Later today, at around 3 p.m., some of the World Trade Center PATH Hub’s Oculus building will open to the public. It’s a $4 billion project that has been delayed for years, and its opening is almost a sigh of relief rather than a celebratory moment. What’s clear is that the Port Authority is overstating the building’s importance and using ridership figures from the soon-to-be connecting Fulton St. subway station to bolster the projections of the number of people who may pass through the Hub’s free passageways. What’s also clear is that I’ve used the Hub as a whipping boy, fairly or not, for the region’s inability to prioritize and spend properly.
Over the past few years, I’ve been accused of being unable to see the forest for the trees. As some commenters have stated, they feel I wouldn’t be happy unless we build utilitarian boxes a la grungy Penn Station and spend the billions on capacity and capacity alone. To defend myself, I don’t believe that’s true. We should be able to build great public spaces while also expanding transit capacity at the same time, but I don’t have a magic formula in mind. Can we spend $1 billion — an absurd amount by itself — on architecture to every $3 billion we spend on expansion? That seems reasonable, but for $4 billion, we’re getting great architecture with no expansion. That’s where I draw the line.
Today is essentially the last day for us to really take stock of the PATH Hub. Once it opens and becomes a part of the fabric of New York City rather than a construction site, we forget about the problems, the delays, the costs. Still, as future generations of New Yorkers look to expand our transportation footprint and even as a few miles up north, Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares for a $3 billion overhaul of Penn Station that may or may not accompany an increase in capacity, we can draw lessons from the Calatrava Hub. As soon-to-depart PA head Patrick Foye has noted, with transit dollars so scarce, it’s important not to waste them.
I’m not going to link to every review, good or bad, that comes out about the PATH Hub over the next few days, and eventually, I’ll make my way over there to be dazzled by the blinding brightness of a $4 billion building made out of steel fabricated in Italy. I do think that Paul Goldberger’s review in Vanity Fair is worth the read, but a few paragraphs in particular stood out to me. Architecturally, Goldberger compares its impact to the Saarinen TWA terminal and writes of the space:
The Oculus…is the exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral. It is a room that soars; under a great arc of glass, Calatrava has put together curving ribs of steel to make a space that is uplifting, full of light and movement, and capable of inspiring something that has been in particularly short supply at Ground Zero, which is hope.
I’m not saying that to suggest that the Hub is a monument to the noblest ambitions of humankind. It is, after all, a train station bred to a shopping mall, and unlike Grand Central Terminal, where most of the shopping and restaurants are tucked into secondary spaces, at the World Trade Center the stores ring the monumental space. This place cost billions of dollars of public money, and it’s still a shrine to the commercial marketplace. I wish it were otherwise. But that doesn’t destroy the impact of the architecture, or negate the fact that this is the first time in a half a century that New York City has built a truly sumptuous interior space for the benefit of the public…
Back when the 9/11 memorial opened a few years ago, I recall Michael Bloomberg saying something to the effect that people only complain about cost and delays when a project is underway; that once it is done, if it is any good, they forget all of that and pay attention to the thing itself. The Transportation Hub and its Oculus will put the Bloomberg Doctrine to a test, but I suspect it will pass, and that a couple of years from now, we will be hearing not about what this thing cost or about how long it took to build, but about how much people like walking through it. I certainly hope so, since nothing would be worse than to have it provoke a backlash against spending money on infrastructure. At a time when this country spends far less on public works than it should, the Hub is a rare exception to the trend. Its best legacy would be to encourage us to take more chances, and to recognize that investing in the public realm isn’t throwing away money. It is investing in the future, a gift from our generation to the ones that follow.
I appreciate Goldberger’s words, and as I chewed them over throughout the day on Wednesday, I worried that we might forget the transportation element of this project. We certainly do need to spend on public works and integrate them into our transportation infrastructure. After all, a nicer train station is one that draws people to the services it offers, but at the same time, we cannot invest all of the public money in form over function. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that’s what happened at the World Trade Center site. Let’s build great public spaces without sacrificing all of the dollars to the need for beauty as without expansion we will go and grow nowhere.