Childs Told To Straighten Out The Zero Mess

Call it David Childs’ Freedom Tower from now on.

After Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and developer Larry Silverstein resolved to improve security at Ground Zero’s signature building last week by moving it away from the streets, Mr. Childs was left with the biggest job of all.

The architect handpicked by Mr. Silverstein is getting to design a new tower entirely from the bottom up. And Mr. Childs and his firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, will do so without the direct participation of Daniel Libeskind, the bespectacled immigrant architect who first thought up what came to be known as the Freedom Tower.

The development effectively removes the Governor’s pick, Mr. Libeskind, from the tower design. As it is, Silverstein Properties and Skidmore Owings only have contact with Mr. Libeskind’s staff at meetings with government agencies, and never with Mr. Libeskind himself, according to a source close to the project.

But can this be the last chapter? The active rumor mill that had Mr. Pataki doing everything from considering eminent domain to remove the developer, to holding state approval of the West Side stadium project hostage until Mr. Bloomberg reined in the New York Police Department from criticizing the tower’s design, seems to lead to one conclusion: Mr. Pataki is trying hard to deflect the blame for all this, even if he deserves it.

The Governor’s Man

Mr. Libeskind enchanted the Governor with his plan to turn the 16 acres of Ground Zero into a collage of symbols-of memory and rebirth and other inspiring things that shattered psyches needed at the time, and maybe still do. (He, along with the Mayor and the Governor, has stressed that the new tower will still adhere to his winning plan for the entire site and that the Freedom Tower is merely one part of that.)

But Mr. Libeskind doesn’t get veto power over the redesign-nor will his staff share offices with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, as they did for a few heady (and contentious) months in late 2003. Instead, Mr. Libeskind will give his input as a consultant to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which has coordinated the rebuilding effort downtown, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which actually owns the site.

Mr. Libeskind, for his part, just returned to town Tuesday after a whirlwind trip to visit projects that he’s working on around the globe-in Ireland, Italy and finally Hong Kong, where he’s designed a new media center for the public university, a jagged nine-story, $100 million structure that takes its shape from the ancient Chinese character for creativity. He still sees himself as very much involved in the shaping of Ground Zero.

“When they are designing technical things-I don’t need to be consulted about a curtain wall,” he said. “That’s a pretty standard thing in every building in New York. The consultative process is about the big issues. It’s about the tower itself, it’s about the height, and all those factors are a given. We have a design in play. Of course the tower has to be redesigned. Security is of course a paramount issue, and we would want the most secure tower that can be built.”

He pointed out that certain elements that Mr. Childs had added-such as the tower’s twisting shape-may be taken away in the redesign in order to shrink the building’s footprint.

“It’s very positive that we are on track, even though we are delayed and there is more work to be done,” Mr. Libeskind said. “I think the delay is well worth taking, given that we are building for the next 100 years.”

The elements that must not change, Mr. Libeskind said, are the tower’s patriotically symbolic height of 1,776 feet; its spire, which imitates the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm; and the tower’s location in the northwest quadrant of the site, where it will form the tip of a wedge of buildings. Nor will it be hard, he said, to make sure those elements remain, because the Governor, the Mayor and even Mr. Childs have approved those ideas in the past.

As for the spire, which has caused engineering challenges in the past, Mr. Libeskind has consistently had Governor Pataki’s support; and a close ally of the Governor-Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation-insists that the spire will survive the redesign.

But it’s premature to talk about what the redesigned tower will look like, according to someone who attended last week’s meeting with the Governor and Mayor. About the only certainty is that the redesigned Freedom Tower will have roughly the same amount of office space as the earlier version: 2.6 million square feet.

“You are talking about how this will look,” the source said. “The first issue is: How do you refigure the structure below-grade with the PATH tracks? The second issue is: Can you design an office building to these ramped-up structural and security standards?”

By the time the Freedom Tower design got discarded last week-or rather, the last time the design got discarded, for there have been so many revisions-Silverstein Properties had already secured its building permit from the Port Authority. It had engineering designs for the substructure below-grade and could have begun drilling. But Mr. Silverstein held off, because he knew the NYPD wasn’t happy with the tower’s security.

Faulty Tower

No one can agree on who’s to blame: whether the NYPD raised those concerns early enough and specifically enough, or whether the Port Authority-which has legal authority over what gets built at its Ground Zero property-responded properly to their questions. The cops don’t have a formal system for giving security clearance to a building. Instead, they have an essentially advisory role, although it would be hard not to take their advice.

“It’s not like we are the Building Department, where we issue a permit before something can be built,” said Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, who insisted that the department had made its objections plain in two letters to the Port Authority last August and October.

The full security situation didn’t become clear, though, until mid-April of this year. That was when Mr. Pataki finally decided to nix a two-block, $860 million tunnel for West Street that would put express lanes underground and local lanes on top of them. The narrower roadway would put extra distance between any truck bombs and the tower, and was much preferred by the police.

But Goldman, Sachs and Company, which was planning to erect a 40-story, $2 billion headquarters on the other side of West Street, right across from the mouth of the tunnel, opposed the bypass. In fact, a source briefed by the bank said Goldman had been promised that no tunnel would be built, because the express lanes would create a traffic hazard right outside its entrance. When, in November, Goldman learned that the Governor was leaning the other way, it issued an ultimatum: scrap the tunnel by April 1 or the bank would abandon the project. Meanwhile, Mr. Silverstein thought he had a tunnel, the source said.

“The problem arose because Goldman was told ‘No tunnel,’ and Silverstein was told he got the tunnel,” the source said. Then, on April 8, the NYPD wrote the Port Authority with specific objections to the Freedom Tower design-namely that the building would be vulnerable to a truck bomb because it was set back only a minimum of 25 feet from the street. A few days later, the Governor formally nixed the tunnel, and a few days after that the police memo was leaked to the press.

Mr. Gargano, whose Empire State Development Corporation oversees the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, denied that Goldman was told that a tunnel would not be built. “They expressed some concerns, and there were discussions to make the tunnel more acceptable,” Mr. Gargano said. “We never reached a final decision.”

The tunnel would have helped make the tower more secure, but it wouldn’t alleviate all concerns. The tower would still be vulnerable to attack from Vesey Street, directly to its north, or Fulton Street, on its south face. That problem, Mr. Gargano said, will be resolved in the redesign by blocking the streets to truck traffic-”You can have a vertical barrier at a certain height”-while the lower floors of the tower itself will contain less glass or none at all. “Extra floors will be added to make up for the lost office space,” he added.

Mr. Gargano portrayed the security delays as the natural consequence of different agencies working together.

“The delay is being so overplayed it’s ridiculous,” he said. “If it’s going to be delayed by a year, well, what can you do? It’s going to be there for 100 years.”

Mr. Gargano has a point. But the people who are really going to be hurt by a delay-which could last from one to two years-will be the property owners in lower Manhattan, particularly Mr. Silverstein. He’s paying the Port Authority $110 million a year in rent, using insurance proceeds. On top of that, Mr. Silverstein has paid his architects and engineers for two years of work that will be largely discarded. He wants more money, but the state, so far, won’t ante up.

In addition, Mr. Silverstein’s other properties may suffer from the uncertainty surrounding Ground Zero-namely 7 World Trade Center, a 52-story building just north of 6the site that is nearing completion and has no tenants other than Silverstein Properties. Mr. Silverstein is asking $50 a square foot for office space there-a $16.50 premium compared to going rates in lower Manhattan. According to his broker, Mary Ann Tighe, regional C.E.O. for CB Richard Ellis, that’s not what’s keeping prospective tenants away. Instead, Goldman’s hesitancy-the bank is still looking at alternatives to the Battery Park City site-has given other businesses pause.

“There is a sense, ‘What does Goldman know that we don’t know?’” Ms. Tighe said. “I haven’t seen any price movement at all. What I have seen is a slowing of the marketplace-firms thinking of moving from midtown to downtown, for instance, have put their plans are hold.”

While he was traveling around the globe, Mr. Libeskind missed another, though dubious, challenge to his architectural authority. Donald Trump called the architect an “egghead” in the New York Post and exhorted the Governor to rebuild the Twin Towers as they once were. When told of the story, Mr. Libeskind gave a hearty laugh. “He should come to my office and take a look at the condominiums we are designing, and the commercial buildings. We will give Donald Trump a run for his money.”