Beauty Contest: Two Firms Vie At W.T.C. Site

Will the real architect of the World Trade Center site please stand up?

When seven teams of architects were selected in December to develop plans for Ground Zero, New Yorkers unaccustomed to the kinds of pitched battles that accompany any serious development project here might have assumed that one of the nine plans presented would be realized, and that the architect behind that plan would design the first huge project of the new century. The public’s reaction to the competition has been resounding, and rarely has a project been as accessible to New Yorkers. In 50 hearings, on the redevelopment authority’s Web site-which has had eight million hits since September-in over 20,000 written comments and 400 entries from architects, the public’s voice (whether it was actually heeded or not) was heard.

But on Feb. 4, in the offices of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, two architectural teams were presented as finalists in the competition: Berlin-based Studio Daniel Libeskind and the New York–centric team that calls itself THINK, and whose figurehead is local architectural powerhouse Rafael Viñoly. After responding to a series of requests for modifications to their designs over the next two weeks, one will emerge as the architect of the rebuilt World Trade Center.

Whether or not the vision of that architect translates into real buildings erected at Ground Zero over the next decade may not be a matter for the public to decide.

If the architect selected by the LMDC and the Port Authority is really to leave his stamp on the World Trade Center site, the LMDC will have to back up its claim to be the ultimate authority in the rebuilding process. There are competitors: The Port Authority, which owns the site, and real-estate developer Larry Silverstein, who holds the 99-year commercial lease on the site and may, as part of his lease and insurance agreements, have the right to rebuild Ground Zero. Each of these parties has architects, too.

Mr. Libeskind has admitted that the political situation is complicated, but he was all excitement after it was announced, to nobody’s real surprise, that he had moved into the final round of the competition.

“It’s an honor and a privilege, and a tremendous responsibility,” Mr. Libeskind said as he was leaving the offices of the LMDC late on the afternoon of Feb. 4. Mr. Libeskind said that there were questions about infrastructure and technology in his design that would have to be answered, and he expected that more changes to his plan would become necessary in the next few weeks as other concerns were raised by the Port Authority, the LMDC, the city and the state.

Over the next month, Mr. Libeskind and the THINK team will adjust their plans in answer to the LMDC and the Port Authority, hoping to be the one finally chosen, later this month, to stick around for the entire rebuilding process. Most people connected to the redevelopment believe the process will take at least 10 years. And they will not be easy years at Ground Zero. LMDC board member Diana Taylor, arguably at the head of a field of candidates to replace Lou Thomson as LMDC president, acknowledged that at times the redevelopment had been a “contentious process”-perhaps a refreshing signal of openness and plain dealing. But her admission also discloses a frustration that many close to the rebuilding effort have registered, and one that becomes stronger on days like Feb. 4, when a milestone of progress appeared to have been reached.

“The rebuilding process has become so convoluted that it’s difficult to know what to make of the selection of the two design teams,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association and chairman of the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown. “Both teams clearly represent some of the world’s most talented architects, but it’s not apparent what they’ll be asked to do or what impact they’ll have on the final master plan.

“What we need is a clear decision-making process that incorporates public input every step of the way,” he continued. “Now, it’s impossible to tell who is making the decisions or what the process is for the next six days, not to mention the next six weeks or years.”

There is little doubt that the Port Authority-notorious for flouting public opinion in its development strategies-is not the agency for that job. But that doesn’t mean the P.A. will disappear from the process. Two representatives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sat on the panel that selected the architects in a late afternoon meeting on Feb. 3-and architect Stanton Eckstut has been drawing up his own Ground Zero plans for the Port Authority, away from the prying eyes of the public. In one way, that makes perfect sense: After all, the World Trade Center site doesn’t belong to the city or the state, but to the Port Authority, which would seem to give the P.A. a strong claim to lead the rebuilding effort. The agency is not shy about its position: Last April, when the LMDC’s planning czar, Alexander Garvin, quietly circulated a request for proposals among a select few dozen architecture firms in the first round of designs for the site, the P.A. forced him to withdraw it and then to recirculate it with the twin imprimaturs of the LMDC and the Port Authority.

The Lease Question

There is also Larry Silverstein, the developer who held the 99-year commercial lease on the World Trade Center. In recent days, Mr. Silverstein, in letters to stakeholders in the W.T.C. site, has asserted his position in the rebuilding process. He points out that he is still making lease payments on a property that is profitless, that the insurance proceeds for the loss of the physical properties of the site will be controlled by his consortium, and that the insurance payout constitutes the only nonpublic source of funding for the rebuilding effort.

His response to the Libeskind / THINK announcement was not overly enthusiastic.

“We will be watching the process over the next several days in order to assure that the plan is feasible, meets the demands of New York and respects our rights,” Mr. Silverstein’s spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, said.

How involved Mr. Silverstein will be in the rebuilding, however, is a matter of debate. At the Feb. 4 meeting where Mr. Libeskind and THINK were introduced as finalists, Chelsea Piers developer and LMDC board member Roland Betts told reporters that Mr. Silverstein would be working with the architects to reconcile his program for the site with the two finalists’. But Mr. Silverstein, in his letters, said that none of the designs meets his specifications. What’s more, the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which made its own entry in this design competition but pulled out, has been working privately for Mr. Silverstein to develop its own version of the W.T.C. site. Mr. Silverstein has argued that his lease arrangements with the Port Authority give him the right to rebuild what he lost according to his and the Port Authority’s specifications, and that the right to choose an architect belongs to him.

That, according to Mr. Yaro, remains an open question.

“We are convening a group of experts, along with [the Municipal Arts Society], to study the details of the lease and insurance agreements to determine the financing issues related to rebuilding,” Mr. Yaro wrote in an e-mail. “It is clear, however, that no one anticipated the complete destruction of the towers, and that at the very least some negotiation will be required. In the end, the people of this region will demand that whatever is built on Ground Zero memorialize those we’ve lost and catalyze the revitalization of the entire district. At that point it will be difficult for Larry Silverstein to point to lease agreements and make unreasonable development demands.”

According to Jacques Dubois, the chairman of Swiss Re American Holding Company, which insured 22 percent of the World Trade Center, Mr. Silverstein’s public avowals of a commitment to rebuilding are an elaborate hoax. Mr. Dubois’ company is in the midst of an increasingly nasty battle with Mr. Silverstein over whether the two planes that struck the World Trade Center towers constituted one or two separate attacks for insurance purposes. The difference between the two payouts would be over $3 billion-money Mr. Silverstein would desperately need to rebuild. Swiss Re is fighting him on it, and in briefs submitted to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Swiss Re attempted to paint Mr. Silverstein’s campaign as tainted from the beginning.

“Within 24 hours after the tragic loss of nearly 2,800 lives, World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein developed plans to spin the facts for the sole purpose of maximizing his personal financial gain,” a press release distributed by Swiss Re on Feb. 4 read. The brief cites a meeting memo written by Mr. Silverstein’s spokesman, Mr. Rubenstein, dated Sept. 12, 2001.

In it, Mr. Rubenstein runs through a series of possible responses to the disaster and includes quotes that can be used to advance each argument. Under the heading “Positions for Discussion and Consideration,” Mr. Rubenstein proposes, first, that “the WTC will be rebuilt. ‘It will stand again as a symbol of not only this city but against tyranny and evil’”; second, that “the WTC will be rebuilt in partnership with the people of America. ‘The WTC is no longer a real estate site that belongs to a corporation-it belongs to the people of this nation’”; third, that “the WTC will not be rebuilt. ‘It is inconceivable that we could rebuild a place of commerce on land that has become drenched with the blood of American patriots.’”

Mr. Dubois characterized the three positions as cynical.

“What he was attempting to do was cynically figure out options which would each advance Silverstein’s financial interest,” he said. “They were thinking about what they would like to be done on the site. You have to remember, immediately after 9/11, all the insurance experts that worked for Silverstein acknowledged that this was one occurrence.”

“Swiss Re’s remarks are a cynical and manipulative attack on Silverstein Properties’ efforts to collect the insurance bought and paid for on the World Trade Center, and in turn, an attack on the rebuilding of lower Manhattan,” Mr. Rubenstein said in a statement. “To compensate for the weakness of their legal position, Swiss Re has engaged in a scurrilous personal attack on Mr. Silverstein and his legal counsel, and has twisted the facts. The barrage of misleading press releases by Swiss Re reveals the depths of its concern about its case.”

Mr. Silverstein’s hold on the site has spawned other contenders as well. After designs for the site unveiled in July drew widespread criticism, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff floated a plan in which the Port Authority would trade Ground Zero to the city in exchange for the land beneath the two city airports that the Port Authority currently leases. The swap was considered unlikely and had foes in Albany, but now is reportedly back on the table. If the city became the owner of the site, it might be able to renegotiate Mr. Silverstein’s leasehold on the property. What’s more, if the city were the owner of the site, the Port Authority would be knocked out of the rebuilding process entirely, removing at least one faction.

According to one source, “the city seems to still be pushing hard for this, but I think they’re being patient, in the belief that the process will shake out in such a way as to benefit their bargaining position. Supposedly they’re still a ways off on dollar figures.”

If it’s a bluff, you wouldn’t have known that at the Feb. 4 meeting when, shaking the hand of Port Authority executive director Joseph Seymour, Mr. Doctoroff said to the crowd, “We’re just shaking hands on the agreement on the land swap.

“That was a joke,” he added.

-Additional reporting by Alex Watson