The Height of Folly

The World Trade Center towers shouldn't be rebuilt for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which: Who would move in?

By Sam Jaffe

When the World Trade Center was completed in 1973, it was hailed as a monument to American power. It was also criticized as one of the ugliest and most unsafe pieces of architecture ever built. In fact, if it had been built by anyone other than the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, it might never have passed the fire-code inspection. But, as was widely reported at the time, because of the Port Authority's supralegal status, the twin towers got the approvals needed to go ahead.

Larry Silverstein, the developer who closed on a 99-year lease for the World Trade Center in July, has already called for them to be rebuilt. He owns the lease on the land, and he'll get an enormous insurance payout on the buildings, which were covered against acts of terrorism. Even politicians want to go large. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Sept. 15 for new high-rises to be put on the World Trade Center site: "We must build something grand," he declared on Face the Nation.

There may be one reason to rebuild the towers, but many more reasons say not to. The pro-tower argument basically boils down to office space and New York City's economy. The Big Apple wants to hold onto the companies that have been displaced, and one way to do that is to find new space -- and lots of it. Some 20% of all office space in lower Manhattan was destroyed when the towers disintegrated and damaged several other large buildings.


  However, going 110 stories high isn't the only solution. New York City office vacancy rates had already reached 10% before the terrorist attack, which means the problem can be half-solved without building anything. "There are plenty of other areas of Manhattan that have high vacancy rates and plenty of residential buildings that can be rezoned for business use," says architect Michael Sorkin, who manages the graduate architecture program for City College of New York. "There are more creative solutions to the lack of office space."

The biggest problem facing reconstruction of the towers is finding tenants. "You don't get emotionally involved with real estate. It's all about money. You build a building and find renters. In this case, you won't find any renters," declares Leo Wells, manager of the Wells Real Estate Funds, a real estate investment company based in Atlanta. He points out that even if a company signed a lease to inhabit new Trade Center towers, it could be next to impossible to get employees to work there. "If I were Silverstein, I would take my money and run to the suburbs," says Wells, who mostly invests in suburban real estate projects himself.

Of course, the Sept. 11 tragedy has now made safety more relevant. "I don't see much sense in building any skyscraper that takes more than an hour to evacuate," says Sorkin. Especially when the point of building the towers in the first place was to create a symbol -- a monument to power, and, some would say, arrogance. Today, it's possible to raise buildings to nearly inconceivable heights. But why? Greater population density only magnifies urban problems such as crime, traffic snarls, and fires.


 And what symbols does the U.S. really need to represent its values as a society and a nation? "America's power comes from its democratic system, not from big buildings," says Sorkin. Adds John Young, an architect with Natsios Young, a well-known architectural firm: "All monuments to power at first intimidate. And then they are attacked." Usually, though, it's with words rather than jetliners.

There are any number of other reasons to let the World Trade Center rest where it fell. Thanks to advances in communications, employees no longer need to be in the same physical space for them to collaborate. Beyond that, skyscrapers aren't the healthiest places to spend a lot of time in. "All kinds of pathologies are associated with high-rises, including higher-than-usual incidence of anxiety and depression," says Young. "They are a peculiar kind of prison."

It's possible, moreover, that all the human remains may never be found in the ashes of the twin towers. What developer wouldn't think twice about building on a burial ground?

So what should be done with these few acres that have become the focus of so much sorrow? Maybe a monument should be built in memory of the people who worked there -- and as reminder of the evils of terrorism. Maybe then, the twin towers would really achieve the stature that they reached for before Sept. 11.

Jaffe writes about the markets for BusinessWeek Online