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At the WTC the PA May be Right

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on July 8, 2009

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At the WTC the PA May be Right

CLAblogMayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Sheldon Silver are complaining about the apparent intention of the Port Authority to scale back the World Trade Center project. They charge that the P.A. wants to go forward only with 1 WTC, formerly the Freedom Tower, and postpone the other four towers. In this dispute they are backing Lawrence Silverstein in his desire to get back all the square footage he lost on 9/11 as fast as possible.

The Port Authority might be right this time. The situation has changed a great deal since the destruction of the original World Trade Center. The Great Recession has transformed the financial sector; the giant equity firms have either disappeared or turned into banks. 19,000 finance jobs have been lost since August 2008 and companies that have been too big to fail have failed, think Lehman Brothers.

When the financial sector bounces back, it may look very different. Instead of being dominated by a few enormous entities, much smaller equity firms may provide the majority of jobs. The current regulatory drive to restrict dangerous accumulations of scale and risk will promote smaller companies whose failure will not bring down the whole economy. These smaller firms will not need the 40,000 square foot floor plates the older generation required. The changes in the industry may mean that building designs that addressed the needs of ten years ago may not meet the needs of five years from now.

Another aspect of the out of date nature of the current WTC plan is energy efficiency. A very large floor plate is air conditioned year round. The energy demands of the buildings being built downtown are tremendous. The United States is finally waking up to the need to take energy use seriously and hence new energy codes will be part of the future of the construction industry. If Germany is an indicator, floor plate size as it relates to energy consumption will be one subject of those codes.

In terms of function and energy performance, the plan being pushed by the Mayor and the Speaker may be exactly what the Financial District doesn’t need. The original World Trade Center was always a bit of a white elephant. This scheme has the same pallor. It may well be a bet on a very large amount of square footage of a sort that the market won’t need. That would be a disaster for downtown.

The P.A. does not have unlimited money. Getting the rail connection from JFK to downtown and building the new rail tunnel to New Jersey are P.A. projects that are much more critical to New York’s future than office towers. Infrastructure is where its money should be going.

Building 1 WTC, the Path Station and WTC Memorial will have a huge impact on the area. Hedging its bets by not building the other towers today allows the PA to invest in New York’s tomorrow.

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