Competing interests stall rebuilding at Ground Zero

Project stumbling amid concerns over design, funding and authority

March 21, 2006|By STEVENSON SWANSON | STEVENSON SWANSON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- The terrorists chose well.

The Sept. 11 hijackers attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center because they were symbols of American financial power. And, rising to nearly 1,400 feet, they were easy to hit.

What the al-Qaida terrorists probably did not realize is that the 16-acre site where the towers stood also is one of the most complicated pieces of real estate in the United States. With its overlapping layers of authority and a daunting agenda of public and private functions to fulfill, the site has defied attempts at a speedy rebuilding, which Gov. George E. Pataki and others have insisted is vital to proving that America will not allow terrorism to prevail.

Last week, the sputtering rebuilding effort seemed to lurch to a stop when the developer charged with constructing five office towers there failed to negotiate an agreement with the governmental body that owns the land. The collapse of the talks has threatened to delay the April start date for construction of the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot skyscraper that is to be the centerpiece of the reborn trade center.

And even before preliminary work began March 13 on the other key component of the project - a $500 million memorial - a coalition of Sept. 11 family members filed a lawsuit to halt the bulldozers.

At Ground Zero, hundreds of tourists gather daily to stare into the huge hole that has remained largely unchanged since the cleanup of the towers' debris was completed nearly four years ago.

There, the prevailing sense was that, despite years of architectural competitions and public meetings that have been devoted to the rebuilding of the site, nothing really had been decided. That cheered opponents of the memorial.

This state of uncertainty stands in stark contrast to Pataki's unequivocal remarks on July 4, 2004, when he dedicated the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower.

Since that dedication, which occurred less than two months before the Republican National Convention turned the spotlight on New York, no work has been done on the tower. Later that year, in one of the odder twists of the story of Ground Zero, the city Police Department said the tower's location and design would make it vulnerable to a truck bomb.

Architects David Childs and Daniel Libeskind redesigned the skyscraper, giving it a fortresslike base 200 feet high and moving it farther from the street.

That development highlighted the many layers of bureaucracy involved in the project, with no one in clear control of Ground Zero. The land is in New York City, but the city has little say because the owner of the property, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, answers to the governors of those two states.

But less than two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Port Authority leased the trade center to New York developer Larry Silverstein. Under the lease, Silverstein has the responsibility for replacing the 10 million square feet of office space that was destroyed.

Supposedly coordinating the various components of the project is the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., whose leaders are appointed by Pataki and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. But the agency has been big-footed more than once: Pataki vetoed the development corporation's choice of the master planner, selecting Libeskind instead. Acting over the agency's objections, he also pulled the plug on a museum dedicated to the history of freedom when some Sept. 11 family members protested that the museum would divert attention from the fact that 2,749 people died there in the attack.

The current impasse came about because Pataki, who is in his final year as governor, wanted to kick-start the rebuilding at Ground Zero. Progress at the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history would help secure his legacy as he considers a 2008 presidential bid.

Fearing that Silverstein did not have enough money to finance the estimated $7 billion cost of constructing five office towers, Pataki told the developer and the Port Authority last year to work out a deal that would split responsibility for the project.

He gave them until last Tuesday, but the Port Authority walked out of the negotiations late that night, charging that Silverstein had presented an "outrageous" proposal.

The developer offered to let the Port Authority be responsible for constructing two buildings, including the Freedom Tower, which most see as the least economically viable office building in the project because it is farthest from public transportation and is a high-profile terrorism target.

Silverstein, who has an estimated $2.9 billion in insurance payments resulting from the destruction of the twin towers, would keep much of the insurance money and build the three other office structures and a shopping mall.

That idea drew heavy criticism from the Port Authority and also from Bloomberg and Pataki, who has been Silverstein's ally.

Despite the impasse, Silverstein says he will start construction of the Freedom Tower on schedule.

Stevenson Swanson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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