In the quest to rebuild the World Trade Center site, planning has focused from the start on moving forward, on "not letting the terrorists win." Workers toiled around the clock to clear the debris ahead of schedule. Dramatic designs were unveiled in December at the Winter Garden. Then media critics spent weeks alternately sparring and fawning over them before the choice last month of what nearly everyone saw as a fitting symbol of resilience: Daniel Libeskind's design for a cluster of office buildings capped by a garden-filled spire soaring 1,776 feet into the air.
Almost lost amid the fanfare, however, was an unsettling question: Will anyone want to work at the site of such an obvious target?
Libeskind's winning design represents both a feat of aesthetic imagination and a powerful gesture of defiance. But it ignores what New York has become: a jittery city already glutted with affordable office space. With plenty of other options available, why would anyone choose to locate an office where the twin towers once stood? It could be that all the estimated $300 million construction tab buys is a half-empty monument.
Not surprisingly, 9/11 survivors are among the most hesitant and fearful. "Am I going to be a three-time loser? I've already been there for two attacks," said Michelle Lamont, an insurance underwriter who survived both the 1993 bombing and the Sept. 11 collapse. "I grew up pretty poor, and worked hard to go to college and get honors," she said. Landing a job in the twin towers symbolized her arrival among the executive class. It made her proud. But she can't imagine going back now, no matter how spectacular the rebuilding effort. "I wouldn't feel safe," Lamont said, shaking her head. "It's like saying, 'Come knock me down again.' "
Fekkak Mamdouh, a former waiter at Windows on the World, agrees. "I would never work there. Personally, maybe, I would never even visit," he said. Mamdouh wasn't there on Sept. 11, but he lost 73 co-workers when the towers crumbled. "In orientation, they told us that a plane couldn't even knock it down," he recalled bitterly. "We told that to the customers when they got scared sometimes because the building was vibrating a little bit. They lied to us."
Mamdouh also worries about the next generation of Trade Center employees. "The engineers and people in charge, they're not going to be working there," he mused. "Who will suffer? Immigrants. People who can't get other jobs."
But listen to Walter Pilipiak, president and CEO of Cosmos Services (America) Inc., an insurance brokerage that was housed on the 89th floor of the south tower, the second to be hit. If he had only himself to worry about, he said, he might go back. It's not so easy, though. "When I worked [there], I had 12 staff," he recalled. "I have 27 now. I don't think I could risk my staff in a target area."
When the second plane struck, Pilipiak had already made it down to the 76th floor. Smoke and dust filled the stairwell, and no one around him could get out. "They could hear me yelling, 'Come this way, I've found the exit!' " Pilipiak recalled. But they couldn't see him until he used the glowing green display on his cell phone as a beacon to lead them toward the stairs. "From a precautionary standpoint," he said, "I could not go back there."
Are the traumatized survivors of Sept. 11 the only ones worried about history being repeated? Hardly. From architects to real estate brokers to ordinary New Yorkers, many people are hedging their bets.
Eugene Kohn is founder and principal of Kohn Pedersen Fox, the New York architecture firm that designed the Shanghai World Financial Center. At 1,624 feet, this building will overtake Malaysia's Petronas Towers as the world's tallest when it opens in 2007. Kohn's philosophy of design in an era of terrorism is level-headed. Buildings don't become targets because they're tall, he asserts, but because they're icons.
"Any scheme at the World Trade Center, with the focus that's been on it, it's going to be an icon," Kohn explained in a recent interview. "As a user, I might worry. Does lightning strike twice in the same place? It did there and it could again."
It's unlikely that Kohn will ever have to work there. But like all real estate brokers and others with a stake in public confidence, he's influenced by contradictory pressures: on the one hand the awareness of uncertainty, on the other the need to reinforce public trust in his trade. So, asked whether he would put the rest of his body where his mouth is, Kohn says, "I would feel very safe being in a tall building in the World Trade Center." As long as the question stays hypothetical, he's safe.
Not even Larry Silverstein, holder of the 99-year lease on the World Trade Center site, sounds confident about the fate of new skyscrapers there. Yet his options are limited -- to recoup his insurance money, he must rebuild all of the estimated 10 million square feet of office space lost on Sept. 11. But in a Jan. 31 letter to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., he wrote, "We are . . . fully cognizant of the lessons to be learned from September 11. . . . [We must] assure that the buildings are designed and constructed to protect their occupants and assure safe, fast and efficient egress. This requirement in all probability will limit the occupied portion of any building to no more than 65 to 70 stories."
Silverstein's architects have already completed a redesign of nearby 7 World Trade Center that features extra-wide staircases, double the required fireproofing and reinforced concrete walls. But will their precautions work? To the 9/11 survivors, it sounds a bit like building sturdier bowling pins.
For some people, beating terrorism does seem to mean pushing ever upward. Louis Epstein, founder of the World Trade Center Restoration Movement, hands out stickers that read, "YES, I'D WORK ON THE 110TH FLOOR." Epstein never worked in the Trade Center. And yet his group lobbies to build new towers as tall as, or taller than, the old ones. "If we let history record that we were cut down to size by the killers, it invites future terror attacks," Epstein said recently. "It's like abandoning your dead on a battlefield, rather than fighting on."
But who wants to enlist for his fight? It's a gamble many people apparently just aren't willing to take. Late last August, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that a year after the attacks, 53 percent of New Yorkers would still be unwilling to work on an upper floor of a new building on the Trade Center site. Another 5 percent remained undecided.
In the past month, I have asked 24 random businesspeople on Wall Street if they would feel comfortable working in a new building on the site. Exactly half said no. And some of those who said "no" were skeptical about people who said "yes."
"I don't think people are going to want to work there," said Anca Vasile, an administrative assistant at Southwest Securities. "They're saying 'yes' because they think it will bring business here."
Rabbi Simcha Weintraub leads a support group affiliated with Project Liberty, a federally funded campaign to provide free counseling for those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. Looking at my findings, he noted that the "yes" group was overwhelmingly male, although the interview group was evenly split by gender. Men who don't want to work in new Trade Center buildings, he suggested, may have been less likely to admit it casually. "It involved owning up to vulnerability and fear," he said. "Most men are less socialized to do that."
A few journalists have spotted the sense of vulnerability beneath the toughness. "If you build the tallest building in the world on this site, you might as well decorate the top with a bull's-eye," wrote Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell in December.
Indeed, the "bull's-eye" perception extends beyond the World Trade Center site. Nowadays many New Yorkers don't even feel comfortable in the Empire State Building. Paul Ippolito, a broker for Newmark & Co., has tenants there who are looking to relocate. "I've had a lot of deals that died that were Empire State Building deals," he said. Considering the anxiety still felt by workers in that tower, it's not surprising.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Kyona Watts was offered a law clerkship on the 73rd floor of the Empire State Building. Despite misgivings, she started working there a week after the attacks.
"I had nightmares about coming into work," she said. "We had so many evacuation drills going on. There was a lot of tension. A lot of tenants just left." More than half of the companies on her floor disappeared. Fliers in the mailboxes advertised emergency parachutes. And eight months later, when her firm considered changing offices in the building, it stumbled upon a contemporary time capsule. "We were looking at a space right below us on the 72nd floor, and everything was intact. On 9/11, people just left and never came back," Watts said. "There were coffeepots with coffee in them, pictures of people's families, papers in the conference room." Watts left her job last November.
Her experience is not unique. But few people seem to want to hear stories like these or admit that 9/11 survivors voice a fear many others share. We Americans want to believe in our future, so we've focused on the rhetoric of hope and a pageant of architects auditioning a la "American Idol" to get the World Trade Center commission. With more than 17 million square feet of vacant office space downtown, making a case to build more of it should be like trying to sell New Yorkers spare pigeons. Yet it isn't.
Our nation needs time to recover. Taking a lesson from the survivors, who have worked the hardest to heal, why don't we admit aloud that we're scared? Then, perhaps, we can shape a site that truly demonstrates our courage. Affordable housing and green spaces: These are what New York needs, not redundant office towers where mortals fear to tread. Maybe the best way to defy the terrorists is not with a display of hubris but by creating a future that doesn't look like the past.