New York City

Dreams of the Agora, Nightmares of a Mall: Critical Impressions of the World Trade Center Transit Hub

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View of the WTC Transit Hub
The World Trade Center Transit Hub—New York's new, $4.5 billion transit terminal—clearly has grand ambitions. It isn't merely self-consciously monumental; it also sets out to be a transformative public space—one that will bring the spark of urban life to a neighborhood that so desperately needs it. Crafting a deeply functional public space, however, is a difficult task even in the best of times, and building a node for urban life—an agora for the modern city—is a taller task, still. Can the Hub actually fulfill its architect’s grandiose promises and craft a truly urban environment from scratch?

A critical examination of the station reveals a space that is maddeningly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a place that consciously echoes the designs of other successful, urban stations—a space which not only possesses an awe-inspiring center, but which could act as an urban refuge from the commodified, tourist-centric memorial above. On the other hand, however, it is also a complex riddled with troublesome decisions, led by problematic management, and plagued by unanswered questions—a space not only dominated by omnipresent security, but seemingly on the fast track towards becoming a shopping mall in the guise of a privatized "public" space. In other words, the Transit Hub has a lot of potential. It also has the potential to be a monumental disaster.

The Stage

It was only with a great deal of trepidation that I made my way to lower Manhattan to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Transit Hub—the $4.5 billion station that now serves as the southern Manhattan terminus for PATH trains. Some of my reticence undoubtedly stemmed from the cloud of negative buzz that currently envelopes the project. After all, the station is already arguably more famous for its slipped schedules, ballooned budgets, and astronomical price tag than it is for any of its own architectural or urban merits. That makes it a challenging space to analyze without preconception, particularly for those of us in the New York region. At the same time, for better or for worse, the Transit Hub will be one of the largest single investments in public space infrastructure that New York City will see for some time. It will also undoubtedly be one of the most expensive.

And yet, for all of that, I knew that my trepidation was actually rooted in something far deeper than the structure itself, or the controversies surrounding it. It stemmed instead from the proverbial elephant in the room: to engage with the Transit Hub, one must confront the reality of its location.

Brief Thoughts On: New York City's Proposed, Urban-Focused Streetcar

Author's Note: This is the first of a new type of article on The Fox and the City, a "Brief Thoughts On..." piece. These articles are meant to be shorter, less polished, and perhaps a bit less considered than the usual fare here. Hopefully however, the shorter length will allow for more articles on timely issues as well as for more freedom to explore esoteric ideas. Whether this turns into more articles or not is an open question, as these have a habit of evolving into larger pieces. But enough with behind the curtain ramblings...
The Portland Streetcar at the OHSU Station The Portland Streetcar at Ohio State Health University1.

For those of you who haven't heard, last week, in his State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially threw his weight behind a proposal to build a streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront2. With a planned length of around 16 miles, and an estimated cost of two and a half billion dollars, this (at least partially) mixed-traffic streetcar would be New York's first major investment in crosstown travel since the Independent Subway's Crosstown Line (today's G train) was constructed in the early 1930s.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this proposal, like that of many initial reactions I've seen, was quite skeptical. Rumors have been circulating about a waterfront streetcar project in Brooklyn since at least the early 2000s, coming to a head with the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association's oft-maligned plan to connect downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook3. At the same time, real estate developers and parts of the city's government have been pushing hard for large-scale residential redevelopment along Brooklyn's East River and harbor-facing coasts. Given New York's transit needs, it is tempting to write this project off as frivolous at best, and cargo-cult thinking at worst—that is, other cities have successfully built streetcars which have supported residential development, so we should as well. But the longer I've studied the proposal and ruminated on its merits and its meaning, the more and more I've warmed to it, and indeed, the more and more I've come to support it.

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