NEW YORK -- Thousands of New York-area residents gathered Saturday for the biggest discussion yet about what should be built at the World Trade Center site and how it should remember those killed on Sept. 11.
"The events of 9-11 call us all to action, to strengthen the voice of free people here and free people all around the globe," said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, who was serving as emcee for the daylong session at the Javits Convention Center.
After singing "America the Beautiful" at 500 tables beneath a half dozen mammoth video screens showing a waving American flag, participants set to work on the most emotional question facing the city.
The attendees included many families of those killed in the attacks, survivors, rescue workers and residents of lower Manhattan. Grief counselors attended the session to provide comfort for participants.
"I have to make sure that the memorial will respect the memory of my husband, and that nothing will be built in the places where the towers once stood," said Tessie Molina-Forsythe, 50, of Basking Ridge, N.J.
Others had decidedly different views.
"We want the towers rebuilt just the way they were. Let's not let a bunch of thugs from Afghanistan dictate our urban planning," said Amiad Finkelthal, 40, who said he was one of about 30 participants belonging to Team Twin Towers, which wants the 110-story towers rebuilt.
Social worker Sheri Clemons, 46, said the session shows the democratic values of the city. She was limping Saturday because she fell 20 feet through a grating on Sept. 11, breaking her leg and her back.
"People have very different interpretations but they seem to have the same goal. Everybody wants to make sure there's a powerful memorial," Clemons said.
Participants, selected to represent the demographics of the New York area, cast opinions electronically on how the property should be rebuilt. Groups of 10 to 12 evaluated presentations by planners and voted on the six conceptual plans released this week by a state-city redevelopment panel.
"I think it's clear that there was a strong feeling that people would like to see the memorial structure settled on first," said John Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency in charge of the redevelopment.
The plans for the 16-acre lower Manhattan site all include more than 11 million square feet of office, retail and hotel space; a transportation hub; and a memorial to the 2,800 people who died.
A number of architects and planners complained the plans were unimaginative and family members of victims were outraged that some called for building over the footprints of the twin towers, while redevelopment officials stressed the plans are merely a starting point.
"We don't want to simply reach out to the public, we need to engage them," said Matt Higgins, spokesman for the development corporation.
Participants were asked to offer their own ideas, including their views on the memorial that will be built. After the seven-hour session, the opinions were to be calculated, summarized and posted on the Internet.
A second town hall meeting will be held Monday.
Some participants were skeptical their ideas will be considered. "The willingness of the people in charge to listen may not be as great as we would like it to be," said Amy Sloane, 36, of Manhattan.
Proposals for the World Trade Center site are to be narrowed to three by September, with the final plan to be chosen by December.
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