On September 11, 2001, Alexander Garvin was on the train from New York to New Haven, Connecticut, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He got word of the disaster while in a cab riding from the station to the Yale campus, where he teaches in the architecture school. As the day progressed–he had to lead two classes before he could return to Manhattan–he recalls being overcome by “horror and fury.”

Unlike most Americans, however, Garvin, an architect and city planner, was in a unique position to do something in response. Five months after the attack he was appointed vice president for planning, design, and development for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the agency charged with orchestrating the rebirth of the WTC site and its environs, a project Garvin calls “the premier planning job in the United States, if not the world.”

Garvin’s a fan of Daniel Burnham, and is fond of quoting that master planner’s directive: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” His 1996 book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, made him famous–at least among urban planners. “I define planning as a process that generates a widespread and sustained private-market reaction,” he says. “It’s not enough to simply build a highway. The highway has to attract lots of people in their cars, but even if you have all those cars, unless you have a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood, you haven’t done any planning at all. All you’ve done is build a highway.”

The development of New York’s Lincoln Center is a pet example. “The government came in [in the 1950s], took out a slum, and put in a cultural center and some housing, and ever after that part of the west side has thrived. There has been a good deal of private investment in apartment building construction, in stores, in bars, in restaurants, and the whole neighborhood has turned around because of it. Cities that think in these terms do much better.”

The process of rethinking the 16-acre World Trade Center site has had its bumps–the six initial designs presented a year ago were roundly condemned by New Yorkers invited to comment. But the final design, agreed upon with a lot of public input, is an elaborate scheme by Daniel Libeskind, a Berlin-based architect best known for his Jewish Museum Berlin. The centerpiece is a 1,776-foot-high office tower filled with interior gardens and capped by an observatory and a television antenna.

“The top is an iconic element which parallels the Statue of Liberty with its arm raised up over the Hudson River and the harbor,” says Garvin. The Libeskind plan also calls for a large public plaza, subway and PATH train stations, a shopping mall, a performing arts center, other office buildings, and a museum leading to a belowground memorial to the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Garvin believes the Libeskind plan will jump-start development in downtown Manhattan. “People will want to be near the World Trade site,” he says. “It will draw large numbers to the area, and they’ll spill over and spend money in restaurants and stores and on apartment housing and offices.”

Turning his eye to Chicago, Garvin says the long-vacant Block 37, if developed as proposed by the Virginia-based Mills Corporation as a mixed-use site combining residential, office, and retail space with a hotel, new headquarters for WBBM Channel Two, and a CTA station providing express service to both airports, could enliven State Street. “When you’re dealing with a major undeveloped site such as Block 37, get the best talent you can and work with them to arrive at a theme and an innovative design,” he says. “But the public has to be involved. You can’t do this behind closed doors, with a team of bureaucrats, politicians, or so-called experts.”

Garvin left his LMDC post in April, returning to his previous job as chief planner for the Olympic games slated for New York in 2012. He’ll give a talk called “Make No Small Plans: Learning From New York City” at 1 PM on Saturday, June 28, in the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago at Michigan and Adams (use the Columbus Drive entrance). The lecture is cosponsored by the museum’s architecture and design society and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and will be followed by a panel discussion with city planning and development commissioner Alicia Mazur Berg, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, and architects Thomas Beeby, Linda Searl, and Marilyn Taylor. Admission is $10; for reservations, call 312-670-7770 or E-mail info@aiachicago.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.