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Sixteen symbolic acres: the rebuilding of Ground Zero

The following is an excerpt from Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan

On September 21, 2006, Governor George E. Pataki of New York and Governor Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gathered at Ground Zero for a hastily-called celebratory news conference to announce that the Board of Directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had approved a series of agreements expected to “expedite the redevelopment process.” “The time has come to build this,” said the Port Authority’s chairman, Anthony R. Coscia. The agreements set forth the most definitive blueprint to date after years of conflict and contention over every piece of the master plan for rebuilding the sixteen acres at Ground Zero. The moment marked a watershed. The process of getting to this point had not been easy. It followed months of negotiations among the three government stakeholders and real estate developer Larry Silverstein, acting as general manager of his investment partnership’s ninety-nine-year lease on the Trade Center site—still a “hole”—negotiations that could only be described as difficult, disputatious, and at times ugly. Money was the fundamental sticking point. The “Global Realignment,” as the new deal was called, redefined who would build what on the site, dividing control over the development rights for the commercial program between Silverstein and the Port Authority, owner of the land on which the Trade Center complex had been built in the 1960s. Silverstein’s role was reduced to building three of the five planned towers, though he emerged with the three best development sites from a real estate perspective. The Port Authority would build the Freedom Tower, an uneconomical political statement promoted by Pataki, as well as a fifth office tower and the retail component of the plan. The bi-state agency remained responsible for building out the complex underground infrastructure, which had to be accomplished before construction could start on any other part of the rebuild, including the Memorial and Memorial Museum. Just six weeks before the 9/11 attack, the Port Authority had sold a long-term interest in the Trade Center complex to Silverstein in a much heralded historic transaction that transferred ownership the iconic complex to private investors. With the 2006 deal, the Port Authority was back in the real estate business. From the First day forward after 9/11, the words used by all stakeholders to describe the rebuilding effort were framed in patriotic meaning and heart-felt commitment to the losses of 9/11—words that spoke to its symbolic mandates.

The driving forces at work in rebuilding Ground Zero— civic purpose, political opportunity, and commercial gain—mirrored both the optimism of recovery and the rough-and-tumble politics of power in New York City. These forces would define the constellation of issues swirling about the site for many more years to come until visible progress above ground began to give shape to a new district in lower Manhattan. The realignments of the 2006 deal created modest confidence in the task of rebuilding among the stakeholders standing in the open air around the podium on a blue-skies day whose clarity was all too reminiscent of the day two hijacked planes rammed into the twin towers. On both sides scars remained. And wariness. The difficulties in coming to terms on these agreements did not stop with the board vote but continued for ninety minutes afterward, with both parties engaging in “last-minute wrangling,” according to the Times. The announcement of the news conference just minutes before it started gave the press little time to get there. This “semi-secret” aspect of the event turned out to be a portent of rough times ahead, as relations between the public agency developer and the private-sector developer of Ground Zero remained strained by lack of trust and a misalignment of interests.

Several years of high-profile debates about architectural vision and fierce battles between dueling designers had galvanized public attention. These were now settled. The program for memorializing the losses of 9/11 was in place. The actual work of rebuilding lay ahead, in the complicated challenge of figuring out how to turn ambitious vision into tangible reality. The stakes of succeeding were of psychological as well as economic importance to the city at large and its region and the country.

After the big design decisions had been made, it seemed possible to conclude that the task of executing on the plans was not press-worthy—that is, not much different from a conventional, albeit, large development project—until controversy threatened to reopen those already-made decisions or propelled elected officials into outrage and open conflict. Though seemingly mundane and less newsworthy, the task of reconciling aspirations with economic reality was paramount. It impacted everything at Ground Zero: how the 9/11 memorial would be experienced and how the Trade Center site would interface with the urban fabric of adjacent neighborhoods. It would shape the experience of commuters and shoppers traveling through the transportation Hub. Most critically from the perspective of state and local officials, it would determine when the new towers at Ground Zero would repopulate the skyline of lower Manhattan and with what level of public financial support to assure that they do. In short, for years a lot was happening to shape decisions at Ground Zero that often did not make head- line news and that most people could not learn about.

As the saga of rebuilding unfolded, it seemed to become a New York story, a New York project, and a New York memorial.

However, as evident on 9/11 and in the theater of geopolitical events thereafter, the terrorist attack was a profoundly violent assault n the United States as a capitalist society and on Western cultural, social, and economic values. As witnessed by millions in real time on television, the destruction of the World Trade Center sent shock waves around the world. It became the most memorable moment shared by television viewers during the last fifty years, according to a 2012 study by Sony electronics and the Nielsen television research company that ranked TV moments for their impact. The at- tack connected global audiences in ways most natural disasters do not: It was not the typical type of damage—poorly built structures, poorly capitalized operations, underinsured, individuals with few means—but rather a high-density, high-profile, heavily insured symbol of Western capitalism. The unprecedented drama of physical destruction and emotional trauma besetting the families of the victims and citizens of New York City touched populations at-large in nations across the globe, creating empathy and interest in rebuilding. The nearly three thousand 9/11 victims were of many nationalities. The twin towers were a touchstone icon for millions of tourists visiting New York. Rebuilding in response to that violent provocation holds meaning beyond those sixteen acres in lower Manhattan. For what it symbolizes, the story of rebuilding Ground Zero is a story of global significance.

Because it is a story of global significance, rebuilding has had to meet many symbolic aspirations. It needed to embody American values and speak to the world about America’s resilience in the face of mass murder that at least in Western eyes was senseless. Simultaneously, the effort had to show that local decision makers could “do the right thing” as the world watched. It had to represent strength and determination and reflect deep sensitivity in recognition of the lives lost in the attacks. It had to create an economic future for lower Manhattan. And it had to protect New York City’s status as “the capital of the free world” and assure its global leadership in the twenty-first century. That was what the mayor promised in his inaugural address on January 1, 2002, and throughout his twelve years in office; Michael R. Bloomberg would try to act in full accord with what he promised: “We will go forward. We will never go back.”

Within the historical context of New York City’s economic trajectory, rebuilding Ground Zero was fraught with strategic consequence. Just as the original Trade Center complex represented the culmination of a decades-long series of efforts aimed at revitalizing the city’s founding center of business, forty years later rebuilding those sixteen acres reprised history—with new meaning, in a new century, in a new geopolitical context brought forth by 9/11. The total destruction of the massive Trade Center complex created a rare opportunity for New York City to rethink its long-term economic needs, at least in the down- town area. With President George W. Bush’s promise of $20 billion of federal resources, those with responsibility for Ground Zero and beyond might be able to take bold actions to rebuild all of lower Manhattan, while sending a message to the world that regardless of whatever Al-Qaeda terrorists aimed to do, New York City would come back stronger than ever. It was an unparalleled opportunity in the city’s history.

Opportunity quickened the pulse of ambition. All of the central players at Ground Zero harbored vaulting ambitions, especially Governor George E. Pataki who envisioned Ground Zero as a platform for his higher political aspirations. Ambition suffused every vision, threaded through every conflict, and shaped the scale of every achievement in the rebuilding of these sixteen acres in lower Manhattan. To rebuild in defiance of the terrorists, to assure New York’s position as a global city, to rebuild the economic engine of lower Manhattan, to think big, plan right in a democratic fashion, and move quickly—these aims became drivers of decisions of how New York City rebuilt at Ground Zero.

There were more tangible ambitions as well, and they seemed to grow as the opportunity to rebuild brought forth aspirations long-held and newly-minted: the desire to build a project that demonstrated planners had learned from experience at the original Trade Center complex and could design and execute a better way to use those sixteen acres; the desire to link transportation with development more effectively and enhance the accessibility of lower Manhattan; the desire to build a monumental gateway for commuters; the idea of adding new social and cultural functions that would help the long-term revival of lower Manhattan; the imperative of creating a place more secure from terrorist attacks; the desire to integrate the complex into the fabric of the city, especially the adjacent neighborhood of Battery Park City.

Featured image credit: Freedom Tower by avflores. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Burke

    By the standards stated here in the last paragraph rebuilding has failed. The response to the attacks, September 11 was filled with heroism, sacrifice and compassion. Ground Zero was filled with ambition, greed and vanity.

  2. Mark

    The whole problem with the rebuilding effort at ground zero was that politics were in control, not the people.

  3. Joy E. Goldberg (and proud of my name!)

    Boy oh Boy, some people just don’t get it, do they? If you think everyone is fooled all of the time, then that makes Honest Abe a liar. Fooling themselves or letting themselves be fooled into believing what’s there could shine the little toenail of what was there before which terrorists destroyed and animosity prevented from coming back. The Twin Towers, synonymous with the World Trade Center, had class. They were class. What is there now has no more class than those who forced it on New York and those of us who have eyes in our heads and an understanding heart. It’s ugly and an insult to our city.

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