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Who Lost Ground Zero?

books and culture

Who Lost Ground Zero?

A new history of the World Trade Center rebuilding finds much blame to go around. October 14, 2016
New York

Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan, by Lynne B. Sagalyn (Oxford, 928 pp., $39.95)

In recent decades, New York City has gained a measure of control over things once considered unmanageable. Building big isn’t one of them. If anything, the city’s resurgence has made it harder to execute mega-projects by increasing the pressure to maintain and expand infrastructure.

The $25.5 billion Ground Zero rebuilding, chronicled in a new book by Columbia University’s Lynne Sagalyn, has been an unusually complex undertaking in two respects. First, no one was ever in charge. Decision-making was fragmented among Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Port Authority, and Larry Silverstein, the real estate developer to whom the Port Authority had leased the Twin Towers six weeks before their destruction. Second, Ground Zero’s 16 acres are sacred ground. The need to commemorate the victims and heroes of 9/11 wasn’t easy to square with the imperatives of restoring the lost commercial and retail space and rejuvenating lower Manhattan.

There was never any question that Ground Zero would be rebuilt. Early suggestions, made shortly after 9/11 by victims’ families and outgoing mayor Rudy Giuliani that the site should serve purely a memorial function got pushed aside almost immediately. Silverstein began speaking within weeks of the attacks of being “obligated” to rebuild the 10 million square feet of demolished office space. In November 2002, he broke ground on 7 World Trade Center, whose predecessor of the same name had been destroyed along with several other buildings in the Twin Towers’ collapse. On the public side, early and encouraging signs of progress included city government’s clearing the site of debris by May 2002, and the Port Authority’s opening up a temporary station for the PATH commuter train system in November 2003.

Momentum soon stalled. It took years to resolve the emotional debates over the memorial program, such as where and how the victims’ names should be listed. The master plan by German architect Daniel Libeskind began to be revised soon after its adoption in February 2003. Twice, the Port Authority had to renegotiate the terms of the rebuilding with Silverstein. In 2006, the agency took control of 1 World Trade Center (then called the “Freedom Tower”), thus returning to the real-estate business that it had tried to get out of in the 2001 lease deal. Silverstein reaped a generous buyout and, in 2010, won additional public subsidies for the development of Towers 2, 3, and 4. To tamp down criticism that the construction was taking too long, the Port Authority spent more—and faster—than it planned to. The World Trade Center’s revival could have cost less in public subsidies, but a cheaper rebuilding would have meant an even slower one.

Several books have already been written about Ground Zero after 9/11, but Sagalyn’s is easily the most ambitious—730 pages of text packed with extensive details about the financial and engineering backstory of the rebuilding, as well as how everything played in the media at each step of the process. It’s strange to see a book with such aspirations to comprehensiveness arrive at this time, given that—as is obvious to anyone who’s recently visited the site—the World Trade Center isn’t yet fully rebuilt. (The Performing Arts Center and 2 World Trade Center haven’t begun to go up and 3 World Trade won’t open until 2018.) Sagalyn employed a similar kitchen-sink approach in Times Square Roulette, her 2001 history of that neighborhood’s comeback. But her findings there were organized around her thesis that, contrary to popular wisdom, Giuliani didn’t revitalize Times Square. She doesn’t have an overarching thesis about Ground Zero.

Sagalyn does issue specific judgments about the dramatis personae. Pataki gets a thumbs down for his “ebb and flow” leadership style. Amidst the rebuilding’s chaotic political landscape, Pataki had more formal power than any other major player, but he made several weak appointments and, in the case of his more competent subordinates, failed to back them up. Pataki alternated, based on his own personal political needs, between inexplicable aloofness and willful intervention. Not that being political is always a bad thing. Sagalyn gives Bloomberg high marks for using his diplomatic skills to push the Port Authority and Silverstein to come to terms both in 2006 and 2010, and for resolving some of the tensest controversies relating to the memorial. Bloomberg’s political achievements were all the more notable considering that the city had much less authority than the state over the World Trade Center, the Port Authority, and even New Jersey, by virtue of its influence over the bi-state Port Authority.

As for the Port Authority, Sagalyn’s book generally reinforces the conventional wisdom that it has morphed over the years from an arrogant, ambitious-but-effective agency to one that is hubristic and ineffective. The Port Authority made several mistakes throughout the rebuilding, but Sagalyn is most critical of how it managed its $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub project. For such a proud agency, the Port Authority adopted a strikingly obeisant pose toward Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect who designed the Transportation Hub. Calatrava comes across as a charismatic Harold Hill figure who used his charm to flip the traditional client-patron relationship. “When conflicts between the complex design for the Hub and its constructability arose and created cost pressures, PA officials were reportedly unable—and unwilling—to counter Calatrava’s strong resistance to any change that threatened what he believed to be the project’s design integrity,” Sagalyn writes. By the time the Port Authority did wrest some power back from Calatrava, damage control was the only option, thanks to the many irreversible decisions that were taken early on.

Two more lessons bear emphasis. First, when privatizing major assets, governments must make careful provision for what happens in the event of catastrophe. The Port Authority was right to lease out the World Trade Center to Silverstein, but the contract the two parties signed foresaw almost nothing about how they should share rebuilding responsibilities. Whereas sometimes businesses may be able to manage public assets more effectively than the government, the private sector’s involvement in the Ground Zero rebuilding just meant more fragmentation. Second, blaming “politics” for why we can’t meet our infrastructure needs in a timely and cost effective manner is too simplistic. Political skills are indispensable in addressing the nuances of mega-projects. In the current era of urban development, Robert Moses-style centralized decision-making is an impossibility; politicians are just as much the solution as they are the problem.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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