Silverstein's Janno Lieber on the Progress at Ground Zero

20110909 7wtc img 8327 Silverstein's Janno Lieber on the Progress at Ground Zero

Mr. Lieber joined Silverstein in 2003.

Uniformed men milled about, waiting for Leon Panetta, the newly appointed Secretary of Defense, to embark on his morning tour of 7 World Trade Center. At the same time, the leader of one of the city’s most powerful trade unions was being greeted as he crossed from the building’s elevator bank to a floor model of the World Trade Center site. Heavyset and stoic, that labor leader was there to address the members of Helmets to Hardhats, an organization that assists soldiers in their transition from battlefields to construction sites.

A few hours earlier, Mayor Bloomberg had arrived in Lower Manhattan along with his own entourage, calling for the end to “Ground Zero” as the shorthand to describe what, over the course of a decade, has changed from a pile of smoldering ashes to the early metallic seeds of a transit hub, a memorial site and a massive complex of skyscrapers.

Such was life at the World Trade Center complex in the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. City, state and federal officials come and go, events flood in and out, and security clearances are de rigueur.

“It is always emotional—every single day,” said Janno Lieber, the man who, probably more than anyone else, is responsible for making sure that the World Trade Center project remains on course. “If there are bumps, and if there are slow-downs, and if there is not progress, or if there are any struggles—it’s always a challenge, and it’s all right outside of our window. So that never goes away. That sense of mission and that special importance rises up as we come up toward the anniversary every year.”

In the eight and a half years since Mr. Lieber and other colleagues working with the developer Larry Silverstein relocated offices to Lower Manhattan, Ground Zero, and all that it has come to represent, has been a daily presence. But mixed among the fear and sadness, Mr. Lieber insisted, is an emerging story of hope.

With all but three higher-story floors leased at 7 World Trade Center since construction ended five years ago, any lingering doubt of whether businesses would return to the area following the terrorist attacks has diminished. Besides Moody’s Corporation, which occupies 17 floors and 670,000 square feet of space at the 52-story tower, others like law firm Darby & Darby and West LB, the German investment bank, have inked deals for many of the top floors while Silverstein Properties occupies a 38th-floor office overlooking the main site across the street.

More recently, WilmerHale, among the nation’s largest law firms, chose to relocate its longtime headquarters from Park Avenue, a traditional hub for the legal industry, to four of the high floors at 7 World Trade Center. That 210,000-square-foot deal, which was inked in April, includes a clause that will allow the firm to share in energy-efficiency costs and benefits linked to the tower, which in 2006 became the city’s first LEED gold-certified asset.

“Interestingly, that was much less of a concern than anyone could have really anticipated,” said Mr. Lieber, 49, who noted that remaining floors are expected to be leased up by the end of 2011. “The premium and attraction of views have remained in this building as much as it has always existed in the rest of the New York City office tower market.

“We have a couple of tenants who are seriously looking at the space,” he added. “It’s financial service firms, it’s creative companies and it’s the law firms—but this is the premium space that’s available right now downtown, and there are a lot of companies that want to take advantage right now.”

With occupancy nearly full at 7 World Trade Center, Mr. Lieber, the president of Silverstein’s World Trade Center Properties LLC, has been shifting his focus to the construction of 3 and 4 World Trade Centers and 1 World Trade Center. The latter, of course, is where Condé Nast in May signed that one-million-square-foot lease that seeks to do for Lower Manhattan what the magazine publisher helped do for Times Square nearly two decades ago.

With the publisher expected to move its 5,000 employees—from a litany of titles that includes The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue—to floors 20 through 41 by 2014, many analysts believe the deal will prompt others in publishing and new media to follow suit. For Mr. Lieber, however, the Condé Nast deal confirmed what he and many at Silverstein Properties already knew.

“It validated what we’ve been talking about for quite some time, which is to push the diversification of downtown away from financial services and more and more toward creative companies who want to be here,” said Mr. Lieber. “I mean, Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter live in the West Village, and one of their senior decision makers lives in Brooklyn. I think they looked at their work force demographics and realized that writers, editors and people in the magazine industry are more likely to live in Brooklyn, New Jersey or Lower Manhattan than over in Connecticut.”

Mr. Lieber would know. An Upper West Side native, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children, and was once a journalist at The New York Republic. A Harvard and N.Y.U. Law grad, he worked as an attorney and in the Clinton-era Transportation Department on his way toward the real estate industry.

Even with all the activity of late—and the understandable spotlight it draws globally—late last week was a time for Mr. Lieber and others to once again mourn the 2,819 men and women killed in the attacks.

“Every year we stop work and observe at the same time that other people are observing outside at the site,” he said. “But the other thing that’s happening is that all of the things we hoped about downtown are really starting to come to pass. That’s exciting and positive.”

jsederstrom@observer.com