The World Trade Center has come unbound. A little or quite a lot depending on whom you believe.
The 16-acre site had a good year last year. The still overly symbolic 1 World Trade Center passed the halfway mark of its eventual height, Condé Nast closed on its huge lease there and the 9/11 Memorial opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, as on time as it was ever going to be. “Let us remember not only the day that time stood still—but the decade we have spent recovering, rebuilding and renewing,” Mayor Bloomberg said during a Sept. 6 speech. The passage of time had been good, even necessary.
But no longer. The gloom has begun to return.
It began late last year—after the anniversary, the smiles and tears, the positive press—reports of mismanagement at the site and cost overruns started to reappear. An audit was being prepared. Things were not what they seemed and people would be held to account. Sources close to this or that governor “with knowledge of the governor’s thinking” spoke of a project out of control, one that only weeks before had finally seemed to be, for the first time in a decade, on the right track.
A pact on all sides to share only good news ahead of the anniversary has worn off, and it shows. Larry Silverstein might have to cap one of his the buildings, a prospect that had been wished away with all the apparent progress. Fighting between New York Governor Cuomo and the mayor has pushed back the opening of the memorial museum past the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Even the vaunted Condé deal now has its blemishes, as delays at the site mean a temporary loading dock will be necessary for the tower to open on time at the end of next year.
The discord was thrown into high relief two weeks ago, when the Port Authority board released a much-anticipated audit of the agency’s management. Meant to be a top-to-bottom appraisal of the public agency, a great deal of focus was cast on the World Trade Center, where it was revealed that the price of the project had risen to $14.8 billion. That is 50 percent more than the last estimate in the fall of 2008 and nearly twice the original price tag of $8 billion set out in 2006, just before Governor George Pataki left office.
Might the city have been better off taking the advice of Rudy Giuliani, and just building a park and memorial with no towers? Even with the benefit of hindsight, no one seems willing to go quite so far as embracing the idea of a nihilistic park. Lower Manhattan, with its booming residential population, certainly could benefit from its own Bryant Park, one twice as big, in fact, but it is stuck with its office towers instead.
“I never believed, and I still don’t believe that building nothing would have been the right thing to do,” Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker architecture critic and author of the definitive tome on the rebuilding, Up From Zero, said in an interview. “I still don’t think a void in the middle of the most important city in America is a good thing to do. This is not Gettysburg.” Mr. Goldberger still holds out hope for housing being developed, perhaps on the old Deutsche Bank site. “In the first 12 months, no one could imagine living there, but I think it is quite possible now,” he said.
“You know it could have always been something else,” Mayor Bloomberg said on Tuesday when asked about alternatives at a press conference, though he did not offer up specific counter-plans. He dismissed complaints about timetables and cost overruns and ultimately stood by what is being built now. “It turned out to be a very good design and everybody that worked on it worked on it very hard,” the mayor said.
Pat Foye, the new executive director of the Port Authority appointed by Governor Cuomo, naturally believes the agency should stay the course downtown. “I think in the long-term we will all see that this was a very good investment for the Authority and the city,” he said.
There is a growing consensus surrounding the audit that it has less to do with management of the World Trade Center than of the Authority itself.
The audit was ostensibly launched to understand why the Port Authority had to raise bridge and tunnel fares last year. But when questioned about the toll increases by Jersey reporters (on behalf of their irate neighbors), and whether they would be rolled back in light of the seemingly though not actually scathing audit, Mr. Foye stressed that no toll money would go to the World Trade Center, that it was needed for projects like rebuilding the George Washington Bridge. When asked why, in that case, the audit was so strongly tied to the World Trade Center, he demurred.
The Authority has already begun to walk back the audit, as well, undermining its findings without meaning to. David Samson, chairman of the authority and N.J. Governor Christie’s chief surrogate there, was one of the four board members responsible for the audit. At a board meeting following its release, he said it was not that the cost of the project had increased. “The numbers that provide an increase in the original cost estimate were not on cost overruns, and they were not over budget,” Mr. Samson said. “There was a cost estimate increase.”
Many of these higher costs are not new, either, but simply account for new commitments, some of which were very old. A good portion of the $1.7 billion in new liabilities for the Authority comes from doing work for the partners, such as the New York State DOT, the memorial and Larry Silverstein, who reached his agreement back in 2010, two years after the most recent estimates.
The real reason for all this bad news will not be revealed until the summer. The auditors, in a savvy political move, decided to split the audit in half, with the second piece coming in June. That is when a top-to-bottom reorganization of the Port Authority is due, something that has some agency hands worried. Executive dysfunction on both sides of the Hudson has been blamed for delays at the World Trade Center—nine governors in 10 years, and so on—but it also allowed the agency to go about its bureaucratic business.
Now, with two equally strong willed governors at the helm, there is concern a fight over resources will ensue. Given the current state of fiscal austerity, a public agency with a $30 billion budget seems more than ripe for the picking. It just needed to be knocked around first. After a few years of glowing press, the agency had to be found to be troubled yet again to justify revamping it. Look at Mr. Christie’s decision to swipe $3 billion in ARC tunnel money from the Authority to rebuild the highways. Now that Governor Cuomo has his guy in place, he may well want his share, which has largely been devoted to Ground zero for the past decade. Mr. Foye has already spoken publicly about the need to transition away from investing in the World Trade Center.
“If at the end of the day, the Port Authority comes out of this a stronger entity, the decisions are made substantively, and projects are chosen for their benefit on a regional level, then it’s a good thing that they’re upsetting the applecart,” one Authority insider said. “If instead they basically go there and take what they want, that’s not a good thing.
“I do think the honeymoon is rapidly ending.”