For years, the World Trade Center occupied a prominent stage in New York politics, as elected officials jostled over questions of design, governance and delays before an engaged public audience. But as the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 approaches and the redevelopment once again is tied up in delays and hurdles, it’s becoming clear that the site has fully lost whatever place it once held, perhaps to the point where it has passed as a political issue of any strength at all.
Not that there’s nothing to discuss. The more–than–$10 billion project is as troubled as ever—gripped by a months-long stalemate between the public-sector owner and its private developer that threatens to add years of delays to large portions of the project (some components are more than five years behind initial schedules) and hundreds of millions in additional public costs.
Yet with the city campaign season in full swing—normally a time when any and every public boondoggle is exploited by insurgents against incumbents—the World Trade Center has come up about as much as proposals to raise taxes on the poor: that is to say, not at all. Unions, which typically offer a deafening roar when the prospect of more work awaits, are mum, as are most civic groups.
And the one notable attempt by any elected officials to end the current impasse—Mayor Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver applied heavy pressure on Governor Paterson to use more public financing on the project—ended in failure, at least for now. In August, the state’s chief executive easily brushed aside the appeal from the two prominent politicians, with no outcry to speak of from the public or from interest groups despite a continued lack of resolution.
“Other politicians view it as toxic,” said a former state official. “Not the borough presidents, not the City Council members—they’ve all run for the hills on this.”
The result is a situation in which there is little to gain for any elected official to stick his or her neck out and speak up on New York City’s biggest construction project, an apparent product of the issue’s tremendous complexity; a paucity of easy solutions; and the broader political and popular fatigue of a familiar story line (more delays!) as the years since 9/11 tick away.
“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).
“The public—they’re fed up,” said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at Baruch College. “They’re tired. They’re immune to all of it. They have such low expectations. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, they’re fucking up again. As usual.’”
It doesn’t help that there are no feel-good solutions to the current impasse, as Mr. Silverstein, the developer, is demanding a major commitment of public funds from a reluctant public sector, which he says owes him on account of delays. When Mr. Bloomberg and the powerful Mr. Silver tried to resolve it, their solution, billions in public-financing guarantees to support two towers, was a cost so high that Mr. Paterson and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine (who shares control of the site) instead opted for a continued stalemate and a legal battle, effectively rejecting Mr. Silverstein in early August. A stalemate the governors got—and save critical statements from Messrs. Bloomberg, Silver and Silverstein, silence reigns over the issue now in the city’s political arena.
For his part, Mr. Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, contends that the topic is far from dead as a political issue, and that the public and political outrage is in hibernation.
“I think we’re somewhat a victim of circumstance,” he said in an interview on Sept. 8. “This is the third governor since 9/11, so he’s removing himself from it, saying, ‘This is not my fault,’” Mr. Silver said. “Governor Corzine has a tough reelection campaign—he can’t be stepping out publicly and saying, ‘We need a good project in Manhattan.’
“It’s not just something that’s fading into memory. It’s a priority. Truthfully, I would say that it’s an international embarrassment.”
So when would the World Trade Center as a paramount issue resurface, if ever? There is still time in the mayor’s race before Election Day in November, though to date, challenger Bill Thompson has hardly said a word on the topic, let alone tried to pin the mess on Mayor Bloomberg. (As many political consultants pointed out, Mr. Bloomberg is the one main official who’s actually been around for the entirety of the reconstruction efforts, though the site is officially the purview of the Port Authority.)
Mr. Silver took a longer-term view, suggesting the issue was likely to resurface in 2010.
“You’ve got a gubernatorial election next year,” he said. “It’s going to wind up being an issue in that. No question in my mind.”