The Biggest Shrug

“The issue is less emotional, and people recognize it’s far more complex than they did,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a prominent business advocacy group. “Politicians don’t have anything to appeal to. What do they appeal to? Patriotism? As they did for the first five years?”

 

OF COURSE, IT WASN’T always like this. Governor Pataki held a constant stream of press conferences and milestone ceremonies tied to the rebuilding, and the development and its related problems became a top priority of his chief of staff.

Mr. Bloomberg pushed for major changes in site governance as he ran for reelection in 2005. In his 2006 campaign for governor, Eliot Spitzer railed against the management surrounding the site as he sought to build his reputation as a reformer. And labor was once as loud as ever: Amid a dispute over the site’s insurance money in 2007, union workers rallied in the streets outside an insurance industry event to pressure the firms to deliver the money for construction.  

“There was a much greater focus before, there’s no question about it,” Charles Gargano, Governor Pataki’s economic development czar, said of the public eye. “It has been much more quiet the last couple of years.”

From a policy point of view, the need for someone to speak out on the World Trade Center project is as great as ever. The current stalemate has dragged on for months with neither of the two sides at the dispute’s center—private developer Larry Silverstein, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site—showing signs that they’re ready to blink. Left unresolved, major components of the site would be threatened and the public sector’s tab downtown could rise by hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

The fight centers on the financing of Mr. Silverstein’s three office towers: He wants the Port Authority to guarantee more than $3 billion in financing, and the agency has refused, saying it would come at the expense of necessary transportation projects. Although construction throughout much of the site is plodding away right now, key elements depend on Mr. Silverstein’s building out the bases of his towers. Without his buildings, a planned PATH station, the Freedom Tower, the museum, a parking garage and other components would be delayed, struggle to function or not exist at all.

The tremendous complexity of the project only hastens its waning as a resonant political issue, as any new complications at the site are a tall task for anyone to expect the general public to quickly comprehend and digest, pushing it far down the list of compelling issues for voters.

“It’s become more of a back-burner issue,” said Councilman David Weprin, a candidate for city comptroller, adding that he still considers the subject an important one. “People are more concerned about the recession, the high unemployment, fees going up, water rates going up, property taxes going up, ticket blitzes—these are the issues that we hear all the time.”

Furthermore, the current problems hardly lend themselves to criticism that fits into a simple package wrapped in a neat bow. Most of the site, in fact, is under construction and rising without any noticeable problems at this point—steel for 1 World Trade Center (the Freedom Tower) is more than 100 feet above street level, and the Port Authority insists the memorial will be open in 2011—though the site for two office towers remains a gaping hole in the ground. That makes any possible criticism far more complex and nuanced than it was just a couple of years ago.

 

TAKING A FEW STEPS back, the current impasse at the site, and the delays and expenses it could add, is nothing new. One part or another of it has been delayed, behind, or in need of redesign for almost the entirety of the reconstruction, with various parties to blame. The visible result, to all but those who follow the project’s intricate details, is an endlessly recurring narrative of delays of one sort or another—a story in which it is quite easy to lose interest, regardless of just how much overbudget the site is now running ($2 billion) or how many years behind the PATH station remains (at least five).