Ground Zero Cultural Center Stuck at Square One

gehry ground zero 1 Ground Zero Cultural Center Stuck at Square OneWith Condé Nast’s move to 1 World Trade Center all but official, ground zero has gotten a much-needed flash of panache. With Ralph Lauren soon pulling up in his limo and Rick Hertzberg rolling up on his bike, wouldn’t it be nice for them to have somewhere to take in a show? The long-delayed Performing Arts Center, designed by Frank Gehry, got an injection of funds last fall, but it has lain fallow ever since, as culture reporter W.M. Akers reports in this week’s Observer:

Despite that victory, there has been no tangible progress since autumn. Nine years after Congress first handed it over, the money continues to sit on the LMDC books, earning no interest. The LMDC and Emil, as its president, are often scapegoated for delays at Ground Zero, but the PAC’s woes aren’t their fault. The root cause of its problems is that it simply doesn’t exist. The PAC has no board of directors to accept the $100 million and no organized nonprofit to which it can be donated. At the moment, no one appears to be taking charge. Since plans for the International Freedom Center were abandoned amid a hail of controversy in 2005, few in the city have been willing to expend political capital on the arts at Ground Zero, preferring instead to focus on the Memorial and Museum, a project that over the past year has started to look like a sure thing.

When asked about the PAC, the Memorial Foundation points to the LMDC, which tosses the hot potato to the mayor’s office, which passes it on to the Port Authority, which lobs it back at City Hall. “It’s a city project,” said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, insisting that though the Port Authority may build the foundation, it is not responsible for whether or not anything goes on top of it.

The truth is that, like everything at Ground Zero, responsibility is divided, this time between the Memorial Foundation and the Department of Cultural Affairs, headed by Kate Levin. That is according to an old agreement between the LMDC, the mayor and the Paterson administration, which also stipulates that a PAC board of directors must be named by the end of 2011. City hall Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Brent declined to give details, but said that the process was “underway,” and that the PAC’s board of directors “will certainly be up and running before the end of the year.”

Meanwhile, the Port Authority works on the PAC’s foundation despite lingering questions about where the building should actually go. It has long been planned for Site 1B-currently home to the temporary PATH station-but some PAC supporters would prefer to see it at the Deutsche Bank site, just south of the memorial park. Building there, away from the problematic transit hub, would save $125 million and allow for construction to begin sooner. As it stands, the PAC must wait for the hub’s completion-not scheduled until 2014 in even the most optimistic estimates-which would put the project in a race with the Second Avenue Subway for New York’s most slothful civic undertaking. Relocating the PAC, however-to return to the project’s Kafkaesque circle of kinks–is a question that can only be asked once a board of directors is in place.

The real issue seems to be a refusal to tackle any ancilary issue–including a resolution to the St. Nicholas Church saga and the fate of the two unbuilt towers–ahead of the 10th anniversary commerations this September. Doing so risks opening any number of cans of worms, as the “mosque” controversy last year showed, with the potential to plunge the site back into controversy just as it is making real progress. You can read the rest of Mr. Aker’s stellar story here.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo