Whether or Not to Rebuild the Twin Towers

ByGeraldine Sealey

N E W   Y O R K, Sept. 21, 2001 -- As New Yorkers stare aghast at the twin towers' crumpled heap and mourn the thousands lost there, a refrain is growing louder: Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild.

A plurality of New Yorkers — 46 percent — say they prefer rebuilding the twin towers as they were, compared to erecting smaller office buildings or a memorial park, says a Marist College poll released Thursday. "Rebuild them exactly as they were," former New York Mayor Ed Koch also said this week.

Larry Silverstein, the developer whose company just took over a99-year, $3.2 billion lease on the twin towers complex in July, said he wantsto rebuild, but not "a carbon copy of what was." Instead, he said on Thursday he may construct four 50-story buildings.

The 110-story twin towers, though maligned in their early years by critics who considered them boring, gangly, environmentally destructive and even arrogant, eventually won the hearts of New Yorkers and others worldwide as symbols of soaring aspirations and bold financial success. The world watched in horror on Sept. 11 as passenger jets with terrorists at the helm tore into the towers, eventually crumbling them and leaving thousands missing — 6,333 at last count.

Wouldn't it be the boldest, most defiant move of all for the towers to once again rise from the ashes?

While wishing for a restoration of the famed Manhattan skyline is understandable, some say it might be an emotional, knee-jerk reaction rather than a practical one. "Emotionally, I'd love to see it rebuilt," says Angus Gillespie, a Rutgers University professor and author of Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center. "But rationally and intellectually, I don't think that's likely."

Rebuilding Could Take 10 Years, Billions of Dollars

Most would agree that whatever the future of the 16-acre World Trade Center site, a memorial must be built to pay tribute to the thousands who lost their lives there.

The trickier question is what else will be built on the site — replicas of the twin towers? One or several smaller buildings? Of similar or different design?

Urban development experts say whomever oversees the rebuilding of lower Manhattan will confront daunting issues — involving not just the immediate devastated area, but the entire financial district. The monumental task is expected to span at least a decade and cost, by one modest estimate, $5 billion.

The World Trade Center, home of 155 businesses with 50,000 employees, served as a linchpin of the world's financial nerve center since it was dedicated in 1973. More than 20 million square feet of office space was destroyed last week when the mammoth towers collapsed onto themselves, taking some nearby buildings with them.

City officials are concerned that the loss of so much office space could have a major negative impact on the economy — already some companies have signed leases, some long-term, in New Jersey and Connecticut.

"There will be a lot of momentum behind not necessarily replicating but putting back in place what was the economic center of the world," said Ron Klemencic, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and president of the structural engineering firm that helped build the twin towers.

Replenishing office space in lower Manhattan doesn't have to mean duplicating the space once housed at the former World Trade Center site, says Dick Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress. "Put in the context of lower Manhattan, you can make a case for less density [on the former WTC site] then do more on the east side of Manhattan," he said.

Whither the Future of Skyscrapers?

Indeed, smaller buildings on the World Trade Center site might be necessary. After all, what businesses or residents will want to occupy the upper floors of replica towers, and what companies would want to insure them? The collapse of the towers last Tuesday after hijacked passenger jets cut through them calls dramatic attention to the safety risks of living and working in famous skyscrapers.

But Klemencic says that last Tuesday's attack on the world's fifth and sixth largest buildings was not the death knell of skyscrapers. If we shy away from tall buildings now, he says, we'll be walking away from the way we have chosen to live.

Americans have preferred to organize themselves around centers of commerce where land is a precious resource, and businesses have chosen to locate near their constituents, competing businesses, colleagues and retail space. "We're not going to abandon all that and move to the suburbs and build bunkers," he said.

Still, the urban planners, engineers, and architects involved in rebuilding the trade center site will likely face grave new questions about skyscraper safety. Firefighting mechanisms in tall buildings are usually focused on extinguishing paper fires — not those involving jet fuels. And vehicular access to the buildings along with other security measures must be closely scrutinized.

Building security already has been bolstered in recent years due to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and injured 1,000, and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168.

But there's only so much builders can do to prevent damage from incoming jets and other unforeseen terrorist activity, Klemencic says. That job falls to the FBI, police, airline officials and others combating terrorism, he said.

"This isn't about hardening buildings, but about not letting the ball get into the air in the first place," Klemencic said.

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