Parkland teacher helps design first Trade Center park

CHAMPAIGN - Volunteers will soon transform a triangular concrete patch of high-priced ground in lower Manhattan into a park that's an affirmation of the human spirit overcoming tragedy.
The acre-sized tract bounded by Canal, Laight and Varick streets was most recently and infamously used as a staging area for rescue and cleanup crews after terrorists destroyed two nearby World Trade Center buildings in September 11, 2001, and damaged many other buildings in the neighborhood.
But Parkland College landscape architect Kaizad Irani, a member of the design team that won a competition last Sunday to plan the park there, said the new focus there will be on life, not death, and on people, not structures or design artistry.
"The social criteria include commemorating the victims, but more importantly, it's a thank you gift to lower Manhattan, to the shop keepers, the police and fire workers, the residents, the people who have helped keep the area alive," said Irani of the park to be constructed beginning in September this year at the entrance to Manhattan, the Holland Tunnel.
The only part of the project that's not settled yet is the park's name. Its working title is WTC Heroes Park, but Irani says a more appropriate title to match his team's winning design would be Ribbon Park.
That's because the design uses weaving ribbons of different metals - to represent diversity - in different ways as life-affirming symbols.
"The stripes of the flag, yellow ribbons for returns, strands of DNA that are the ribbons of life all are important symbols to Americans," said Irani, who was born in India and attended a university there before he moved to the U.S. for graduate studies and became a naturalized citizen.
"It was my dream to be an American," he said. "On Sept. 11, we all sat in front of the television set saying, 'How can I help? What can I do with my skills?' I'm very pleased to have a chance to do that."
The City of New York and its Parks Commission issued the park design challenge last year, and professional landscape architecture organizations let members know about the opportunity for volunteers.
Irani applied in December, and he found out early in April he was a finalist. In mid-April, he was notified by phone that he was one of 20 professionals selected, the only teacher in the group.
"The caller said, 'Are you sitting down?' and I said, 'Is this my son's principal?'" Irani said.
Landscape architects selected from all over the United States and from Canada, Bermuda, the Philippines and other locations met at Chicago from May 2 through 4 to plan and present their designs.
"We divided into four teams because 20 people had too many ideas," Irani said. "First, our team did a preliminary needs assessment. What are the needs of the people using the park? People make a park work. "
Before they started designing, team members watched a video of the site and reviewed the criteria.
"There had to be greenery in there to get away from the concrete canyons of Manhattan," Irani said. "There had to be gathering places for people, a water feature and a place for a plaque. It's not to be a memorial. In Illinois, we think Sept. 11 is over, but in New York, it's still on everyone's mind. The park is to celebrate the human spirit. It's to convey comfort and a sense of community."
"Our design put people at the heart. Some others were very architectural, and some were pastoral. We all voted, and we set aside the artistic designs that look great on paper."
Irani said other parks will be located on the site of the Trade Center reconstruction, but their park will be the first to be built because it's separated and because it's located at the gateway to Manhattan, where it will set the tone for future construction.
He said design teams didn't have to take plans for the building replacements into account, something other park planners there will likely have to consider.
Grass and trees will grow in the park, and a roofless pavilion will be built there. Irani ran right into a key challenge when he found out the park must be fenced, and he dislikes fences.
"Organizers said, 'This is New York, and it has to be fenced,' so we decided to make the fence a work of art," he said. "It will have three-dimensional metal ribbons weaving in and out, and stars will hang on them so it represents the flag. Ribbons will also weave through the paving. Everything will weave. Nothing will be linear."
The water feature is a circular fountain filled with boulders of different colors and materials.
"The rocks symbolize diversity, and the circle ties us together," Irani said.
This week, the team's design will be presented to New York parks officials and possibly the city's mayor for review and planning. Some members of Irani's team will help pick the boulders and other elements, but Irani said he won't have time to help with those details.
"I'm still a teacher," he said.
Irani plans to challenge his landscape design students to make plans for parks like the one to be built in New York, and he intends to use information and his experience from the design challenge to stage competitions in future classes.
He also hopes to take students to New York City in the fall to help with the construction, which will be completed by volunteers, if he can find funding to underwrite the trip.
"This park is a big factor needed to start transforming the World Trade Center site," Irani said. "New Yorkers were hit by a colossal tragedy, and life stopped for a while. But we stand up, and we build. We honor the human spirit."

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com.

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