Planning Park, City Clams Up On ‘Negatives’

A city agency is planning to build a science park on the site of a Sept. 11 memorial-but it will “not reveal all negatives” of the project, according to an internal document obtained by The Observer .

The city’s Economic Development Corporation (E.D.C.) is eyeing Memorial Park, which sits under a large white tent on the corner of East 30th Street and the F.D.R. Drive. Most of the tent is occupied by refrigerated trailers that hold unidentified body parts found at the World Trade Center site-11,499 of these painful relics. The indoor park, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg dedicated at the end of 2002, is lined with shrines to the dead.

After the attacks, the parking lot behind the medical examiner’s office became an impromptu morgue, and family members turned it into a makeshift memorial. Memorial Park, Mr. Bloomberg said at its dedication, would provide “someplace serene and secure and respectful for contemplation and remembrance.”

But in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, the parking lot was the subject of negotiations between the city and New York University, which hoped to create a $500 million East River Science Park, including a huge biotechnology center. The lead tenant was to be ImClone Systems, whose founder, Sam Waksal, is now serving seven years in a federal prison on insider-trading charges.

The E.D.C., which conducts the city’s real-estate business, is undeterred by Mr. Waksal’s troubles and by the site’s somber new use. The agency is aiming to revive that project, according to the E.D.C. document.

The document is an “RFP Checklist” for a planned East River Science Park. Dated Feb. 6, 2004, it lays out a nine-week timetable for issuing a Request for Proposals (R.F.P.) to develop the site.

“Do not reveal all negatives in RFP text,” the unsigned document advises, after listing some of those negatives: squatters, garbage and “serenity park,” another name for the memorial site.

The three-page document makes no mention of public pledges by city officials, who have promised to keep Memorial Park open “as long as it takes” to test all identifiable remains, and who have also promised to leave the park standing at least until a memorial at Ground Zero is completed.

Michael Sherman, the spokesman for E.D.C. president Andrew Alper, distanced the agency from the memo.

“That was a personal note written by a staff member that was completely inappropriate,” he said. He declined to comment on whether the staffer would face disciplinary action. “That does not reflect the view of E.D.C. or the administration,” he said.

The plans-and the absence of a commitment to retain the memorial-came as a surprise to relatives of the victims.

“If they propose to relocate, move or toss aside any of those remains, they will be met with extreme, heavy resistance,” said John Cartier, who lost his brother in the attack.

But Mr. Sherman denied the agency is considering displacing the memorial.

“The administration is committed to keeping the remains of the victims at the site until a permanent memorial at the Trade Center is complete,” he said.

The E.D.C. has long had a reputation for secrecy, although that has abated under Mayor Bloomberg. These days, for instance, notices of public meetings are actually posted on the agency’s Web site, not buried in small-type newspaper advertisements. But the agency was created as a quasi-private local development corporation in order to make economic development deals without getting snared in government red tape, and a private-sector focus on speed and secrecy can conflict with public-sector standards of transparency. “E.D.C. should not be in the business of hiding information to suit its purposes,” said Stephen Sigmund, the spokesman for City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.

The controversy underscores the political danger still involved in touching the sites and issues that Sept. 11 made sacred. Builders at Ground Zero have been forced to work around the “footprints” of the two towers. And the Memorial Park site is certainly among those newly sacred spots. A 2,000-square-foot room within the larger tent, its high ceiling is formed by opaque white drapes. Low tables along the walls hold photographs, stuffed animals, flags and letters to dead relatives, many of them among the 1,198 victims whose bodies still haven’t been identified. There’s also a book for visitors to write in. There’s an entry for April 8, from a parent to a son:

“While you are no longer here, we are still attached to this memorial where you spent so much time before we brought you home.”

The park is formally open only to families, but a reporter was able to visit one recent afternoon, walking down a closed street, past a homeless shelter and rows of parked city-owned cars.

The memorial is an ambiguous blend of permanent and temporary, with big wooden doors set in a white plastic tent, and its opening did little to resolve that ambiguity. Officials gave no timeline for its closure, and the chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, made the following pledge in a press release on Dec. 23, 2002: “We remain committed to the families of these victims that we will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to identify as many people as the limits of science will allow. While this process continues, we hope this park will serve as a welcoming environment where families can gather and pay their respects.”

No Long-Term Plans

One city official involved in planning the memorial said there had been no internal discussion of how long Memorial Park would stand.

“We saw this as a solution to a problem that existed then,” the official said, referring to the families drawn to the barren parking lot. “I don’t know that we were thinking four, five, six years down the road.”

A spokeswoman for the medical examiner, Ellen Borakove, said that work will continue to identify the victims using DNA and other technologies. But the fires that raged at Ground Zero for weeks after the attack severely damaged many of the remains.

The remains will “be there until the final memorial is built at Ground Zero,” she said. “Those that still are with us will be transferred down to the permanent memorial site.”

The medical examiner is seeking to ensure that technicians will still have access to the badly damaged remains in case future technologies make it possible to identify them, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Joanna Rose, said she hadn’t heard of the 30th Street site and said there was no timetable for the memorial’s completion. The agency hopes construction will begin early next year, she said.

While the E.D.C.’s plans may distress the medical examiner and family members, some local residents would like to remove the refrigerated trailers and reopen the street, and community-board members expressed interest in the science park at a meeting with E.D.C. officials at Assemblyman Steven Sanders’ office last month.

“We would like to see 30th Street reopened and remapped,” said Timothy McGinn, the chairman of Community Board 6. “I would think that could be done as part and parcel of this development.”

As for Memorial Park, another person present at the meeting said its future “didn’t come up as an issue.”