Shadows Return to Ground Zero: Infighting and Stalled Projects Are Back—Is the Media to Blame?

picture 13 Shadows Return to Ground Zero: Infighting and Stalled Projects Are Back—Is the Media to Blame?

Slowing down? (Joe Woolhead/WTC Progress)

Was last year magical for the World Trade Center site, or was it merely a mirage? The Observer has heard more than once of a sort of media blackout—promises of cooperation so as not to taint the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with the same backbiting, political infighting and constituent-driven trench warfare that had reigned almost since the towers fell.

Instead, there were celebratory milestones. One World Trade Center was finally skyrocketing toward heaven, putting up nearly a floor per week. Condé Nast signed its game-changing lease for half of said tower. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement with the long-suffering Greek Orthodox Church. And of course, the 9/11 Memorial opened on time, and quite a bit further along than originally hoped. The city was triumphant.

Was that real progress, though, or simply a one-year reprieve out of respect for the dead? With the exception of last week’s news that Condé would be taking additional space at 1 WTC, the bad news has been piling up all year.

The first was a disagreement that began in December between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg over funding for the 9/11 Memorial. The Governor, who controls the Port Authority and thus the entire 16-acre site, says the Memorial Foundation owes the Port $300 million for infrastructure work. The Mayor, who is head of the memorial board, sees the reverse, and argues the Port owes the foundation $140 million.

He recently admitted that whatever the outcome of their disagreement, which could be bound for court, the museum will almost certainly not be open by the 11th anniversary, as had been long been the hope .

On Friday came more news that the project may have been mismanaged by former Port Authority executive director Chris Ward. He has been credited with getting the project on the right track and now headed for a job in a multinational private contractor, but both governors Christie and Cuomo have attacked him for everything from construction management at the site to the recent toll increases to help replenish the Port’s capital funds—ostensibly depleted by the $10 billion World Trade Center project.

A fall report in the Post and now one from Crain’s both suggest that Mr. Ward spent lavishly and irresponsibly on the project, including a $60 million premium to get the project finished in time for the 10th anniversary. Supports of Mr. Ward counter that these were necessary steps to achieve the crucial result of an on-time memorial, and in the scheme of a multi-billion project, what is a few hundred million dollars but a rounding error? (Tell that to the people paying higher bridge and tunnel tolls, of course.)

This dispute may never fully be resolved—there will be no punitive impacts besides the criticizing of past leadership—so really it boils down to an argument between economics and emotions and which side New Yorkers fall on. Then again, there was the mega-report prepared by Mr. Ward when he arrived in 2008, that reestablished timetables for the site and largely set it on the course it currently rides. This latest white paper could have a similar effect, especially if it concludes that too much money is being spent in the name of a faster project.

Today comes the real bombshell, delivered again by Crain’s. As Towers 1 and 4 rise at the World Trade Center, racing to see who can top out first this spring—and transforming the Manhattan skyline in the process—it turns out that Larry Silverstein is prepared to cap construction on Tower 3.

He would leave one of the so-called stumps, a retail platform and a few mechanical floors atop which he might someday build. (Remember how long it took for the Hearst Tower?) The latest reports peg this at 7 stories, and far from what would have been the third tallest building in New York when it is completed.

But both Silverstein and Port Authority officials are deriding the news as “news,” or even non-news. This is nothing new they say, this has long been the plan, that without a tenant to take at least 10 floors of the 80-story tower, it would be capped for the time being. Now is simply the time when a decision must be made, and the unfortunate truth is that it does not look like there will be a suitable tenant in place in time to keep the tower rising.

Port Authority executive director Pat Foye agreed that this decision should not come as a surprise to the media or the public after a luncheon today at the New York Buildings Congress industry association. “No one’s made any money in this city betting against Larry, in the city or the region or at the World Trade Center,” Mr. Foye told reporters. “I don’t think there was any news there. He needs a 400,000-square-foot tenant, or tenants, and my money’s on that he’ll get it and that tower will go forward.”

He also said earlier, while on the podium, that he does not like negotiating in the press, in reference to a question about contractors not being paid on time at the World Trade Center. So the negotiations continue.

But what if that is precisely the problem. Last year, when UBS passed on taking space at 3 World Trade Center, it was seen as good news. Hey, at least people are looking. Now, nobody is looking, and it makes the front pages. Maybe things have always been as rough as they have always been and everyone just got tired of admitting it. Maybe nothing changed at ground zero except for the way the media is covering it.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC