New WTC design 'not a done deal': Camden native offers alternative

September 24, 2004

By MARTIN CAHN (Camden, S.C.), staff reporter

Camden Chronicle Independent

When New York City's twin World Trade Center towers crumbled to twisted metal and dust in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks three years ago, Herb Belton saw a piece of himself destroyed. Belton, who was born in Camden and graduated from Jackson High School, worked under Minoru Yamasaki in the 1960s and early 1970s at Emery Roth & Sons, the architectural firm which designed and oversaw the contruction of the World Trade Center.

"I shed a lot of tears when they went down because I worked on it. I knew every detail of it from the foundation to the top - even the window washing machine," said Belton, who lives in Orange, N.J., during a recent visit back home to Camden.

On July 4, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomburg and New York Gov. George Pataki laid the cornerstone for what, officially, will become the WTC's replacement: A proposed 1,776 foot "Freedom Tower" with associated memorial park and other Trade Center-associated buildings.

"But it's not a done deal," Belton insists. "It doesn't recapture the skyline. I want to see that rise again."

So he and designer Ken Gardner have come up with what they call "The Plan of the People." Under the corporate name Phoenix Towers Inc., the proposal would resurrect the original twin towers, but with new construction methods.

Where the proposed Freedom Tower would only have 70 floors, of occupied space, according to Belton, with the remaining height taken up by an empty, 40-story "space needle," his and Gardner's plan would create twin 112-floor towers for 224 floors of usable space.

Their north tower would include a 500-foot communications mast, bringing its total height to 1,888 feet, making it the world's tallest building. The south tower would be 1,382 feet tall, with indoor and outdoor observation decks. And Belton said both towers would feature a tribute to those first responders who gave their lives trying to save others that September morning.

"At the top of one tower would be a firefighter's memorial at the top of the other would be a memorial to police officers," said Belton.

More than that, at least one of the towers would be "mixed-use," with high-end apartments, hotel, shopping spaces and more. Several other buildings making up the total complex would include an opera house, offices and a transit hub.

Belton admits theirs is an ambitious plan, but one he hopes New York City and the country will take seriously as a way of reclaiming what he considers as much a national monument as the White House or Capital building - and a way of healing America's psychological wounds.

He felt those wounds not only as an original WTC architect, but as a husband worried about his wife who could have died in the attacks.

"My wife Margaret is a legal affairs supervisor and was suppose to be at a courthouse near the towers for a meeting," said Belton. "She was on a train passing under the south tower when one of the planes hit. She said they heard a rumbling, got off the train and started running, although they didn't know why at first."

Belton said his wife ran towards Wall Street and then walked all the way to 42nd Street, but found no transportation off Manhattan.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw the towers come down on TV. I tried to call her on my cell phone," Belton said.

His wife walked across town and then down to the New Jersey waterway. The lines, she later told him, were four or five blocks long; it took her hours to get on a ferry.

"She ended up in Hoboken and went through a decontamination tent. My son finally reached her by cell and picked her up around 10:30 that night," said Belton.

The planes had struck the towers over 12 hours earlier.

"If she had been there 15 minutes later..."

Belton met his wife while attending his sister's wedding in Brooklyn, N.Y. That was well after falling in love with architecture while working with a local firm during high school. After graduating from Jackson, Belton lived with an aunt in upstate New York for a while before attending North Carolina A&T. He later switched to the City University of New York and attended that wedding.

"She was a very spiritual girl," Belton remembered.

Belton graduated from CUNY in one year, thanks not only to hard work, but to the work he had already done in South Carolina and projects in New York and New Jersey like port authority terminals and airport buildings.

He also started flying planes.

"I really loved getting my pilot's license and flying Cessnas. I flew them every weekend and had so much fun, but my wife hated me flying with a passion," he said.

But, aside from Margaret, his first love was architecture. So, when he was offered the chance to join Yamasaki's team, he didn't hesitate.

"I remember the order to 'remove all the barges and crates from the site,"' Belton said. "The Hudson River originally flowed over the current site in the 1980s."

The idea of constructing a world trade center began right after World War II, but the site wasn't fixed until the early 1960s. Groundbreaking was Aug. 5, 1966. The first tower was opened in 1970 although its upper stories would not be completed until 1972. The second tower was completed in 1973 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

For one year, they were the world's tallest and largest buildings, until the Sears Tower in Chicago was opened in 1974.

Belton said that while reviews over the original towers were mixed when it opened, and the official selection of the Freedom Tower concept may be modern, he believes most Americans want to see New York's skyline returned to its nearly 30-year grandeur.

Although he couldn't site specific examples, Belton claimed approximately 70 percent of respondents in public opinion polls in print or on the Internet favored rebuilding along the twin towers concept.

According to different media reports, a Marist College poll found that, given several options for what to do with the site, a plurality of New Yorkers favored rebuilding the Twin Towers; a USA Today/CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans still favored tall buildings, 64 percent specifically wanting the Twin Towers rebuilt; and the New York Post reportedly gathered 33,864 votes in an online poll, with 69 percent favoring rebuilding the towers.

There is even controversy over whether anything should be built on the site. The Voice of America, for example, recently reported that family members of victims consider Ground Zero a gravesite that shouldn't be overshadowed by commercial interest. The Associated Press also reported, more specifically, that some families have sought a court order barring any at the site until they can be assured the original towers' footprints be preserved.

That is something Belton said he and Gardner included in their plans.

"Our plans call for the new towers to be shifted 300 feet east of the original footprints," said Belton.

That, he said, would preserve the hallowed ground where nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11. Each of the original towers' bottom five floors would be recreated in recovered or replicated steel with stone tablets naming each of the victims. Visitors would be allowed to study the events of Sept, 11 in a museum, and meditate on those events in a 12-story glass tower.

Their plans also include new construction methods to make the towers safer. Sketching on a small piece of paper, Belton explained that the original towers suffered from a "ribbon effect," causing the towers to collapse in on themselves after being struck by the hijacked planes.

"The new skyscrapers will feature a 'tube-within-a-tube' construction," he said. "The old core was a gypsum core; the new one will be made of masonry, which will exceed the fire code."

Belton didn't say the new towers would necessarily withstand a strike similar to 9/11's, but that his proposed construction would be less likely to collapse the way the originals did. The exterior skin would feature more columns resulting in a much stronger design, he said, while permitting larger windows for more natural sunlight. The core would feature the same columns as the exterior - hence the idea of a tube-within-a-tube - with walls made of reinforced concrete.

"Both buildings would also have six stairwells instead of four and they would be wider," said Belton.