Ground Zero Funds Often Drifted Uptown
Money Also Went to Luxury Apartments
By Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page A01
NEW YORK -- Six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress approved an $8 billion program to repair this city's damaged office towers, build apartment buildings and finance the rebirth of the financial district.
But two years later, city records show that much of the money, dubbed Liberty Bonds, has gone to developers of prime real estate in midtown Manhattan and Brooklyn and to builders of luxury housing.
Local and state officials -- over the objections of their own downtown development chief -- gave one developer $650 million from the Liberty Bonds to erect an office tower for the Bank of America near Times Square, miles from the shattered precincts of Ground Zero. According to city records, another developer got $113 million to build a tower for Bank of New York in Brooklyn. One of the few projects downtown has gone to actor and sometime developer Robert De Niro, who picked up nearly $39 million from the bonds in November to build a boutique hotel in Tribeca, directly north of Ground Zero.
Congress designated $1.6 billion of the Liberty Bonds for rental housing. Nearly all the money from those bonds has gone to prominent developers to build luxury apartment towers in the neighborhoods around Ground Zero, accelerating its transformation into one of New York's richest neighborhoods, the city records show.
Local political leaders, urban planners and neighborhood residents have sharply criticized these spending choices, saying that wealthy developers shouldn't need subsidies to build office towers in midtown -- where private construction is booming -- or luxury housing downtown. The new luxury towers will contain just a small percentage of apartments for the tens of thousands of moderate-income residents who live in Lower Manhattan.
"Explain to me why helping Bank of America build a tower on one of the most expensive pieces of property in the world is a good use of these moneys?" said state Sen. Liz Krueger, whose district encompasses 42nd Street at Sixth Avenue, where that tower is to rise. "We've gotten free federal money and, instead of building affordable housing, it's become a race between the most powerful groups in the city to claim it."
In the frenetic months that followed the terrorist attacks, Congress worked fast to assemble financing to rebuild the area around Ground Zero. In a rare move, Congress allowed private developers to receive proceeds for commercial projects from interest-free, tax-exempt bonds sold on the municipal bond market. While the Liberty Bonds were backed by the federal government, state and local officials selected the projects that would receive the money.
Congress put few conditions on the Liberty Bond program, but the program's advocates said the intention was clear -- and it was not for luxury apartments and commercial projects far from the site of the World Trade Center. In fact, the program stipulated that New York's governor and the city's mayor had to deem a downtown project "not feasible" before diverting money for use elsewhere in the city.
"We didn't put a lot of strings on the Liberty Bonds, but more should have gone for jobs and affordable housing," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). "A lot of this money has been spent on projects that fit the letter of the law but not the spirit."
The city's Industrial Development Corp. was designated to hand out the commercial Liberty Bonds. The corporation's executive director, Barbara Basser-Bigio, said that city and state officials wanted to jump-start the broader city economy and that some of the projects would not have been built without the assistance. "Our top priority is to create office space," she said. "We are looking to stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs and enhance business districts throughout the city."
New York officials also say that critics are missing the urgency felt in the weeks after the attacks to retain businesses in the city, especially Lower Manhattan, which remains the nation's third-largest central business district.
"Downtown was hemorrhaging in those days," said Carl Weisbrod, a former top city development official and now president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. "It was critical to stabilize the residential and commercial communities."
'Rebuild, Renew, Enrich'
The first recovery aid began to flow to New York in the weeks immediately after the terrorist attacks. The Bush administration tapped $3.5 billion in community development block grants, a federal program usually reserved for economic development in poor communities. Of this money, $300 million was quickly directed to a program to retain companies tempted to flee from downtown Manhattan. Auditing firm Deloitte & Touche got $17 million, Bank of Nova Scotia got $3 million, and Bank of New York received $40 million. American Express got $25 million even without threatening to leave its 3 World Financial Center home. Other federal money intended for small businesses ending up going to investment-house brokers and traders.
In March 2002, Congress started to move beyond this initial emergency patchwork and created the Liberty Bond program. (This week the Senate approved an extension of the Liberty Bond program, and the legislation is now headed to the House.)
© 2004 The Washington Post Company