Seven Years After 9/11, Politicians Get Real About Ground Zero Rebuilding

Fri July 18, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Amy Westfeldt - ASSOCIATED PRESS



NEW YORK (AP) The signature skyscraper that replaces the World Trade Center is nearly ready to move in. The memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is a year away from opening. A skyscraper damaged by the falling towers was taken down years ago. Four other office buildings are rising.

Those were either the bold, or impossibly overconfident predictions years ago for what ground zero might look like in 2008, instead of the fenced-off, sunken construction site that sits in the middle of downtown Manhattan nearly seven years after the attack.

By the 10th anniversary, not one of five office towers will be finished and neither will the memorial, said a report by the site’s owner, the most pessimistic official account yet of stalled efforts to realize an ambitious vision meant to defy terrorists who destroyed the trade center.

Gov. David Paterson and his new executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Christopher Ward, were praised by followers of the convoluted planning process for finally getting real about ground zero, throwing out every deadline and giving more than a dozen examples of how the government-run project has been mismanaged.

“It’s hard for politicians to do. It’s why it hasn’t happened before’’ said Bob Yaro, executive director of the New York-based Regional Planning Association.

Months into their respective terms, Paterson and Ward also can escape responsibility for the problems so far.

And while Paterson said he wouldn’t blame anyone, he declared, “we’re not going to give any phony dates, timetables at this point and then follow it up with phony ribbon-cuttings.’’

The words seemed directed straight at the administration of former Gov. George Pataki, who staked his legacy on ground zero’s rebuilding and presided over years of ground zero groundbreakings with promises to rebuild quickly.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Pataki said the deadlines he set “were deadlines we believed were achievable’’ and that aggressive schedules helped restore faith at a site that was still burning months after the attacks.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Pataki said, “we were facing not just devastating human loss. We were facing an economic nightmare. ... We had to give people confidence that lower Manhattan was not going to die and that it was going to come back.’’

Pataki said that Ward’s statements in the report that the rebuilding effort had “no effective centralized and command structure’’ and had never brought the key parties together, was a bit of revisionist history.

“We had constant meetings’’ with city and state authorities and parties rebuilding throughout his term, which ended in 2006, Pataki said. He said a construction command center that was supposed to coordinate most of the rebuilding was scaled back after he left office, “to the point that it didn’t have the ability to do what we envisioned it to do.’’

Eliot Spitzer, who succeeded Pataki as governor, didn’t make major changes to plans to build office towers, a transit hub, memorial and performing arts center at ground zero. Spitzer did resurrect the state rebuilding agency that came up with plans for the site, after calling the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. “an abject failure’’ months before he took office.

The agency spent most of Spitzer’s 14-month term coping with the aftermath of a devastating fire at the former Deutsche Bank tower that killed two firefighters last summer. LMDC chairman Avi Schick last September said he would examine all the projects and set new deadlines, but never did so.

Ward has until the end of September to set new deadlines for projects that by latest estimates were to be completed between 2011 and 2013. His report noted that the Port Authority had only taken control of the site rebuilding in 2006.

But about half of the 15 rebuilding obstacles outlined in the report relate to a $2 billion-plus transit hub, a project that has always been under Port Authority control. The last public estimates for the federally funded project, with an iconic winged dome designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, were up to $1 billion over budget.

Ward said in his report that the project needs to be redesigned and trimmed down, “which will require tough decisions that have not been candidly addressed up to now.’’ Recently, he announced a design change that would stop the dome’s wings from opening and closing.

The builders still haven’t figured out how many trees for the memorial plaza can fit on part of the hub’s roof, a temporary entrance to the train station may have to be moved for a second time to get out of other projects’ way; and unwieldy contract rules, along with a strategy that set no maximum amounts for construction companies, “has resulted in significant administrative inefficiencies,’’ he said.

The bi-state agency, known more for its management of airports, bridges and tunnels before Sept. 11, 2001, has also run into ambivalence among its leaders about the trade center site. After agreeing to build and lease the 1,776-ft. Freedom Tower, the authority privately has investigated turning control of it to the private sector. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine expressed concern that no over-budget projects at ground zero take away from funding for a rail tunnel and other transit funding for New Jersey.

Yaro said after trading in politicians’ optimism for hard honesty, New Yorkers will wait.

“We’ve got the world’s most complicated urban redevelopment project here,’’ he said. “People have got to understand that it’s going to take at least a decade, maybe a generation, to do all of this.’’