In an effort to reassure the public that new buildings at the World Trade Center site will meet government-mandated safety standards, the Port Authority and developer Larry Silverstein have agreed in principle to subject their construction projects to several new and independent safety checks, according to a draft of the proposal obtained by The Observer .
But members of a post–Sept. 11 advocacy group, whose criticism of Port Authority safety policies helped bring the issue to the fore, labeled the proposal a “sham,” citing what they saw as a lack of enforcement powers. The group, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, vows to continue its battle in the courts.
Under the proposed terms of the agreement, the Port Authority would submit the blueprints of any new construction at Ground Zero to an independent panel of building-safety experts. In addition, the agency also agreed to subject the buildings to regular inspections and safety-technology updates by another group of independent safety experts. The agency would also initiate an “open-door” policy for inspections by city agencies.
The details of the agreement, brokered in large part by Alan Gerson, a City Council member from lower Manhattan, still are hazy. The agreement has not been formalized, and an official announcement is at least a few weeks off. At the moment, it is unclear who would sit on either of these panels, and exactly what enforcement powers they will have.
The issue of enforcement is a contentious one, as the Port Authority is exempt from city and state safety mandates. And although the agency has long insisted that it has always voluntarily “met or exceeded” government standards, critics charge that lax safety measures may have hastened the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. Those views gained traction in May, when federal investigators announced that the Port Authority had likely never fire-tested the main structural-support materials used to build the Twin Towers.
Mr. Gerson said he became involved in the talks to help allay the concerns of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, which was founded after the Sept. 11 attack. The peacemaking effort appears to have failed-at least for now. Sally Regenhord, the co-chair of the group and the mother of firefighter Christian Reganhord, who was killed on Sept. 11, called the proposal a “smoke-and-mirrors P.R. stunt,” because the agreement lacks the enforcement powers needed to hold the Port Authority accountable.
“If Mr. Gerson thinks this will mean anything, he’s sorely misguided,” Ms. Regenhord said. “The history of the Port Authority has been that these people are above the law. You could give the Port Authority a book full of violations, and they could just put it in their circular file.”
The Skyscraper Safety Campaign filed a lawsuit in July to force the Port Authority to be subject to city and state building and fire codes, but a State Supreme Court justice dismissed the case in December. The group’s lawyer, Thomas Shanahan, said that Mr. Gerson’s proposal didn’t meet his clients’ demands, and that he would very likely continue the battle in court with an appeal of the December ruling. “We feel the judge erred when he said that firemen who have to go into these buildings that aren’t conforming to the code have no standing to challenge the Port Authority,” he said.
The Skyscraper Safety Campaign also said that it’s working with U.S. Representatives Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, and Carolyn Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat, to draft legislation that would make the Port Authority subject to the enforcement of the city’s buildings and fire departments. Mr. Shays’ chief of staff, Betsy Hawkings, said that both Mr. Shays and Ms. Maloney are working in concert with several New York state legislators to amend the Port Authority’s charter toward that end. She declined to name the legislators.
“If the Port Authority really meets or exceeds the requirements of building and fire departments’ safety codes, they shouldn’t be concerned about legal enforcement,” said Ms. Hawkings.
Mr. Gerson, for his part, praised the Port Authority for its willingness to come to the table, but conceded that the proposal in its current incarnation is somewhat less than ironclad when it comes to enforcing the findings of the two proposed oversight groups.
“We’re negotiating and investigating that,” Mr. Gerson said of the latter issue, “and I believe we’ll be able to come up with an adequate enforcement mechanism.”
The Port Authority largely declined to comment on the proposal, noting that any agreement is not official yet.
“We’ve had very constructive discussions with Councilman Gerson on a whole host of issues, including peer review,” said Steve Coleman, an agency spokesman. “Nothing has been finalized, and we’re still working out the details.”
Representatives for Mr. Silverstein could not be reached by press time.
City Council member Christine Quinn, who helped broker the agreement along with Council member Helen Sears, said that despite the apparent immediate lack of enforceability, the agreement represents a significant step forward.
“I don’t think the Port Authority would have agreed to meeting building codes if they didn’t mean to live up to it,” she said. “It’s a type of thing where you could show very easily if they weren’t living up to their end of the bargain.”
Experts on fire safety were less convinced. Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy chief of the Fire Department of New York and author of three books on fire emergencies, said that there’s no reason why the Port Authority shouldn’t have to adhere to the same safety standards as any other commercial landlord in the city. He also discounted the value of agreements which the Port Authority has made with the FDNY regarding the agency’s compliance with city and state codes.
“Right now we inspect the building, but we don’t have enforcement power,” he said. “We send a referral notice to the Port Authority, and it doesn’t have the powers of a normal enforcement. We can’t issue a summons.”
Mr. Gerson said the composition of the peer-review group would be determined by “relevant community leaders” or “uniformed agencies,” along with various safety experts. The second oversight group-which would be responsible for keeping the building’s safety standards up to date-would be composed of people appointed by similar types of entities.