Where the Towers Stood, Delays and Disagreements Mount

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 10 -- In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldering, political leaders from New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to President George W. Bush vowed to quickly rebuild the site, bigger and better than before.

"The skyline will be made whole again," Giuliani said. And as a sign of the city's resilience, initial plans called for the rebuilding to be complete by 2011 -- the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Eight years later, the site known as Ground Zero remains mostly a giant hole in the ground. A projected completion date has been pushed back years, if not decades. The project has been beset by repeated delays, changing designs, billions of dollars in cost overruns, and feuding among the various parties involved in the complex undertaking.

"It's just one big political nightmare," said Jim Riches, a retired New York deputy fire chief, who lost his firefighter son, Jimmy, on 9/11 and who has attended meetings on the progress of the construction. "I think it's a national disgrace," he said. "I really think it's horrible. We can put a man on the moon, but we can't get all the politicians in New York . . . to build the World Trade Center back up again."

Visions and Realities

What happened over the past eight years is a story of grandiose plans clashing with practical realities; of the flush of early emotions giving way to cold, financial calculus; of public officials fighting with a private developer; and of bureaucrats battling one another at almost every level with no one really in charge.

"Nobody wants to accept responsibility," said former New York mayor Edward I. Koch. He joined others in laying blame before two chief agencies: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which was created to channel all federal aid pouring in. "It's shameful that they have failed in their responsibility to build this in a measured and responsible way," Koch said.

A sad symbol of the slow progress is the former Deutsche Bank building, next to where the twin towers stood. The 40-story building was heavily damaged by the collapse of the World Trade Center's South Tower and was declared uninhabitable. Eight years later, the building still has not been torn down: Two firefighters died in a blaze in the building in 2007, suspending the deconstruction, and the discovery of toxic dust inside -- with asbestos, lead and other dangerous chemicals -- has caused further delays.

Rebuilding the World Trade Center site was always going to be an extremely complex undertaking. At 16 acres, the site is larger than the downtown of many other American cities. It sits atop the intersection of several major city subway lines and a commuter train line to New Jersey. Its location in a densely packed part of Lower Manhattan makes it difficult for construction crews to work, while its proximity to City Hall, police headquarters and the federal courts prompts security concerns.

The initial reaction after the attacks was to rebuild the twin towers exactly as they were before, as a show of defiance to the terrorists. But some family members -- many of whom were never able to retrieve the remains of their loved ones from the dust -- insisted that the footprints of the original towers be left untouched, out of respect for those who died.

Residents of Lower Manhattan and developers, meanwhile, envisioned adding retail shops to the vast expanse of office space that made up the towers.

Changes in Plans

A 2005 design called for a spiraling glass skyscraper, named Freedom Tower, that would rise a symbolic 1,776 feet in the air. But after the design was unveiled, the New York Police Department said the new building would be too vulnerable to truck-bomb attacks and sent the architects back to the drawing board. A redesign moved the tower back from the street and placed it atop an impregnable 200-foot steel-and-concrete base.

Then, this year, the name was changed to World Trade Center One, out of concern that Freedom Tower would become too tempting a target for terrorism.

The ambitious plan now calls for four office towers, including World Trade Center One, with a memorial and two tree-lined reflecting pools standing on the footprints where the old twin towers stood. Cascading waterfalls lead down to a museum, 70 feet below ground level. The plan also includes a massive futuristic-looking transportation hub to rival Grand Central Terminal.

By some estimates, the entire project involves more than a dozen government agencies and at least 100 construction companies and subcontractors.

The projected costs have soared far above the $15 billion budget, construction is years behind schedule, and Larry Silverstein, the developer of three towers, is locked in a dispute over financing with the Port Authority.

Silverstein wants the Port Authority to back loans to build two of the towers. He has blamed the authority's delays for costing him crucial financing, since private support became hard to find after credit markets froze last year. The matter recently went to arbitration.

Alan J. Gerson, the City Council member whose district includes Ground Zero, said, "We're mad as hell, and getting madder at the prospect of additional delay." He said that "the site needs a sheriff" to oversee the various agencies, troubleshoot, mediate disputes, and solve engineering and financial problems.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) tried unsuccessfully over the summer to mediate the dispute between Silverstein and the Port Authority. He later issued a tough statement that blasted the impasse and the resulting delay as "unacceptable" and "intolerable," saying, "This cannot continue." Bloomberg would like a larger say in determining Ground Zero's fate, but the city's role is limited.

As time has passed since the 2001 attacks, some are now questioning the complexity of the plan. Others are wondering whether a city hit hard by the recession -- with a shrunken financial sector and with a glut of cheap commercial space -- really needs to be spending billions to add 9 million more square feet of office space. A report commissioned by the authority estimates that it will be 2030 before all the space can be filled.

"The design of that site was done in a political and emotional environment," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit business group. "It wasn't realistic about the technical aspects and the cost, and it wasn't realistic about anticipating that this was a long-term project that would have to go through changes.

"All of America wanted to show our resilience," Wylde said. "As time has gone by, it's become increasingly clear that we can fight back and show our resilience and strength, but we have to do it within the constraints of how much we have to spend."

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