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Sitting Pretty
Brookfield will preserve the World Financial Center's Grand Staircase designed by Cesar Pelli.
The Grand Staircase in the lobby of the World Financial Center.
Tom Stoelker

After facing substantial opposition from community leaders and local politicians, Brookfield Properties backed away from a plan to demolish the Cesar Pelli-designed Grand Staircase in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center (WFC). For years, the stairs conjured the money and power of the go-go ’80s. In “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the opening scene’s long tracking shot culminates in Bruce Willis’ master-of-the-universe moment at the top of the stairs. But after 9/11, their communal aspect became more important. “It was always a town square,” Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin said of the Garden. “The stairs were a central meeting spot. We were delighted they were saved, because they serve both practical and symbolic purposes from before 9/11 and after.”

Brookfield has now unveiled a $250 million plan for high-end retail and restaurants by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects that includes revamping most of the West Street facade while keeping the stairs intact. The initial reasons for demolishing the stairs involved congested traffic flow behind the stairs and an obsolete purpose. With the original World Trade Center, the towers’ raised platform led to a bridge across West Street directing pedestrian traffic to WFC’s lobby level, making the lobby levels of both complexes about two stories above street level. With the new World Trade Center now at street level the Grand Staircase will no longer serve that connecting function.

A detail of the marble staircase.

The challenge is to accommodate nearly 35,000 rush hour commuters, most of them office workers on their way from underground transit to second floor lobbies. Thrown into that mix will be thousands of shoppers and tourists. Back in 2002, Brookfield spent $50 million to restore the garden and staircase. Craig Copeland was a team leader for PCP at the time and remembers a debate focused on how to handle the West Street facade, which overlooked the massive cleanup and rebuilding effort. “We had to ask, ‘Are we going to shutter the building or open it up?’” Embracing new technologies, the team designed a glass wall and balcony overlooking the construction site at the top of the stairs. Today, thousands visit. “We anticipated it would be popular but that wasn’t our motivation,” said Copeland. “It was a way to connect back to the city.” It’s a concept that honors the new holistic vision of downtown. Or, as City Planning commissioner Amanda Burden put it: “The ‘back’ of the World Financial Center should look like a front.”

In the new PCP design, the balcony will also stay, but a generous pavilion will jut out east toward West Street, overlooking Memorial Plaza. The design anticipates a retail tenant for the area beneath the staircase, perhaps a café. The space is prime as it will be the first thing commuters see when they enter the pavilion from underground transportation. Six elevators connecting to transit will run beneath West Street and emerge in the pavilion’s center. From there, two retail-lined corridors wrap around the Grand Staircase for access to the Winter Garden. Changes inside will result from editing: two muddy-rose colored marble walls flanking the stairs on the first floor will be eliminated in favor of glass to give visitors a glimpse of daylight as they pass through. Construction begins in October with completion expected in 2013.

Tom Stoelker