Zero Hour at Ground Zero

In the first weeks of 2007, the two new state officials responsible for Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment were called to a downtown meeting on risks regarding the World Trade Center rebuilding. In the final months of the Pataki administration, the city- and state-run Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center had undertaken an analysis to highlight potential roadblocks at the World Trade Center site, and with new officials at the helm, a briefing seemed in order.

The officials—the eventual chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Avi Schick, and the Port Authority’s executive director, Tony Shorris, along with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff from the city—arrived at the 29th floor, LMCCC’s headquarters, and sat to watch a PowerPoint with a less than optimistic theme.

In slide after slide, the analysis showed the prospect of major problems: The box holding the No. 1 train needing to be removed or propped up in place, and portions of the museum and memorial delayed until parts of the PATH station are constructed; Route 9A being unable to be redone fully as the site needs a large staging area.

The meeting was one of many involving numerous consultants and agencies pointing out the risks of the tremendously complex project, but the take-home message was clear: The existing timetable was too optimistic. There would be delays, some lasting years, especially if specific issues went unresolved.

For much of the year and the nine months since, most of the potential delays stayed confidential. Many recommendations were accepted and addressed; others were not. But problems have progressed and arisen, and now with a new governor and a new approach at the Port Authority, which owns the site, the timetables and budgets of the World Trade Center are again the subject of the hour, but this time for an audience far larger than a small set of officials and contractors.

On Oct. 2, the Port Authority is slated to publicly release a new schedule that will address delays and overruns on most aspects of the site. And if the reception is anything similar to the agency’s acknowledgment three months ago that the existing timetables and budgets were indeed flawed, a wave of public criticism is sure to follow.

 

MORE THAN WITH perhaps any other project in the city, completion dates at the World Trade Center site seem to carry a special weight with the public.

Given the attention paid to the project, the emotional significance and the now seven years that the area has remained a fenced-off hole, elected officials and others have felt a constant temptation and need to set end dates—distinct points in time that the public can imagine a completed product at the area still known as ground zero.

“Because it is the World Trade Center site and it’s the focus of attention, it represents something unique and special,” said Councilman Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan. Given that the project is led by the public sector, Mr. Gerson added, “for government to work best we need to set forth a realistic time frame and to have benchmarks.”

So when the Port Authority issues its report with new completion goals, it will hardly be the first recalibration, and could easily not be the last. In the lengthy planning process, the Pataki administration spoke of at least three different years as a targeted completion date for the Freedom Tower, the first of which was 2008 and the last of which was 2011 (it will likely not be completed until 2013). An enormous banner, put up by Silverstein Properties, hangs on the north end of the site with a rendering of a completed set of towers and a “World Trade Center 2012” date in giant lettering.

In Governor Pataki’s final year in Albany, his administration hardened the financial and construction commitments at the site and set a series of dates for each of the components in the project, with the final tower set to open in 2013.

When the Spitzer administration arrived, it inherited a project whose design had been ossified in the mind of the public, and officials were reticent to make changes despite offering criticism during the gubernatorial campaign, particularly of the Freedom Tower.

Almost immediately within the administration, the timetables at the site became a point of debate among high-level officials and the governor.

Zero Hour at Ground Zero