More squabbling at the WTC site

By Felix Salmon
May 20, 2009

Depressing news from Christina Lewis today: we’re entering yet another round of unhelpful bickering between the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein over the future of the World Trade Center site. What we desperately need is a strong New York governor willing to knock heads together — but we didn’t have that in George Pataki, and we certainly don’t have it in David Paterson.

Silverstein seems to think that the Port Authority should provide financing for him to build millions of square feet of empty office space at the site, even after it took responsibility for financing the Freedom Tower (now called 1 World Trade Center) off his hands. The Port Authority’s response is spot-on:

Officials note the agency finances major infrastructure projects throughout the region. They say backing Mr. Silverstein’s projects would prevent the agency from fulfilling its core mission.

“It’s not for the public sector to be financing speculative buildings,” said Christopher Ward, the agency’s executive director.

I hope that the Port Authority does manage to force Silverstein to scale back his ambitions: as a New York taxpayer, I have no particular interest in providing this particular property speculator with low-cost funding which gives him all the upside and leaves me with most of the downside.

On the other hand, we do seem to be moving to a world where the only two towers to be built on the site for the foreseeable future will be the boringly gigantic Freedom Tower by David Childs, and the dully minimalist 4 World Trade Center by Fumihiko Maki. The two interesting buildings, from an architectural standpoint — the Norman Foster and Richard Rogers towers — look set to exist on paper only.

Also, two questions for the WSJ. First, where did they get the idea that Ground Zero is “the most popular tourist attraction in Manhattan”? And second, why does the sidebar open up in PDF format? Most peculiar.


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Since the attack and collapse of the buildings and Mr. Silverstein’s collection of insurance from over 20 insurers – many of whom did not even know at the time that they had become insurers for the project until after the fact – why didn’t the man just take the money and invest in less dangerous and notorious properties? The fact that the project has gone so slowly suggests that is probably what he has been doing. NY real estate is full of wanna be empire builders.

How much simpler and more coordinated the redesign process would have been had it all been in the hands of the Port Authority alone. Mr. Silverstein ignored the competition selection for the final design and found his own architect.

He must have known at the time that even the 3 to 4 bln he collected from insurance wouldn’t be enough for a complete rebuilding of the site.

The project has been nothing more than a paring down of any designs for either the site or the buildings since.

Now it seems that any new buildings will face the same difficulty finding tenants that the first towers faced. They sat semi-occupied for at least ten years with only some state offices partially occupying one of the towers and perhaps a few other tenants but not enough to make the buildings as profitable as the Port Authority had hoped. It didn’t see full occupancy until late into the 80′s I have read.

And other than their awesome size there was hardly anyone – man on the street of architectural critic – who ever really liked them. The public plaza was supposed to be Yamaguchi’s invocation of a Venetian piazza. But all black? The new buildings look like they won’t even have awesome size going for them. And the last time I looked, the NYC Fire Dept. was insisting that the first two hundred feet of the so called Freedom Tower be a windowless foundation of poured concrete. What does anyone do with a building that has 20 stories of windowless spaces starting at street level?

And why did the urban designers who wrote the master plan for the site insist on breaking up a super block with the restoration of Greenwich Street when it is so difficult to assemble a super block at all in a city as expensive as NYC?

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

Siverstein paid rent on the site for 8 years – for what? If the design process had been just in the hands of the Port Authority (Pataki) it would be a bigger fiasco than it is already. Original WTC plans for the plaza were a terrazzo map of the world, but they ran out of money, thats why it was dismal. You are right that breaking up the super block and the windowless 20 stories can not be justified.

Posted by BG | Report as abusive