When I started this blog, I created a category called “Rebuilding” for my comments about downtown and the World Trade Center site. But on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, precious little has been rebuilt. The sum total of the accomplishments at Ground Zero are the replacement for 7 World Trade Center (a gorgeous building, but largely unoccupied); the reconstructed #1 subway tunnel (important, but largely invisible); and the WTC PATH station (which is temporary).
In a fascinating long article called “The Hole in the City,” published today in the Times, Deborah Sontag reviews all of the missteps that have gotten us to where we are today, with Ground Zero still what it was on September 12, 2001: a 16-acre hole in the ground. Several key errors have created this five-year stalemate. Most of them are directly attributable to Governor George Pataiki’s incompetence. He either made the decisions himself, or selected the key people who did:
- Larry Silverstein. His lease with the Port Authority compelled the agency to replace the office space that was lost on 9/11. Early on, the government could have forced him out. That would have meant the loss of lease payments that total more than $100m per year. But rather than frankly admitting the trade-off, leaders kept dancing around it, hoping the issue would quietly go away. It hasn’t.
- The Families. Early on, Pataki decided to kow-tow to the families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. Their near-veto power over the site has been a constant impediment to development. Incredibly, Pataki’s impetuous announcement that the footprints would be considered sacred (one of the 9/11 families’ highest priorities) was not cleared in advance with site planners.
- Daniel Libeskind. Pataki hand-picked Liebeskind’s ugly site plan, overruling rebuilding officials’ preference for a rival plan. Today, most of Liebeskind’s plan has been compromised out of existence. But his continuous presence has been a constant irritant. Liebeskind had no experience with a project on this scale, and many of his ideas were wildly impractical. Years ago, Liebeskind should have been thanked for his contributions, and sent packing.
- The Freedom Tower. This massive skyscraper, a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, was supposed to be the site’s iconic landmark. But Liebeskind put it in the wrong place, at the corner of the site that’s farthest from mass transportation, and Pataki refused to move it. The governor presided over the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 2004. Since then, the stone has been “unlaid,” and put into storage. A costly redesign was mandated after the police department insisted the building had to conform to the security requirements of an overseas U. S. embassy. (These are the same cowards who have refused to re-open Park Row in Lower Manhattan.) It is still not clear whether the Freedom Tower will get built, as Pataki has not delivered on his promise to secure government tenants for it.
- Culture. I thought it was a great idea to mix culture and commerce at Ground Zero. But of the four cultural tenants the rebuilding agency selected, not one was a marquis name. Pataki ejected two of the four, out of fear that they would showcase unpatriotic content. The remaining two don’t seem to have a prayer of raising the $50m required to build a Frank Gehry-designed theater on the site’s northern edge.
- Transportation. On the transit front, there has actually been some good news. Construction is well underway for the Fulton Street Transit Center and the new South Ferry Terminal. But to accommodate the former project, almost 150 small businesses lost their leases. A temporary PATH terminal, which cost some $300 million, opened just two years after 9/11. Its permanent replacement, at a price over $2 billion, is now under construction. Developers called it a “downtown Grand Central.” But maybe it’s just wretched excess. Grand Central has 45 sets of train tracks, while the PATH station has just five. The new station will have space for an express train service to JFK airport—another Pataki priority—but there’s no assurance it will ever get built.
All over downtown, there are large banners proclaiming all the great things that will get built by 2009 or 2010. Anyone who has followed the lack of progress downtown knows the instinctive response: Don’t hold your breath.