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HANSEN: World Trade Center Hub is wasteful, ugly

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In 2005, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), then-Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) and then-Gov. Richard Codey (D-N.J.) attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The station, which would serve trains along the Newark-WTC and Hoboken-WTC PATH lines, was to be finished in 2009 and would cost $2.2 billion, mostly funded by $1.7 billion in Federal Transit Administration money. The station opened this month and cost almost $4 billion. It is the most expensive train station in world history. It is the 18th-busiest subway stop in Manhattan.

How could this have happened? The complete story would span volumes, but the core problem seems to be institutional velocity and unchecked ambition. “The hub is a project driven by institutional ambition, and once begun, the decisions that have made it so costly became irreversible," Lynne Sagalyn, the director of the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate at the Columbia Business School, told The New York Times.

The federal government in 2002 set aside $4.55 billion for Lower Manhattan transportation projects in order to revitalize the area after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A design partnership hired by the Port Authority, which manages the transportation hub, chose Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. A renowned artist nonetheless known for cost overages, Calatrava seemed like a natural choice for the center. His ambitious plans for the design — much more dramatic than others, more utilitarian PATH stations further uptown — were approved by Authority officials who traveled to Milwaukee and Europe to view other projects. A series of blundering decisions — made possible by rapid leadership turnover — only further increased the costs.

Perhaps this all would’ve been justified if the station actually were as beautiful as the Port Authority promised. The Milwaukee Art Museum, the Calatrava project that most resembles the transportation hub, is striking because it stands alone — there are no other large buildings around it. His more subtle projects, like the Zürich Stadelhofen railway station in Switzerland, naturally blend in to their urban landscapes. The WTC transportation hub does neither. Situated in the middle of a busy neighborhood, surrounded by taller buildings, the station’s wings resemble an abandoned dinosaur skeleton more than the originally intended dove.

The interior isn’t much better. It’s certainly pristine — the steel bars create a soaring ceiling with views of surrounding buildings — but the dead space is jarring. It feels almost like a religious site for a well-funded, New Age space cult. When the retailers start pouring in, as they promise to, it will feel less empty. But it will also lose whatever semblance of charm it once had when it’s occupied by Hudson News or McDonald’s.

Then again, the Port Authority apologist might say, even if it’s ugly and expensive, it provides a critical transit link for New York-New Jersey commuters. Again, they would be wrong. Having a PATH stop at the World Trade Center is unquestionably important, but the massive hunk of steel at the location doesn’t actually contribute much. Indeed, when the station opened earlier this month, customers still couldn’t walk the underground path between the transportation hub and the Fulton Center, which would at least provide access to the NYC subway system. Now, all commuters get is a glimpse at the Oculus and a walk through the most expensive hallway in the world to an exit near Zuccotti Park.

Again the ardent fan of the WTC transportation hub may say that these things are expensive. That if we want a train station or a public space, we need to be ready to pay. But this argument falls flat. Adjusting for inflation, Grand Central Terminal, one of the most beautiful buildings in the region, cost $80 million and 750,000 people pass through it each day, compared to the current WTC station’s 50,000.

Perhaps all of this could have been forgiven if a new WTC station was the region’s most pressing infrastructure need. But it’s not. The Port Authority manages Newark Liberty International Airport, JFK, LaGuardia, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and several other properties. The money wasted on a dinosaur’s rib cage could have gone to a PATH extension to Newark Liberty, or a bus terminal renovation or a new airport. It didn’t.

The Port Authority tried to marry utility and beauty in the manner of the original Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal. They failed on both counts. Instead, we got a space-age Babylonian temple that exemplifies excess, poor taste and mismanagement.

Nick Hansen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in history. His column, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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