the world prepares to reflect on the attacks of September 11, 2001, it behooves us to remember something that may get lost: what New York and its civic community did right in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy.

While smoke still was drifting off the pile, this city and region came together in unprecedented ways, cutting through the usual political and professional divisions. The results were some extraordinary accomplishments, even if to be sure not everything went perfectly or as best could be hoped. Many of the accomplishments rest on achieving, in the months and years that followed the attacks, a rough consensus among the site's many stakeholders. This allowed rebuilding to proceed.

One of the key players in forging that consensus was New York's often fractious and sometimes maligned civic community, which pulled together in the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, a coalition convened and staffed by RPA. At the height of this process nearly 100 civic, business, community, and design groups came together under the Civic Alliance's umbrella. The Alliance played a key role in both the healing process and the planning process following 9/11. It did this by convening thousands of New Yorkers in an open and democratic process to create a planning framework for rebuilding plans. And it did so in an often collaborative but sometimes rocky partnership with public entities and the developer charged with adopting these plans.

The Alliance convened an extensive series of public forums and discussions on rebuilding plans in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. These culminated in "Listening to the City," on July 20, 2002, where close to 5,000 people from across the region gathered under one roof to hash out a vision for the site and area. From these discussions a public consensus emerged around a set of principles for rebuilding the WTC site and the rest of Lower Manhattan.

Most participants in this process wanted to make the new development at the Trade Center site better than what had been destroyed. And they wanted to address the challenges that were undercutting Lower Manhattan's livability and competitiveness before the attacks. To achieve these goals a set of basic planning and design principles were advocated by the Alliance and its members. These included the notion that instead of rebuilding the superblock that existed before 9/11, the site should be integrated into the life and circulation plan of Lower Manhattan, with vibrant streets that connected to the rest of the district. The Alliance also advocated for a mix of activities on the WTC site, including cultural, retail, open space and other uses, and not just new offices, and spreading some of the density of the WTC redevelopment to adjoining sites. We also proposed that available public funds be focused on long-term capital investments in transportation and urban amenities, and not just short-term subsidies to businesses and residents.

In the end the City of New York under both Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, the Governors of New York and New Jersey, the Port Authority, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to incorporate many of these principles into the official rebuilding plans. Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the site was built around these principles, and the Civic Alliance strongly supported its adoption. Elected leaders including Senators Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Speaker Sheldon Silver secured the public resources needed to implement these ambitious plans.

This extensive civic engagement process occurred while the Port Authority and State and City of New York and the site's leaseholder, Silverstein Properties, were engaged in contentious and protracted negotiations over every aspect of the rebuilding process. In this sense, although the Civic Alliance's public process required more than two years to unfold, it did not delay the rebuilding effort, and indeed, it almost certainly substantially expedited it. For one, it created a framework for involving the public in the rebuilding process. And it became a place where the healing process could occur, an essential part of getting Lower Manhattan and New York back on their feet.

Finally, the public participation process helped stave off litigation over the rebuilding plans, which could have put the whole process on hold for years. In fact, almost unique to the Lower Manhattan rebuilding process among major New York development projects, there has been no significant litigation from community organizations over rebuilding plans. Compared with other major development projects such as Times Square, Columbus Circle, or Battery Park City -all of which took decades to rebuild-- the progress at the Trade Center site has been relatively fast. A number of other factors contributed to this, including powerful public sentiment to "fill the hole," large public subsidy to build office space ahead of the market, and, in recent years, an effective Port Authority management team led by Executive Director Chris Ward.

In the rebuilding efforts in the years that followed, the region has focused on things that matter, and in particular, building essential infrastructure and public amenities. This includes the reconstruction and improvement of the Fulton Street transit Hub, the Calatrava transportation terminal at the Trade Center site, the South Ferry Station, and others. We should also remember that the destroyed subway lines on the World Trade Center site were all rebuilt within 18 months of the attacks, a remarkable achievement. Then there's the new and improved open space in and around Lower Manhattan, including the development of East River Park, Governors Island, the Hudson River Park, and others.

In addition to infrastructure, the City has also created broader strategies for the whole Downtown area, including strengthening residential and retail uses and diversifying the economy beyond financial services. Several billion in Liberty Bonds were invested in these activities, producing more than 5,000 market rate housing units.

All these achievements have accelerated, the transformation of Lower Manhattan from a ghetto of office buildings (albeit great ones) to a 24/7 community where people live, visit, dine, shop, worship, and go to school, as well as work. Already the residential population below Canal Street has doubled since 9/11 and Lower Manhattan is now seen as one of the nation's most dynamic central business districts.

Unfinished business remains, including extending the full Second Ave Subway to Lower Manhattan, a "one seat ride" to Newark Airport, and a new tunnel under the Hudson to and from New Jersey, where so many of the victims of 9/11 lived. But we shouldn't forget our successes.

The region as a whole deserves credit for these achievements, and we here at RPA, in cooperation with our civic partners, also take pride in having played a part. Let us remember what we accomplished in the wake of 9/11, and let us hope that it does not take another tragedy to bring us together to build together for a common purpose.