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Is Santiago Calatrava's WTC transportation hub in New York worth the hefty price tag?

Outrage: The Port Authority wanted an architectural statement, but what they have got is a boondoggle

When the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey commissioned Santiago Calatrava to rebuild the transport hub at Ground Zero, they didn’t just look for a practical station, but for an idea that could raise the World Trade Center from its ashes. Calatrava responded with a building that evoked a phoenix taking flight, a vision that could fill the void left by the fallen towers. But like one of those dreams where the sound of the alarm clock keeps invading the fantasy, reality has morphed Calatrava’s vision into something weirder, more complicated, and less elegant than a bird reborn.

Since its inception, the World Trade Center transportation hub has been marred by delays and soaring budget overruns with accumulated public costs of nearly $4 billion. What has the public received for such an exorbitant price? The official opening of the station is still six months away, but a passageway, one of the platforms, and parts of the mezzanine have been opened for public scrutiny, showing off Calatrava’s monumental and otherworldly design: walkways gleaming in the immaculate white of sci-fi fantasies, white-coated steel beams curving like the tusks of elephants, and vaulted ceilings that give visitors the impression of being inside a whale swimming gently through the ocean.

After 14 years of scaffolded pavements, narrow footbridges and airport-style security, Calatrava’s dreamlike Transportation Hub is meant to be the final piece in a puzzle that will connect the offices and retail spaces of the new World Trade Center with the 9/11 Memorial and booming Jersey City across the Hudson River. But as commuters start streaming in through the luminous marble corridors, one question begs to be answered: for all its grandeur, is Calatrava’s station worth its hefty price tag?

‘A structure that looks less like a delicate bird in flight and more a thorny caterpillar burrowing its head into the ground’

Originally estimated at a cost of $2 billion, the Transportation Hub is now six years overdue and running more than $1.9 billion over budget. The hub has become a favourite whipping boy of the New York press and has already earned the unfortunate moniker of ‘the world’s most expensive train station’. For some perspective on these numbers, consider that the total amount of public money committed to the hub is double the inflation-adjusted cost of the Grand Central Terminal and more than four times the inflation-adjusted cost of that other Hudson River crossing (and busiest bridge in the world), the George Washington Bridge.

Justifying such a steep price is difficult when you look at the functionality of the new hub. First, there’s the question of traffic. The temporary World Trade Center station currently serves only 48,000 daily New Jersey PATH train commuters, a number that pales in comparison with the 208,000 daily rail commuters served by the Grand Central Terminal and the 410,000 served by Penn Station. Use of the Transportation Hub is expected to increase once construction is completed, but the station will have just five platforms connecting the World Trade Center to only seven stations in New Jersey, limiting a potential increase in traffic.

Second, commuters using the new platform are already complaining about the shortcomings of functional details: the sleek staircases are too narrow and become congested during rush hour, the platforms are too small and fill up too quickly, and the polished stone floors create dangerous, slippery conditions whenever liquids are spilled. Such an extravagant piece of architecture should not have such important functional deficiencies.

Calatrava_Bob_Saget

Source: Bob Saget

Too much form and not enough economic function. The Port Authority asked for a vision that Calatrava delivered, but the Oculus sadly turned out to be a veritable boondoggle

Third, the winged Oculus - the sumptuous, cathedralesque centrepiece of the station - may not, in the end, truly fulfil its use as a train station. It seems destined to become more of a shopping destination than a transport hub, with luxury stores competing for customers, not commuters. Shops and restaurants in the Oculus will be operated by the Westfield Corporation, a shopping mall giant that promotes the new hub as ‘the most complete retail destination in New York with over 150 global brands’. One wonders whether the aid money from the federal government used in the construction of the Hub is really best used to build yet another shopping mall.

Another, purely aesthetic, problem with the Oculus is that cost-cutting measures and negotiations with other World Trade Center planners chipped away at Calatrava’s original avian design. The wings of the Oculus have lost their interstices of glass, the signature spikes have been shortened considerably, and the exterior ribs have doubled in number. The result is a structure that looks less like a delicate bird in flight and more a thorny caterpillar burrowing its head into the ground.

Looking at the Transportation Hub with these facts in mind, the station seems like a case of too much form and not enough economic function. While most critics have pointed their fingers at Calatrava’s immoderation and lavishness, much of the overspending has been caused by the demands of powerful politicians - such as then governor George E Pataki’s decision to keep the #1 subway line running through the construction site at a cost of $355 million - and by a Port Authority leadership with strong ambitions and weak contingency plans.

When work on the Hub started a decade ago, in the patriotic post-9/11 climate, it was the Port Authority leadership that wanted a spectacular architectural statement that could reinvigorate the World Trade Center’s ‘undaunted, optimistic, pioneering spirit’. Working with $1.7 billion in federal grant funding - money that had to be spent on the project or else returned to the government - the Port Authority chose one the most prestigious architects money could buy, renowned for his dreamy designs. But these structurally complex projects are notorious for delays, litigations and cost overruns. The Port Authority leadership knew this, yet they failed to exert the oversight necessary to control costs or secure the implementation of realistic contingency plans.

While no train station is worth $4 billion, it is tough to blame Calatrava for the spiralling costs and mutated designs. The Port Authority asked for a vision and Calatrava delivered. They should have known that extravagant dreams have a way of turning into economic nightmares.

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