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The World Trade Center: Tower of Babel
Mar 9th 2006
From The Economist print edition
The only thing filling the hole at the World Trade Center these days is talk.
ACCORDING to George Pataki, New York's governor, a new lease for the World Trade Center must be in place by March 14th. By March 31st, ground must be broken for the World Trade Center Memorial. By the end of April, Mr Pataki says, workers must start building the Freedom Tower, America's tallest skyscraper. It is a stirring, ambitious agenda—but one that may be delusional. Mr Pataki can set as many deadlines as he likes. Enforcing them is another matter.
Bickering over Ground Zero began before the smoke had cleared from the towers' collapse. Four and a half years on, the argument is louder than ever. At the beginning of February Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, proposed changes to the rebuilding plan. Chuck Schumer, one of New York's two senators and never one to pass up a press conference, offered his own ideas soon afterwards. "We have moved from consensus to cacophony," Mr Schumer lamented on February 27th.
Part of the problem is that no one is in charge: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the 16-acre site; Larry Silverstein, a 74-year-old developer, holds the lease; and a state- and city-appointed board is co-ordinating rebuilding. The governor is merely a referee without a whistle. Design by committee produced a plan that few are happy about. And with no market for the Freedom Tower, there is little impetus to begin construction.
The master plan—ostensibly finalised in 2003—calls for four towers. Mr Bloomberg argues that Mr Silverstein should build only two of these, including the Freedom Tower, and cede the rights to the other buildings. The planned 10m square feet of office space is too much, the mayor claims. He also argues that even with insurance proceeds and public subsidies, Mr Silverstein will not have the $7.3 billion needed at a minimum to build the entire site. Better, the mayor says, to give up two towers now rather than later.
"Soviet-style confiscation", Mr Silverstein snapped in response. Some property people in New York think the developer's plan to build 10 million square feet of offices makes sense. Even with modest projections of job growth, offices in midtown will become increasingly crowded and costly. Mary Ann Tighe of CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), the agent representing Mr Silverstein, estimates that the asking rents for the World Trade Center towers will be about half those for new buildings in midtown. By the time the towers are finished, many companies will be ready to move south to the large, cheap offices served by a new transit hub.
This sounds promising, but two doubts cloud the picture. The first revolves around Mr Silverstein's ability to raise the cash to build all four towers—especially given these low rents. The second doubt concerns the Freedom Tower, which would dwarf the site's other buildings. Mr Pataki calls the tower a symbol of the "power, promise and pride of New York". But there are plenty of security concerns, not least because the tower would be some 400 feet taller than the original World Trade Center. A redesign that makes the tower's base look like a concrete bunker has done little to calm fears.
Although the Freedom Tower seems to have scant support outside the governor's office, no politician has been brave enough to speak against it, leaving property firms wondering how tenants will be induced to move in. Mr Silverstein and Mr Schumer want the Port Authority to be the Freedom Tower's anchor tenant. The Port Authority, which lost 84 employees on September 11th, is less enthusiastic.
With the fight over the towers raging ahead of—and most likely through—Mr Pataki's March 14th deadline, plans for the memorial are almost equally controversial. The current design features two reflecting pools and an underground museum. Victims' families contend that the underground portion disrespects the dead, while unions representing the police and the fire department have called it a "death trap". Mr Bloomberg has become wary of the project's $500 million price tag, dubbing it "phenomenally ambitious" as the memorial struggles to attract private donors.
If a sensible plan ever emerges from this maelstrom, downtown could be more vibrant than it was before September 11th. For the first time in decades, people want to live in the area: more than 6.6m square feet of older offices have been converted to apartments since 1997, according to CBRE. The hope is that downtown will also become more of a cultural hub, thanks to a new dance center and theatre at the World Trade Center site, and a crop of new museums nearby.
But squabbling is likely to weigh down development for the near future. If an agreement on the towers does appear by March 14th, it is likely to be superficial, with few of the bigger questions resolved. It would not be the site's first empty gesture. In 2004 Mr Pataki helped lay the cornerstone for the Freedom Tower, calling it a "new symbol of American strength and confidence". That was two years ago. Not another stone has been laid.