Silverstein and Port Grapple to Deadline On Ground Zero Specs

032006 article schuerman Silverstein and Port  Grapple to Deadline  On Ground Zero SpecsGovernor George Pataki might once have thought that he would top off the Freedom Tower by the end of his term and carry it around like a trophy on the Presidential campaign trail.

That’s not looking likely now.

At best, groundbreaking for the 1,776-foot tower won’t take place until next month—and that’s if sweaty deadline discussions between Larry Silverstein, the tower’s developer, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owners of Ground Zero, have reached any kind of conclusion by midnight on March 14.

Their task is to outline a major overhaul of who would build what at Ground Zero, even as the clock continues to tick on the Governor’s control of the site.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pataki’s likely successor, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, was already answering questions about the negotiations at a union endorsement on the deadline day. Mr. Spitzer wouldn’t even promise that a Spitzer administration would build the Freedom Tower as the Pataki administration has envisioned it—unless, that is, the question of who is to build it has been resolved before he takes office.

“Obviously, the state cannot break a contract that the Port Authority has gotten into,” he said. “But there is still substantial ambiguity about what will be built there, how it will be built and whether it will be economically viable.”

Mr. Pataki has been the central player at the World Trade Center site because of how he controls, or shares control over, agencies with clout in the neighborhood, including the Port Authority, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

And his various actions, from naming the Freedom Tower to laying its cornerstone on July 4, 2004, all speak to his Presidential ambitions, and to the role that he hoped his Ground Zero legacy would play in his campaign. Not all of these delays—maybe none of them—can be attributed to the Governor’s actions. But his Ground Zero legacy is looking a lot smaller than he’d envisaged it three years ago.

“And by 2006,” he told a crowd at an April 24, 2003, luncheon before the Association for a Better New York, “just five years after the worst attack on U.S. soil, lower Manhattan will have been transformed. The permanent PATH terminal will open, along with the Fulton Transit Center to the east. The substructure for the memorial will be complete, allowing for construction to proceed …. By the fifth anniversary of the attack, September 11th, 2006, we will top off a new icon—the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower.”

He predicted the Freedom Tower would be open for tenants two years later.

In reality, when Mr. Pataki leaves office, work on all of the projects he mentioned will be underway, but far from complete. Some of the work won’t even be visible above ground. By January 2007, according to Jennifer Nelson, director of communications for the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, a city-state agency, “Footings on the Freedom Tower should be complete, and structure will be rising to just below street level.” She added that the footings for the memorial to the World Trade Center victims would be substantially complete and the PATH station’s foundation underway, with Santiago Calatrava’s signature canopy coming that year or the next.

Other allies of the Governor argue that Mr. Pataki has done much beyond the 16 or so acres of the World Trade Center site to bring new residents in or keep office tenants from leaving.

“He wants to do what’s right for downtown,” said Timothy Carey, the head of the New York Power Authority. “He does so in a caring and sensitive way. He is not the bull in the china shop, the way some politicians are.”

Indeed.

“This is not a traditional real-estate transaction,” said Charles Gargano, vice chairman of the Port Authority and a close aide to the Governor, speaking to The Observer. “This is a rebuilding born of human tragedy. We remain deeply concerned about the long-term financial viability of [Silverstein Properties]. We are working towards a realignment to bring financial certainty to the project. We want to make sure to rebuild five buildings in the shortest time frame possible.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg and his aides have been battering the matter hard in every direction: Mr. Silverstein, the state, the Port. It’s had its effect.

“If this scenario ends up coming to some sort of realignment of ownership and responsibilities,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, “then I think it was because of the city coming in and forcing the issue the way it did.”

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Bloomberg will be happy with the deal that the Port Authority strikes and ends up devoting some or all of the city’s remaining $1.7 billion in Liberty Bonds to Mr. Silverstein. The city is not participating in the current negotiations.

Presumably, that’s because Mr. Bloomberg has a while longer to put his own stamp on Ground Zero.