The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. is moving closer to redeveloping the site of the World Trade Center — even as the need for 11 million sq. ft. of replacement office space is anything but urgent. The downtown market has a 13.2% vacancy rate, and the loss of Wall Street jobs continues to sap demand.

Still, the project is viewed as an essential component for reviving lower Manhattan, and real estate executives — as well as the public — welcomed a new series of land-use designs that are supposed to guide the eventual project design. Unlike the first drawings, which were panned by architects and the public last July, six designs unveiled in December were praised for being far more ambitious. One calls for the world's tallest skyscraper, while another proposes a skyscraper that resembles a giant tic-tac-toe board. And a third design features a poetic spiral of high-rise buildings with a jagged shaft rising 1,776 feet.

Roland Betts, head of the LMDC's site committee, has insisted that one of the designs will be the basis for a new development. The LMDC will now work with the Port Authority to produce a master plan for the site.

Critics of the initial designs argued that the architects had simply arranged replacement office space around the site in an unimaginative fashion and put real estate before revitalization.

Questions remain about whether all the WTC space will be needed — it took 20 years to fill the original. On the other hand, one of the drawbacks of downtown is its aging office buildings, many of which do not offer modern amenities. “Do we really need more office space in Lower Manhattan? Probably not more. But we do need better space here,” says Ken Rapp, senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis.

According to Rapp, it is difficult to gauge what the demand for office space will be in five to 10 years. Yet he believes that Lower Manhattan will always lose market share to Midtown unless new Class-A space is added to downtown.

Another competitive disadvantage downtown is access for suburban workers. “Transportation links are going to be vital downtown. That should be a priority, as Midtown benefits from Penn Station and Grand Central being right in the heart of the district,” says Rapp.

To some critics, the eye-catching designs are merely a sideshow to a more serious debate. “What will it look like and feel like to walk by here? It needs an interesting and working streetscape,” says John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “They came up with a plan that captured people's imagination and that's good. But will there be demand for all of that office space?”