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Ground Zero Plan Breaks Down

It has been a while since I posted a commentary on the status of rebuilding at Ground Zero. This week’s collapse of negotiations between developer Larry Silverstein, the Port Authority, and Governor Pataki’s office, provides a timely backdrop for an update.

Contrary to the most dire pronouncements, there is a lot going on around Ground Zero.

    • The big transportation projects are on or close to schedule, including the new Path Terminal, the Fulton Street Transit Center, and the new South Ferry terminal.
    • The new 7 World Trade Center is set to open in May. It is a far classier building than the structure it replaced.
    • Construction of the Memorial, Reflecting Absence, has begun.
    • Demolition of the Deutsche Bank building has begun.
    • Across the street from the Ground Zero, the investment firm Goldman Sachs is building a new headquarters, making them the largest and most prominent firm since the attacks to make a significant commitment to Lower Manhattan.

These projects have all had their problems, and most have taken a lot longer to materialize than the planners’ rosy forecasts led us to expect. Still, they offer evidence of real progress.

Against all of this are two huge failures. Almost 4½ years after 9/11, none of the five office buildings that are supposed to replace the original Twin Towers have started construction. And the cultural program for the site is all but dead.

It seems like forever since architect Daniel Liebeskind was selected from a group of nine finalists to supervise the overall plan for the site. Current plans, even if they are all realized, bear very little resemblance to Liebeskind’s original winning design. Indeed, the Freedom Tower, a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, is about the only recognizable idea of his that remains. Liebeskind is still the site’s nominal "master planner," whatever that means. Every once in a while, he comes out of the woodwork and makes a comment or two. What he is being paid to do is a mystery to me.

We’re in this mess because developer Larry Silverstein’s lease, which he signed just six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, requires him to replace the 10,000,000 sq. ft. of office space that was destroyed. Moreover, Silverstein is paying rent to the Port Authority, to the tune of about $120 million a year, while receiving no income from the site. Naturally, and for entirely understandable reasons, Silverstein wants to get going, so that he can start attracting tenants.

Unfortunately, there is no demand for so much office space at Ground Zero. Silverstein can’t even fill 7 World Trade Center. And what’s making it worse is that the first building in line, the Freedom Tower, is a white elephant. It’s too far from mass transit, its floor plate is too small, its design (altered to accommodate security concerns) is ugly, and commercial tenants fear it will be a terrorist target.

About the only people who are still enthusiastic about the Freedom Tower are public officials, such as Governor Pataki, who’ve invested political capital in the structure, and who view it as a symbol of resiliance and rebirth. Symbols are great, but a skyscraper that will cost $2 billion to build, and that no tenant wants to occupy, is a peculiar way to celebrate the return of commerce to Ground Zero. At the moment, only a handful of government offices have committed to occupy the Freedom Tower, and there certainly wouldn’t be enough of them to come close to filling it.

Everyone agrees that Larry Silverstein’s insurance proceeds and government sponsored Liberty Bonds won’t suffice to fund all five towers in the site plan. It might be enough to build two of out of the five. Silverstein says that rental income from the first couple of towers would provide the revenue stream to fund the rest. Others say that this is a pipe dream, especially when the Freedom Tower is so profoundly unmarketable. The planners’ great fear is that Silverstein runs out of cash in the middle of construction, defaults on his lease, and leaves most of the site vacant for years to come.

Governor Pataki had set Tuesday at midnight as the deadline for Silverstein and the Port Authority to resolve their differences over the site, with some $3.35 billion in Liberty Bonds hanging in the balance. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg don’t want Silverstein to get the bonds until they are convinced he can really build what he’s promised. The two sides were close to an agreement whereby the Port Authority would build the Freedom Tower and one other tower on the Deutsche Bank site, and Silverstein would build the three most lucrative office towers along Church Street. The deal broke down over how to allocate the costs. The Port Authority said that the parties were about $1 billion apart, which needless to say is a significant figure.

The site’s cultural program is in even more of a shambles. Liebeskind’s site plan called for two buildings that would be devoted to cultural institutions. After a lengthy selection process, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation selected four institutions: the Freedom Center, the Drawing Center, the Joyce Dance Center, and the Signature Theater. In an embarrassing reversal, the Freedom Center and the Drawing Center were booted out, because it was feared their programming would clash with the site’s patriotic zeitgeist. The LMDC has committed $10 million to find the Drawing Center another home downtown. The Freedom Center, which never existed except on paper, closed up shop for good. The Joyce and Signature companies remain nominally committed to the site, but there doesn’t seem to be a penny of funding for the Frank Gehry-designed theater they would occupy. If the theater manages to get built, one wonders if the programming would come under the same kind of narrow-minded pressure that eventually forced out the Drawing Center and Freedom Center.

The solutions to these problems are far from clear. The Freedom Tower—so symbolic, but so impractical—seems to be a colossal mistake. Yet, erasing it from the site plan would be a huge political embarrassment, especially for Gov. Pataki, whose long-shot presidential ambitions could be damaged if there is no visible progress by the time he leaves office next January. All of the parties seem to be boxed in by legal and/or moral commitments they’ve made to a site plan that increasingly makes little to no economic sense. The right answer, which no one wants to hear, is to send the original architect, Daniel Liebeskind, on his way, and re-think the whole mess.

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