Bump and Grind at Ground Zero
Five years later, there are finally a few signs of progress in Lower Manhattan
It came off as an unplanned message war. Across New York, officials with the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center posted ads this summer: "This is 2010," the signs read near pictures of the major buildings that will someday rise at ground zero. "It's happening now." But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, asked about his city's recovery, had a different take. "You guys in New York City can't get a hole in the ground fixed," he sniffed. "And it's five years later."
Nagin apologized, but there are plenty of people who agree with him. Officials leading the Lower Manhattan rebuilding effort insist that they've turned a corner and say progress is being made. An agreement reached in April resolved some turf wars and funding issues that had stalled work at the 16-acre site. Construction has begun on major buildings there now-including the Freedom Tower, a transportation hub, and the 9/11 Memorial-and officials will unveil designs for three smaller office buildings this week. But skeptics say a miasma of political agendas surrounding the effort could still gum up progress. "Let's believe it," says Ken Sherrill, a political scientist with New York's Hunter College, "when we see it."
Troubles. The project is no stranger to struggles. In 2003, when architect Daniel Libeskind won a design competition to "master plan" the site, experts speculated that his 1,776-foot spire-dubbed Freedom Tower-would be too tall and too attractive to terrorists to attract corporate tenants. Until this spring, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg worried that Larry Silverstein, a developer who won the lease to the trade center site just prior to 9/11, would run out of money, default on his lease, and walk away with millions in profits after completing only two of the site's five high-rises. Nonsense, countered Silverstein. And when the New York Police Department concluded in the spring of 2005 that the Freedom Tower would be vulnerable to truck bombs, the resulting design changes added as much as two more years to the project.
Big egos have also been a factor. Silverstein said early on that it was his "absolute right" to choose his own architects, but Libeskind bickered with the Freedom Tower architect. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land and built the original trade center buildings, has been battling Silverstein over a host of issues. Gov. George Pataki, who insisted that the Freedom Tower be built before less fiscally risky buildings, was accused of focusing on his legacy. Pataki's staff says the accusations are without foundation.
The agreement reached in April was intended to put an end to all the bickering by giving the Port Authority control over the Freedom Tower. "We won't build a speculative white elephant," says Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia. Translation: Building won't begin until 1 million of the 2.6 million square feet of office space in the Freedom Tower are under lease. The Port Authority and Silverstein also must get assurances from seven insurance companies that they will pay the $1.4 billion they still owe even after this shift in responsibilities; four firms are resisting.
But emotional flashpoints remain. "This is our sacred ground," says Anthony Gardner, one of a group of victims' families upset that the planned memorial-two large fountains over the original trade center's footprints-will somewhat limit access to the twin towers' foundations. The group sued and lost but is continuing to press for changes, including preservation of the North Tower's "survivor staircase," which sits in the middle of one of Silverstein's planned office buildings.
And there's more. The abandoned Deutsche Bank building at the south edge of the site is being dismantled but is filled with hazardous chemicals and trade center dust, requiring complex negotiations over how to get rid of the mess. The 7 World Trade Center office tower, meanwhile, the only building that's been completed at the trade center complex, opened in May with just three tenants, although leases have now been drawn up for close to two thirds of the space. That's progress, no two ways about it, but there's still a long way to go.
This story appears in the September 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.