Lower Manhattan: The Changing Skyline and the Challenges of Community

The skyline of Lower Manhattan is changing. A 76-story shimmering skyscraper at 8 Spruce Street, the tallest residential building in the city, is nearly finished. The skyscraper known as One World Trade Center, or 1 WTC (formerly Freedom Tower), rises a little more each week, gradually asserting itself into the new visual consciousness of the city. It's clear that a reconfigured built environment is emerging downtown, but what is unclear is how the new buildings, imposed on the old Dutch city and built in the aftermath of September 11, will affect a nascent sense of neighborhood in this part of town.

8 Spruce Street Revisited

In yesterday's New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff offered a glowing review of Frank Gehry's design for 8 Spruce Street, calling the building "the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building went up 46 years ago." Writing about the building this past October, I similarly praised the building: "Eight Spruce Street shows some respect, acknowledging the city's classic skyscraper tradition with just the right amount of flash." While many will praise the building in terms of architectural style, it's important to also discuss how the highest of the residential hi-rises will affect the life on the street. Several questions remain to be answered. The residents of the building will be people who can afford luxury market housing, but how will their wants and desires affect the neighborhood? Will they take part in the social and economic life of downtown, or will they remain aloof and lofty, importing their goods and sending their kids to school elsewhere? It's fascinating to note that the Gehry building sits on top of two critical institutions of social life, a school and a hospital, but how these groups will interact, if at all, remains to be seen.

8 Spruce Street during a snowstorm, January 26, 2011

Access Restricted: A Conversation on "Unbuilding"

In a fascinating conversation this past Wednesday (2/9/2011), part of the series Access Restricted hosted by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), cultural journalist Jeff Byles pitched questions to architecture critic and CUNY professor Michael Sorkin about the future of our shared urban spaces. The setting was the lobby of the Woolworth Building, the "cathedral of commerce" built in 1913 and designed by Cass Gilbert. Normally off-limits, the lobby served as a reminder that even our most cherished icons often limit access to the public.

inside the Woolworth Building lobby, February 9, 2011

Musing on the topic of Lower Manhattan, where he is now a resident after years in Greenwich Village, Sorkin reflected on the transformation of downtown into what he called "a complete community." Defining a strong neighborhood as "a place where one satisfies daily requirements within walking distance," Sorkin emphasized the importance of the street. He proposed taking fifty percent of existing streets back for pedestrian, park, or agricultural uses and even dismantling FDR Drive. An advocate for turning empty lots into green space and converting concrete spaces into plots for sustainable agriculture, he humorously proposed, but with some seriousness, "Let's put the orchard back in Orchard Street." Among his proposals for alternative transportation, Sorkin advocates extending the idea of mixed-use development to the street, India-style, mixing modes of walking and motoring with people on foot "on top of the heap."

Discussing the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, Sorkin expressed his disappointment with the current planning. He said the city lost an opportunity, born out of "a tragic misperception," to commemorate the site with a park and a free speech plaza. Now, he said, these fourteen acres will be "heavily surveilled" and "completely commercialized."

Overall, the discussion at the Woolworth Building underscored the need for much more sustainable urban planning, one that encourages a pedestrian city and self-sufficient neighborhoods, along with mass transit, especially in light of the world's rapid urbanization.

One World Trade Center, half way to the top

Walks to One World Trade Center, In Progress

One World Trade Center continues to rise, and residents and workers downtown have no doubt noticed its presence in the skyline. On December 23, 2010, the Port Authority announced that the building had reached the 52nd Floor, the half way mark to the top of the building. As reported by Manhattan User's Guide on January 28, the Port Authority has created a website inviting people to upload their own pictures of the building.

Looking out my balcony in Greenwich Village toward the south, I have been watching 1 WTC slowly take its form in the skyline of Lower Manhattan. On a wintry walk a couple of weeks ago, I took the train down to Battery Park and then walked around the shoreline up to the site. 1 WTC, designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, is just one of several places to be finished on this hallowed ground, a site that will include other towers, the WTC Memorial with its pools in the footprints of the two towers, a visitors center, and a transportation hub. 1 WTC will feature several public spaces including a vast public lobby, restaurants and an observation deck high in the sky.

What happens on the street...who knows?

There are many ways to walk to see 1 WTC in progress. A stroll down West Broadway south will take you to the foot of the building. A walk down Broadway itself to near City Hall and then walking west also provides a good approach. Walking down Broadway also affords good views of 8 Spruce Street.

View Walks to 1WTC in a larger map

For the walk depicted in these pictures, take the subway to Battery Park and walk the shoreline west and up and around to near the World Financial Center. Walking there with snow on the ground is optional.

See also the site of the World Trade Center (Port Authority) for progress, plans, photos, and maps.
The site of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council will post a link to a recording of the Access Restricted conversation when it becomes available via artonair.org.

Related post: The Guided Tour: A Visit to the World Trade Center Site and the Statue of Liberty.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

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