Session on Ground Zero's future draws 5,000

Discussion collects ideas on 6 plans for rebuilding World Trade Center site


NEW YORK - Anxious to have a voice in the planning for Lower Manhattan but fearful that decision-makers would not listen to them, several thousand residents of New York and the surrounding region answered a call to put democracy to work yesterday at a town hall meeting at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

The meeting, Listening to the City, was sponsored by the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, a coalition of community and urban planning groups. It gathered the 5,000 or so participants' ideas about the six development plans for the World Trade Center site unveiled last week and allowed the residents to voice their hopes and concerns about the rebuilding process and the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on Lower Manhattan.

The participants spoke of goals for the rebuilding that have been heard almost since the day of the attack, including the design of a memorial and the possibility of turning downtown into an around-the-clock mixed-use community and rebuilding the transportation network.

The participants also expressed fears that planners and city and state officials would force too much commercial development on the site and that the planning process would be hasty and influenced too much by political concerns.

"I want to see something that doesn't fulfill the stereotypes of who the terrorists think we are and what they were destroying," said Diane Dolan-Soto, 37, of Brooklyn. Those stereotypes, she said, include the thought "that capitalism is the only thing that matters."

Those who came to the Javits center also expressed strong doubt that, in the end, their concerns would be heard. Organizers of the meeting and officials involved in the rebuilding effort tried to address those concerns, which have been generally expressed since Sept. 11 but amplified in recent days after the presentation of the six development plans, which would include as much commercial and retail space as the trade center had.

"We are here to listen," said Joseph J. Seymour, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "Planning is a process that includes the development of alternatives and the exploration of options."

Frank Lombardi, chief engineer for the Port Authority, also reminded the participants that planning for the site is subject to significant constraints, specifically the 99-year lease that the Port Authority agreed to last year and the right of the leaseholders to rebuild the office, retail and hotel space that was there.

Some participants did favor paying more attention to replacing the commercial space lost in the disaster. "The commercial part of the rebuilding will create more job opportunities for the city," said Xinyu Li, 29, an Upper West Side resident and a software company executive who said he works in Midtown.

Many of those in attendance said they were close to or directly affected by the events of Sept. 11. In surveys conducted on wireless electronic keypads, 41 percent said they work or had worked in Lower Manhattan, and a third said they were at or near Ground Zero Sept. 11. One in five said they had lost their jobs or a significant source of income as a result of the attack. Six percent of those attending said they were rescue workers, and 9 percent identified themselves as a relative of someone killed in the attack.

As with nearly all of the events associated with the attacks, an air of patriotism marked the meeting. Alexander Garvin, chief planner for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is overseeing the rebuilding with the Port Authority, received one of the day's biggest rounds of applause when he said, "This event and all of you are testimony that those criminals failed."

The gathering had the feel of a meeting in a small town - but one held in a cavernous space on the western edge of Manhattan. Participants sat at tables of 10, talking with people whom they might rarely encounter in usual work and family life. Each table sent reports of its discussions by wireless laptop computers to a central database, from which the ideas were grouped into overall themes.

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association and a member of the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, the event's sponsor, characterized the meeting as "a way to use the sense of responsibility we all feel to shape the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan."

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