Tom Bernstein, the co-founder of the International Freedom Center, was revising his notes for the public presentation he would make at a Tribeca elementary school that night, in which he’d attempt to persuade neighborhood residents to support his controversial museum plan for Ground Zero.
Then the Governor’s office called, at about 4:45 p.m. on Sept. 28. Mr. Bernstein called off the meeting—and the Freedom Center.
Mr. Bernstein had been headed for a rough few days in which he’d be making presentations to committee after committee, and subcommittee after subcommittee, attempting to line up as many factions behind his project as possible, especially given the recent dismissals of his plan by people as powerful as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator Hillary Clinton—as usual, two people who have no real say at Ground Zero, but whose casual comments can mean everything there.
Finally, though, it was one man who killed the project: Governor George Pataki. And now, local groups—and even some in the Bloomberg administration—are beginning to chafe at this most recent move.
“I believe that the process should have been allowed to take its course,” said Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, Mr. Bloomberg’s point man on Ground Zero. “I don’t think it was a whole lot more time.”
Something like this had happened before: The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a city-state agency that Mr. Pataki largely established and appointed himself, set out an excruciatingly deliberative process to make a decision about Ground Zero, only to see the Governor jump in at the last minute.
In early 2003, the LMDC was about to choose Rafael Viñoly’s design for a pair of Tinker Toy towers when Mr. Pataki swooped down from Albany and anointed Daniel Libeskind as the master planner for World Trade Center rebuilding, according to an account given by New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger.
“You are not going to build these skeletons,” the Governor reportedly said behind closed doors.
Mr. Pataki’s intervention on Sept. 28, by contrast, may have just accelerated the inevitable demise of the Freedom Center, a new museum that proposed to chronicle the idea of freedom from ancient times to today. It had become a political hot potato after the center, selected by a committee similar to the one that vouched for Mr. Viñoly, had been flogged repeatedly on suspicion of anti-American subversion.
Before that deus ex machina moment, it looked like everybody would get what they wanted: a chance to learn more about the center, a chance to speak their minds, a chance to feel that the powers that be were at least giving lip service to the public’s participation.
What they were left with instead was a fax. A week earlier, in a press release entitled “LMDC Details Next Steps to Ensure Public Participation in International Freedom Center Submission Process,” the agency announced three meetings, including one before a community-board subcommittee, at which residents could hear presentations and make their opinions known. Then the LMDC—whose meetings are usually so unpredictable and exciting that a participant was once caught snoring on speakerphone—would convene on Oct. 6. Some disagreement, some debate, some sharp words would presumably have followed, if only for a bit of show.
Only one of those three meetings—before the Sept. 11 family representatives—ever took place. This was the Ground Zero faction that had weighed so heavily against the Freedom Center all along. They balked at it again, and the next day the Governor made his announcement.
A year ago, Mr. Pataki had praised the Freedom Center, and the LMDC had approved its location in a building designed by the Scandanavian firm Snøhetta and planned for the same eight acres on which the memorial to the Sept. 11 victims is to be built. Then, when he decided that they would have to look elsewhere on the larger World Trade Center site, Mr. Bernstein and co-founder Peter Kunhardt decided they couldn’t locate it anywhere else. So they wrote a 250-word statement, dripping with bitterness and canning their whole project, and sent it to the press. All in 45 minutes.
The two public meetings that were cancelled were expected to attract neighbors and planners—people who likely would’ve had mixed feelings about the Freedom Center, but who had already proved themselves to be more sympathetic to the idea of retaining some sort of culture on the memorial quadrant.
Now, the Snøhetta-designed building is supposed to be turned into an extension of the underground museum on the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We at Community Board 1 really want to know: Do we really have to speak with the LMDC, or should we deal directly with the Governor?” said Catherine McVay Hughes, the chair of the community-board committee that had been scheduled to meet at the Tribeca school on Sept. 28, speaking to The Observer this week. “Do we really have to go to these public forums and spend hours at these presentations? Do they really care about residential input down there?”
Ric Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, learned the news at 5:15 p.m., from a wire-service story that his communications coordinator saw on the Internet. After talking with Freedom Center president Dick Tofel, Mr. Bell cancelled his own meeting, which was to take place the next day for the public and members of New York New Visions, a network of about 20 architecture and design groups that had scoped out ideas for rebuilding Ground Zero early on.
“If you schedule a public process,” he said, “you don’t abrogate that arbitrarily as an individual, even as a governor of a state, by saying that the LMDC doesn’t have to vote on it—a vote that should be informed by the community board and perhaps by the New York New Visions meeting.”
Not surprisingly, the family members who had opposed locating the Freedom Center in the memorial quadrant—either because they didn’t want anything to detract from the memorial to the fallen, or because they saw the Freedom Center as a nefarious plot to spread civil-libertarian propaganda—were relieved that the Governor had shown some leadership. Now they could move on to more important things, like planning the memorial itself—though if anyone thought that would be any less controversial, they had better think again.
“We’re figuring out whether the Snøhetta building has to be there or not,” said Monika Iken, the founder of September’s Mission Foundation. “We’re focusing on the memorial—why there are two ramps instead of four, the number of visitors expected.”
Ms. Iken continued: “The Governor is the gatekeeper; he’s going to be the one making the decision in the end. Maybe he thought it was the right thing.”
Mr. Pataki is the person that most people think is in charge at the LMDC, and in a way, the Governor’s decision simply gave the lie to the notion that the LMDC is a “joint state-city corporation” whose board is chosen half by the Governor, half by the Mayor, the way it’s described on the LMDC Web site.
The ease with which the LMDC regularly reaches consensus isn’t much different from what one would see at a typical board meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But those boards consist of appointees who represent the strength that the various political factions wield in the behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place before each vote. The Port Authority’s board is split evenly between New York and New Jersey, and it’s hard for the board to make any significant decision benefiting one state without soon making another decision to benefit the other. In a few notable cases, board members might openly dissent, as happened with the M.T.A. fare hike last December, when the Mayor’s appointees voted against the Governor, even though it was clear they would lose.
“I think that the way that the Governor has chosen to pursue development at Ground Zero has been to hide behind the LMDC when it is convenient and to step out from behind when there is a cornerstone to be laid or an opportunity to look good,” said David Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute and an LMDC watcher. “It really results in disarray, because no one knows who is really in charge.”
The Governor’s office declined a request for comment, as did the Freedom Center. LMDC chairman John Whitehead said in a statement: “As the chief elected officials of our state and city, the Governor and the Mayor have partnered to revitalize downtown, and the LMDC remains a catalyst in, vehicle for, and spearhead of the redevelopment efforts.”
That much said, it was clear from Mr. Pataki’s 5 p.m. statement—on the eve of a speech to business leaders by his chief of staff, John Cahill, meant to show progress—that it was the Governor’s decision alone to make. (“The IFC cannot be located on the Memorial quadrant,” the statement said flatly.)
Mr. Doctoroff told The Observer that the Mayor was “consulted” and learned of Mr. Pataki’s decision “several hours” before it was announced. Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg’s power at Ground Zero has been steadily hampered by legal realities and his own policy choices. Furthermore, the site that the LMDC oversees is owned by the Port Authority—over which the Mayor has no power—and for fiscal purposes, it is a subsidiary of a state-controlled partnership, the Empire State Development Corporation. Last year, Mr. Bloomberg lost even more influence on the LMDC board when he began his push for a West Side stadium, leaving Mr. Pataki to control the planning in lower Manhattan. What’s more, members who have resigned from the LMDC board haven’t been replaced, giving the Governor greater influence. Six of its current members were appointed by Mr. Pataki, three by Mr. Bloomberg, and one is a holdover from the Giuliani administration.
It’s hard to say what would’ve happened if Mr. Pataki had allowed the process to play out as far as the LMDC vote. Indeed, two of the Governor’s appointees—Madelyn Wils, whose Tribeca Film Institute was to be aligned with the Freedom Center, and Roland Betts, Mr. Bernstein’s business partner—would likely have had to recuse themselves, leaving four votes for the Governor and four for the Mayor. If Mr. Bloomberg had finally agreed with Mr. Pataki (and he was leaning in that direction), the vote would’ve be moot—except that some LMDC watchers doubt that the board’s members would necessarily have voted the way of their patrons. These are people, after all, who had already voted in favor of the Freedom Center last year, back when they thought that was what the Governor wanted. Indeed, Mr. Whitehead, the LMDC’s chairman, stood up for the Freedom Center in June, citing his military experience at Normandy and service in the Reagan State Department to establish his bona fides.
Mr. Doctoroff said that the Freedom Center was a special case, and that the LMDC plays an important role—at least when it comes to smaller issues.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to generalize from that very controversial episode to the role of LMDC in total,” he told The Observer. “The LMDC plays a very important role in terms of the issues that come about on a day-to-day basis, in terms of working out site issues. The LMDC is playing an important role thinking about the area south of Liberty Street along Greenwich, an important role in terms of the rail link and moving that process along. It acts as an intermediary among a lot of different parties in a lot of less-visible disputes.”
It’s even questionable whether the decision to move the Freedom Center was Mr. Pataki’s to make without going through the LMDC first. The agency’s by-laws say that the “board shall have the management and control of the business affairs and property of the corporation.”
John Gallagher, an LMDC spokes-man, referred questions about the Governor’s authority to the Freedom Center’s statement withdrawing from the site. In other words, leaving the World Trade Center site was Mr. Bernstein’s decision, not Mr. Pataki’s.
As it turns out, however, there is something left of the Freedom Center. The morning before the sky fell on him, Mr. Bernstein went over to Union Square to cut a ribbon and open an exhibit consisting of a dozen or so kiosks displaying the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post from 25 years ago, detailing the struggles of Lech Walesa and his miners and steelworkers, who defied martial law and went on strike rather than disband the Solidarity union, and how they kept at it until 1989, when communism fell. It was just the kind of inspiring story that Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Kunhardt and—once upon a time—Mr. Pataki thought would be an appropriate way to remember the victims of Sept. 11. And, in fact, the exhibit was co-sponsored by the International Freedom Center, an institution that pursued a different course, and which met a very differ