Twin Towers' Afterglow

While a new project will rise on the site of ground zero, the Twin Towers' legacy survives throughout metropolitan New York.
February 2002
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Some 20 years ago, when my father was an aide to New York State's mental health commissioner, he would travel downstate on a regular basis for meetings at the commissioner's New York City office, which was then located on an upper floor of one of the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan.

The grandson of a Scottish immigrant, Dad used to spend much of the day gazing out over New York Harbor, thinking about the time more than a hundred years before when his grandfather had arrived in America as a young boy. But with his cynical view of life, my father also used to joke about why his boss's office--along with the New York offices of the governor and most other high-ranking state officials--were in the World Trade Center at all.

Like the Empire State Building before it, the landmark World Trade Center was supposed to reinforce New York's primacy as a center of commerce. But also like the Empire State Building, it came on the market during a big real estate bust, so the state propped it up financially by renting a lot of its space.

Almost lost amid the tragedy of the recent terrorist attack was the fact that the World Trade Center was one of the great economic development plays of its time--the 1960s, when big cities first began to give subsidies to private development projects. And emotion aside, the deal to build something new there will be just as important, perhaps the archetypal urban economic development decision of the early 21st century.

The World Trade Center was the brainchild of the Rockefeller brothers, who were innovators in urban economic development. David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, had formed one of the first business improvement districts in the nation--the Downtown- Lower Manhattan Development Association--in the 1950s, partly to protect the family's own investments in lower Manhattan, which was then going downhill.

The idea of a centralized location for businesses engaged in world trade easily captured the imagination of David's brother Nelson, the governor of New York. This was not surprising; Nelson had overseen the family's creation of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s and had aggressively used public entities to facilitate urban redevelopment all over New York State in the 1960s. (For many years, the Twin Towers were derisively nicknamed "David" and "Nelson.")

The politics and economics surrounding the World Trade Center were intense. It was originally intended to reinforce New York's status as a world port, but opposition caused its location to be moved from the Fulton Fish Market on the waterfront to "Radio Row," a seedy strip of electronics stores. The Rockefellers used the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a powerful public agency, to condemn the 16- square-block area and finance the construction of the towers.

New York City gave the Port Authority tax breaks that it never recouped. The towers were, of course, taller than the Empire State Building, which was then still the tallest building in the world. New Jersey complained that it wasn't getting anything out of the deal, even though the Port Authority was supposed to serve both states. And the towers opened in 1972 and 1973, just in time for the deepest recession of the late 20th century and New York's near-collapse as a world financial center. Hence the state's heavy leasing of Twin Tower space, and my father's pensive gazes into New York Harbor a few years later.

Now that the towers are gone, New York is engaged in an almost spiritual effort to decide how to combine commerce, memory, and the essence of New York in a new project on the site itself. But it's worth noting that the legacy of the Twin Towers survives throughout metropolitan New York.

The billion cubic yards of earth excavated for construction generated 23 acres of fill which were used in the Hudson River on the other side of the West Side Highway. That fill created the site for Battery Park City, an innovative mixed-used project that was a precursor to New Urbanism. To placate New Jersey, the Port Authority agreed to take over the moribund Jersey commuter trains, which were reborn as the excellent PATH system. New Jersey also got the Port Authority to build new container ports in Elizabeth. Ironically, this concession mortally wounded New York City as a port--the opposite of the original goal. But it did have the effect of consolidating high-end office space in Manhattan and industrial operations in New Jersey, a move that probably benefited everyone in metropolitan New York.

Even though he was a Republican, my dad never much cared for the Rockefellers. But I like the idea that the legacy of David and Nelson- -the brothers and the towers--remains even as the excavation of ruins continues. As for the site itself, the betting among some New Yorkers is that the final plan will be a subtle and varied design involving a larger number of smaller buildings, a greater variety of activities and careful attention to pedestrian scale. In other words, something along the lines of Rockefeller Center.