A Zero at Ground Zero?
Whatever critics thought of the World Trade Center before 9/11, its twin towers immediately became sacred the moment they were destroyed.
The towers were no longer viewed as cold, dehumanizing monoliths weighing down Lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center, in memory, cast a much different shadow than it had in life. It became a symbol of American resolve.
But these days, resolve seems to be in short supply in Lower Manhattan. Three and a half years after the terrorist strike, the World Trade Center site remains an empty shell. The cornerstone has been laid. But those trying to divine the grand plans for the site, the sunken reflective pools marking the destroyed World Trade Center footprints, the vast cultural spaces, the soaring Freedom Tower, are out of luck. This place was deemed ground zero because it was the epicenter of the terrorist attack. Now the moniker has taken on another connotation: nothing going on.
At least nothing good. Kevin Rampe, head of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., resigned earlier this month, leaving a project that seems increasingly rudderless without a leader. Dismayed by the "bureaucratic obstacles" set in place, New York Sen. Charles Schumer told business leaders that more than $700 million provided by Congress for the project remained unspent and "we have not yet ordered one beam of steel for the Freedom Tower."
The New York City Police Department, meanwhile, has thrown a wrench into construction plans for the 1,776-foot tower, the site's signature spire. The NYPD has advised that the tower, as planned, is vulnerable to attacks by truck bombs. The Freedom Tower, which will have to be moved, is already months behind schedule.
Backing away. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs, an anchor that would have drawn others to the area, has backed away from plans to build a new headquarters at the site--midtown seems a safer bet. A "Freedom Center" is being funded even though what it will hold remains in dispute. And money for a Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center, which has tenants, hasn't even been sought.
On top of all this, the site's developer, Larry Silverstein, is said to be nosing around for greater public financing, griping that new security concerns will cost him millions he doesn't have. And Schumer is threatening to redirect about $2 billion in federal aid meant to link the site to JFK International Airport if the project's problems aren't fixed.
Joanna Rose, a spokeswoman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., says everything remains on track. But not everyone is opposed to the project's slowing down. Alissa Torres, who lost her husband, Luis, in the terrorist attack, notes that she's "never been impressed" with the project as planned. Currently, she says, it "lacks meaning." More than a few others agree.
Relatively absent during all this, critics charge, have been the two men with the political clout to fix the problems. Over the past couple of weeks, both Gov. George Pataki and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have gone on the offensive, calling meetings and attending a well-planned publicity event in Lower Manhattan. Pataki also announced last week that he would earmark millions more in federal funds for the reconstruction and that he would put his chief of staff, John Cahill, in charge of ground zero.
The ground zero development was to be Pataki's swan song, as he is unlikely to seek another term when his current one ends in late 2006. But recently, says one official with knowledge of the machinations surrounding the site, the governor has appeared "out to lunch." The mayor, meanwhile, has been spending enormous amounts of time on another Manhattan project, the bid to build a West Side football stadium.
Jeremy Soffin, spokesman for the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, says there will be no Freedom Tower or anything like it unless the lack of momentum in every other aspect of the project is cured. His group is advocating a renewed focus on other buildings and amenities planned for the site. Pointing to the headway made by the mayor on the proposed West Side stadium, he notes that where there is a political will, there is a way. "The governor and the mayor are the ones in the position to exert their will over this project," he says. True enough. And a lot of New Yorkers believe they'd better get going.
This story appears in the May 23, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.