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New Yorkers look to plans for fractured skyline

Public hearings open this week for trade center proposals

By Bryan Long

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, many building experts predicted the death of the skyscraper.

Amid the raw emotion of those days, Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the World Trade Center's land, said he wanted the destroyed twin towers rebuilt, in defiance of the terrorists who brought them down.

At the time, many winced at the thought and suggested more modest proposals. Some even predicted the death of skyscrapers as tall as the 110-story twin towers, which had been the tallest buildings in the world at the time of their construction in the early 1970s, saying people would be concerned about their vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

Yet in the ensuing months, it became clear that the skyscraper was not dead. People continued to go to work in high-rises, and developers continued to build tall buildings around the globe. And as time has passed, the ideas of what can be built on the trade center site have gone from modest to grandiose.

This week, New Yorkers will debate nine proposals for what to build on the World Trade Center site. Four of them call for again building the world's tallest building, taller even than the destroyed towers.

The public is paying close attention. More than 6 million visitors have viewed the proposals on the Web site of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. one of the agencies overseeing the redevelopment and another 70,000 have seen the proposals in person. The debate is bound to be one of the largest architectural critiques ever.

"New York has always been the great vertical metropolis," explains Carol Willis, director and founder of the city's Skyscraper Museum. "New York requires -- it desires -- to see something recognizable world-wide."

On Monday and Tuesday nights, city residents are to debate the merits of the nine new proposals, which stand in stark contrast to a previous set of plans that New Yorkers roundly panned. A winner is expected to be chosen by the end of February.

The old proposals called for office towers ranging from 32 to 85 stories modest heights by Manhattan standards set in part by the now-gone twin towers.

The new proposals are more ambitious. In addition to featuring much taller buildings, most of the new plans call for 8 to 10 million square feet of commercial space -- less than the 11 million destroyed -- plus a museum and a transit station. Three proposals feature twin towers, and others involve several connected buildings.

It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace any of the new proposals as suitable replacements.

Safety a lasting concern

In addition to debate over the shape, size and scope of the building plans, there will likely be concerns voiced about safety. The World Trade Center was twice targeted by terrorists, and there's no reason to believe the structures that replace the twin towers wouldn't also be targets.

Ron Klemencic, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international group organized to educate professional planners, said concerns over whatever buildings go up on the site will never go away.

"They're a target forever," said Klemencic, who is also president of the Seattle, Washington-based engineering firm Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire.

The debate over rebuilding is part of a natural evolution and healing process, said Howard Decker, chief curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

"It takes time to assimilate tragedies of the proportion of September 11," Decker said. "It takes time to decide how to build back Lower Manhattan."

Still, the question on many people's mind is whether the buildings can be safe.

Klemencic, whose firm engineered the twin towers, says safety is not simply "about more bolts."

Since September 11, he has compiled more than 200 improvements meant to make buildings safer. The council has published two guides.

But trying to engineer a safer building raises new problems. All the improvements aren't economically feasible. And then there are the terrorists themselves.

"No matter what you design for, [terrorists] can always make a bigger bomb," Klemencic said.

In fact, Klemencic and others believe the safety of high rises has been over-emphasized.

"Everybody's focused on tall buildings, but what about our stadiums, our mass transit systems?" Klemencic said. Just as the World Trade Center site will always be a target for terrorists, "so is the Washington Monument, so is the Brooklyn Bridge, so is the Golden Gate Bridge."

Decker of the National Building Museum noted that the other target of terrorism September 11 was the squat Pentagon. He said that shows that terrorists choose targets because of their symbolism, not their height.

Decker maintains that what happens to the World Trade Center site and how high New York's skyline rises will hinge on many criteria.

"The desire to build tall buildings is an old desire," he said. "The motivations for it are complicated. Commerce. Capitalism. Ego."

Those motivations will all influence the rebuilding at Ground Zero.

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