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NEW YORK CITY-At least 150 NAREE attendees trekked Downtown yesterday for a rare aerial view of Ground Zero and a panel discussion moderated by Michael G. Desiato, group managing director of Real Estate Media Inc., the parent company of GlobeSt.com. But stunned as they were by the emotion-packed sight of the gaping hole that was the World Trade Center, the SRO crowd couldn’t help but be bowled over a second time by WTC Association president Guy Tozzoli’s out-of-the-blue pitch for a 1.4 million-sf convention center to be built below grade at the twin towers site.

Held on the 12th floor of 2 World Financial Center, Desiato’s seminar, Downtown Manhattan’s Future, boasted some of the biggest names in commercial real estate. Tozzoli shared the dais with Brookfield Financial chairman John E. Zuccotti, Lower Manhattan Development Corp. chairman John C. Whitehead, Insignia/ESG vice chairman John Powers, Grubb & Ellis senior managing director John Buttarazzi and Mack-Cali CEO Mitchell Hersh.

The outing–attendees slid tokens into subway turnstiles to make the trip Downtown in true New York fashion and crossed the pedestrian bridge that runs from Church and Liberty Streets into the WFC complex–promised to be a highlight of NAREE’s 36th annual conference. But Tozzoli’s proposal swept through the room like a surprise summer downpour, prompting attendees literally to examine the trade center site from a new angle.

“Everybody’s looked up. Look down,” an emphatic Tozzoli said. “I’m sure it’s doable. Physically you know what’s there. It’s a big bathtub, almost 10 acres in size. Next to that bathtub are six contiguous acres. When I looked at the problem, I didn’t think ‘What can we build?’, but rather ‘What does Lower Manhattan need? What does New York City need?’ The Javits Center is used to capacity. There’s not room for one show. Expanding the Javits Center is necessary but we can’t do it.”

Tozzoli noted that 64 of the largest conventions in the country can’t come here because the city doesn’t have enough exhibition space. He claimed that the Javits lost 19 shows to larger venues last year alone.

The plan, while still in the thumbnail stage, sounds relatively simple. According to Tozzoli, the WTC site bottoms out more than 70 feet below-grade. He proposes one floor of a convention center with 36-foot ceilings and a second floor with a ceiling height of 32 feet. The aggregate size of such a venue would be roughly 1.4 million sf and would be situated entirely below ground. He claimed it would bring 3 million annual visitors to Lower Manhattan and collect $3 billion a year in city revenues.

Among the plan’s greatest advantages, Tozzoli says, is that it would provide complete flexibility in the design and construction of above-grade structures, thereby making it completely compatible with whatever WTC design the various interested parties eventually settle upon.

Queried by Desiato about the plan, an apparently shell-shocked Whitehead tentatively offered, “I certainly admire Mr. Tozzoli’s enthusiasm. It’s the first time I’ve heard this. It’s something I’ll think about, I’m sure.”

Other panelists seemed equally nonplussed, vaguely citing potential conflicts with the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, though all who commented said the idea deserves consideration.

Whitehead appeared to regain his footing when GlobeSt.com National Online Editor John Salustri asked for an update on the urban design study for Lower Manhattan. “We’re busily engaged in the plan,” he said. “It’s extremely complicated because of all this underground construction. The subway lines have to be built several years before anything [above ground].”

Whitehead stuck with the planned December release date for the plan and while he maintained that the site study will not propose specific building designs, he discussed the possibility of a museum that could be part of a WTC memorial. A second building, he said, would be devoted to performing arts and possibly occupied by the New York City Opera. Smaller performance companies “might operate out of smaller spaces” to be built over the main facility, he noted.

“Those kinds of buildings must be developed,” if Lower Manhattan is to become the 24/7 community that all of the panelists envisioned, Whitehead emphasized. “The rest of the site is available for office and above-ground retail,” he stated, adding that there are also plans for “some retail below ground.

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