COURTESY princeton architectural press
No part of New York City has been more studied or subject to masterplanning than downtown Manhattan. If by downtown we mean everything from Canal Street to the Battery and river-to-river, there have been at least a dozen significant planning attempts to rethink and redirect development in the area since the late 1950s. Once a world center of finance and commerce, for over 50 years the area has been losing influence to Midtown and suburban locations, as companies moved in search of adequate space for expansion from this nearly land-locked district. The fear of a dying downtown has driven planning efforts by the state, city, and civic associations, and led to, among other developments, the World Trade Center complex (an idea as far back as 1946), Battery Park City, South Street Seaport, and the eventual transformation of Tribeca into an upscale residential community. Plans have almost always focused on reinventing what were viewed as the area’s major weaknesses—a shortage of land and a lack of housing, shops, and 24-hour services. Further, the plans all focused on demolishing aging waterfront buildings and 19th-century lofts, and looked to existing pier lines as sites for expanded growth through land-filling. They usually included grandiose architectural renderings of huge mega-developments along the rivers. While the design quality of these proposals is a mixed bag of period styles, there were some fascinating—and even influential—plans in terms of what was finally built, and drawings by such major players as Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, SOM, Philip Johnson, Lawrence Halprin, among others. There was also a proposed 1958 habitat development by Moshe Safdie.
These planning efforts can be traced to the 1958 formation of the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association (DLMA) by financier David Rockefeller. It was Rockefeller who made the decision to build a new SOM-designed Chase Manhattan headquarters just off Wall Street. His family foundation and brother Nelson Rockefeller (New York’s governor from 1959 to 1973) were tied to most of these plans and to the future of the area. The 1966 New York State plan for Battery Park City was actually designed by Governor Rockefeller, who did much of the drafting for the project himself. But it was DLMA that was the driving force for Lower Manhattan. The association was so powerful that the city followed its lead in undertaking new initiatives. In 1963, the association officially endorsed a plan to build 11 major projects that included a world trade center, a heliport, and an East River esplanade and civic center. The City of New York, responding to complaints that it had abrogated planning responsibilities, countered with its own Lower Manhattan Plan in 1966, which formally reacted to earlier DLMA and state-supported plans. The 1966 plan incorporated many earlier DLMA ideas, including use of landfill to extend the boundaries of the district into superblocks, the idea of a world trade center, and using landfill to create a new Hudson River community. It also had its unique components that envisioned a more dynamic waterfront, with coves and protected man-made bays. It imagined the street grid of the area extending out to the water’s edge, ameliorating the ill effects of the superblocks and serving as “windows on the water.”
The urban design components of this plan were adapted by Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and the architecture by Todd, Whittlesey, Conklin with Rossant, and Alan Voorhees in a subsequent plan in 1969 endorsed by both city and state. The 1966 plan had proposed a more engaged landscape of stepped-back apartments, many U-shaped mega-blocks, waterfront promenades with storefronts and patches of greensward, and sculpted apartment towers. In spite of an ever-evolving approach, that plan is at least in part responsible for what we think of as Lower Manhattan today. It still serves to illustrate how planning can work to serve the public and financial interests of the city at the same time.