When David Rockefeller hired the famous Gordon Bunshaft to build One Chase Manhattan Plaza in the late 1950s—at seventy stories, the first skyscraper to rise downtown in a generation—he had hoped that the neighborhood the bank was about to inhabit would also change. Aside from the stock exchanges, the major brokerage houses, investment banks, law and insurance offices, and other businesses in the financial district, the neighborhood still had a good many manufacturers and merchants in electronic parts—stable, but what chamber-of-commerce types might call “underutilizers” of the land upon which they sat.
On June 5, 1958, the Times announced the formation of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, the vehicle by which Rockefeller, who was co-chairman, and his associates intended to transform the district running from the Battery to Chambers Street. The DLMA, the article proclaimed, would soon advance proposals on “zoning, street widenings, slum clearance,” and so on; a little further down, the piece noted, helpfully from the DLMA’s vantage point, that, come nightfall, the area, which had some 350,000 employees by day, was “lifeless except for a few policemen, countless wharf rats and the residents of the fringe of tenement houses.” But new “private apartment developments” were projected that would draw new residents to the area. That October, the specifics were set out: the razing of old buildings to permit expansion of the financial district; closing narrow streets, and widening others; relocating the Fulton Fish Market and a wholesale produce market on the west side. It was clear that big changes, and more skyscrapers—this was, of course, at the height of the urban renewal movement—were afoot. Rockefeller, for his part, acknowledged that “all changes bring some hardship.”
Over at the Port Authority, the idea of a world trade center or “mart,” to include office and exhibition space for the purpose of promoting the postwar increase in world trade, had been broached as early as 1946. That year, at Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s urging, the state legislature authorized the creation of a World Trade Corporation that would “develop a World Trade Center to be located within the State of New York for exhibiting and otherwise promoting the purchase and sale of products in international trade.” The Port Authority, at first, was cool to the notion. Chairman Howard Cullman told Dewey that the proposed center seemed to him “primarily an extensive real estate operation” and, as such, inappropriate to the mission of a “self-perpetuating public benefit corporation” like the authority. As chairman, Cullman was, in effect, the boss of the authority’s executive director, Austin Tobin. So that, for the time being, was that.
Even if Cullman had been more enthusiastic, the agency faced two problems. First, it was bound, under the language of the compact that created it, to spend its revenues on port commerce and regional transportation–related activities. Second, political pressure was growing on the Port Authority to part with some of its pile. Its surplus of $64 million almost certainly …