A Conversation With Robert Yaro

On Thursday January 9, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with Robert Yaro. He provided commentary on the public process for rebuilding and talked about the future plans of the Civic Alliance, a coalition of civic groups interested in redevelopment of lower Manhattan.
Gotham Gazette: Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to Robert Yaro, President of the Regional Plan Association and head of the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York. Good afternoon, Mr. Yaro.

Robert Yaro: Good afternoon.

Gotham Gazette: Mr. Yaro, what do you do, and what is your role in the rebuilding process?

Yaro: I'm President of the Regional Plan Association and chair of the Civic Alliance. We're providing a united voice for the civic community in shaping rebuilding plans.

GG: Clay Risen asks: You commented in the New Yorker that the recent trade center site design competition "is like putting lipstick on a hog. Nothing has changed except you have a lot of fancy architects on this go-around. They are still designing the same thing, just prettier." What do you mean by "the same thing"?

Yaro: Basically, all 9 of the current Lower Manhattan Development Corporation proposals are built around the same Port Authority leases that shaped the July proposals--effectively, we now have seen 15 proposals shaped around this program. The Port Authority program calls for 7-10 million square feet of office, 1 million square feet of retail space.

GG: What is wrong with that?

Yaro: Effectively, we're basing all the plans on a 30 year old program and lease agreements, not what's best for Lower Manhattan and the city.

GG: Douglas Willinger asks, "What about dealing with the square footage issue by building one tower sooner, and another tower later as market coditions demand?"

Yaro: That would be fine. We believe, however, that the focus of planning and public investments should be on creating improved access and amenities in the district. That should be the focus of public investments. And public funds should not be used to subsidize offices and retail development.

GG: Is that the current plan?

Yaro: It's hard to tell. It would appear that a portion of the federal funds earmarked for the permanent PATH station will be used to construct the proposed retail space. And the insurance money that will go to Silverstein will be reinvested in commercial and retail uses, effectively compounding the mistakes made in the World Trade Center.

GG: Alex Butziger asks, "Why should public funds not be used for landmark restoration?"

Yaro: I would put that under the heading of amenities --which should include historic preservation, public spaces, cultural and civic activities, as well as a world-class memorial. I would also put housing --especially affordable housing--under the amenity heading.

GG: And you're saying that the public could and should pay for these?

Yaro: Yes, the public should pay for these.

GG: Alex Butziger responds, "No, I mean the Twin Towers!"

Yaro: The problem here is that the World Trade Center never really worked as a commercial proposition. And we now know that it would be even harder to lease space in the high floors.

GG: Mr. Yaro, do you think that any of the new nine plans will actually get built?

Yaro: I'm pretty skeptical -- there's 17 million square feet of empty office space now, and rents are too low to support the proposed commercial space --especially the high rise proposals we've seen. I should add that 2 of the proposals --Viñoly's and Libeskind's called for memorial and cultural space in the "bathtub" -- these could be built with public funds.

GG: The public seems to like these nine new plans more than the original six. What role should that play in determining what eventually goes on the site?

Yaro: In July we were underwhelmed by architecture; now we seem to be overwhelmed by it. We need to better understand the site plans and financial assumptions behind these proposals. And we need to get the underlying program right --upon all but the 2 plans I mentioned above, were based. I think the public's opinions should shape the future direction of the project --but there really hasn't been a dialogue with the public.

GG: What are the current ways that the public has of weighing in on the new plans?

Yaro: In the end, it's pretty limited. You can get up at the public hearing next Monday or Tuesday and say your piece --in 2 or 3 minute sound bites. Or you can leave your opinion on paper at the Winter Garden or LMDC's website. This is a far cry from the kind of dialogue that we had at the Javits center in July.

GG: Why isn’t there the same kind of dialogue -- another Listening To the City -- for these new plans?

Yaro: LMDC doesn't want to have this kind of open ended process, where they can't control the outcome. We're looking into a privately financed version, and are fundraising for it now.

GG: Will you have it in time for the January 31 deadline?

Yaro: No, if we do it, it would be early in March, after LMDC and the Port Authority announce their "final" master plan. The public would be invited to evaluate this plan, in the context of the Mayor's vision and other proposals for the World Trade Center site. I see no reason to rush this process -- we'll have to live with the results for a couple of centuries, so if it takes a couple of months to get it right ,that would be time well spent.

GG: Clay Risen asks, “But does any of the discussion matter? How will the resulting decision influence what ultimately gets built?”

Yaro: We learned last July that LMDC and the Port Authority could make some changes in their program --with regard to site planning and design, but not with regard to the fundamentals of their development program, which was largely unchanged by public comment. So, we'll have to try to change these fundamentals through other means.

GG: By what means?

Yaro: I think we've seen Mayor Bloomberg and the city playing a more active role, and we need to support them in this. I also think we've seen some more critical pieces in the media lately, notably Ada Louise Huxtable's column in the Wall St Journal on Tuesday. We may also need to see a critical examination of alternatives through the state and federal environmetnal review processes, which require consideration of a broad range of altnernatives, not the one program alternative we've seen to date.

GG: In terms of what individuals can do right now -- the Civic Alliance has come up with a checklist for evaluating the plans. Can you explain?

Yaro: We've outlined criteria that citizens can use to evaluate the 9 alternatives, and we'll forward the results to LMDC, the City and the media. You can find them on our website --civic-alliance.org.

GG: What are some of the main criteria?

Yaro: The most important concern is whether the proposed development can serve as a catalyst for revitalizing all of lower Manhattan - not just the 2 percent of lower Manhattan represented by the World Trade Center site. We also asked whether the proposal creates a place you'd like to live or work in.

GG: The Civic Alliance held a lower Manhattan design workshop with architects and planners the week that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released its new plans. Can you tell us about it?

Yaro: We brought 30 prominent designers to New York together with residents, family members and others to outline broader strategies for reinventing Lower Manhattan, building on the Mayor's vision--we came up with a series of concepts for the whole district that we think could work.

GG: Can you give us a glimpse into them?

Yaro: We recommended that public investments be directed into public amenities and infrastructure; that the public "realm" of streets and public spaces througout the district be improved; that links between neighborhoods be strengthened; that lower Manhattan be regreened.

GG: Do your recommendations include restoring the street grid?

Yaro: The overall theme of the workshop was that lower Manhattan become "the World's downtown -- by advancing both density and diversity of activities and uses. We also recommended that the street grid be restored, and that we create a "street management plan" that would designate portions of lower Manhattan's streets for pedestrian and public use.

GG: Tom Auchterlonie asks: "Why do we need to restore Greenwich Street (as you and Civic Alliance have advocated)? I don't see how it will "integrate" other than looking at it on a street map. We don't need garbage trucks driving next to a memorial, and the whole point of the World Trade Center Plaza was to get away from all the traffic congestion."

Yaro: I think the goal is link the district south of the World Trade Center site with the rest of lower Manhattan. Not all these streets need to be dedicated to automobile use, however.

GG: Douglas Willinger asks, “With all that goes on in Lower Manhattan, why is nothing said about a Canal Street bypass tunnel drilled deep beneath SoHo connecting the Holland Tunnels with the Willamsburg Bridge?”

Yaro: What you're arguing for is a comprehensive approach to planning throughout lower Manhattan, which we would support. We opposed the lower Manhattan Expressway, years ago, but a new deep bore tunnel might make sense. This would, however, be a very expensive proposition.

GG: Yesterday the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released their draft guidelines for a World Trade Center memorial. The guidelines say that a tomb should be part of the memorial and that every person killed on September 11 should be recognized. What is your reaction to these new guidelines?

Yaro: I know a lot of thought has gone into these guidelines, and they provide a framework for the competitors in the competition to be creative and inspiring in their solutions.

GG: Many many of the questions are some version of the following: Tom Auchterlonie asks: “Do you support building office towers as tall or taller than the Twin Towers? Building taller towers allows us to rebuild the lost office space without making the site look too crowded, like in the last six plans. Why don't you endorse this option?”

Yaro: Very tall buildings don't make sense in the marketplace. That means that commercial space above the 60th floor would have to be heavily subsidized. But we can restore the skyline in other ways, as Rafael Viñoly's plan does --by creating two 110 story towers, containing only civic uses.

GG: John Blake asks why the sixteen acres of Ground Zero can’t be made entirely into a park.

Yaro: I think there's a growing consensus that high quality open space doesn't equate with the size of the open space. We could create attractive spaces on a portion of the site, and also include civic and cultural uses.

GG: But not retail and commercial space?

Yaro: Our planning workshop members suggested that some commercial space at the periphery of the site may very well be appropriate -- from 1-4 million square feet.

GG: Paul Goldberger has called planning for the World Trade Center site “a process of byzantine complexity.” Do you think that the public, the city, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will be able to agree on anything?

Yaro: I do think we'll be able to agree, and that remains our goal. First, we'll need to agree on the right program for the World Trade Center site, then the rest will fall into place. And we do have some very talented people working on this.

GG: Last question: what is the best thing that could come out of the public hearings next week?

Yaro: I will be surprised if much of substance comes out of the hearings, because with this conventional hearing format there's no opportunity for dialogue and feedback. It really leaves a lot to be desired, given LMDC's interest in engaging the public in a meaningful way.

Gotham Gazette Thank you, Mr. Yaro.

Yaro: Thank you.


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