America's phoenix

Despite numerous stumbling blocks and political wranglings, building at ground zero is finally being realized.

ny skyline 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
ny skyline 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
September 11, 2001 shook the consciousness of the civilized world. Yet out of the rubble and raw anguish emerged an unprecedented opportunity to redefine the urban landscape for one of the world's premier cities. After terrorists struck a devastating blow to an iconic American landmark, patriotic fervor, tempered by grief, catalyzed national unity. Politicians pledged bigger and better. A revitalized World Trade Center would be America's phoenix. Ultimately, democratic and capitalist ideals would carry the day while victims would be memorialized in perpetuity. No one thought replacing America's second tallest buildings would be easy. Although the goals were noble, the realities of rebuilding have been an uphill fight pitting politicians, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and developer Larry Silverstein one against the other while the media and public are never shy about weighing in. Acrimony has time and again stalled the process while construction workers wait for the political storm to clear. Issues appear, disappear, and reappear over control, funding, design, and security. The land encompasses just 16 acres (6.5 hectares), but the stakes for this prime real estate are enormous. 7 WTC: Last to Fall, First to Rise The cratered scar of ground zero is now healing with the recent resurrection of 7 World Trade Center. Rising 52 stories (750 feet), 7 WTC opened on May 23, 2006 to fanfare as America's safest and New York City's greenest skyscraper. Success didn't come cheaply. Seven's $700 million price tag is more than double that of its predecessor. Seven's modern design, eco-friendliness, and advanced safety features are a harbinger for the rest of the Trade Center. The third and final building to collapse on 9/11, "7 World Trade Center is the first and only building to be rebuilt at the site," said Janno Lieber, WTC project director for Silverstein Properties, a New York City-based real estate development firm. "The opening of the building was a tremendous sign of what Silverstein Properties can do with the cooperation of government," Lieber said. The interplay of light is a key element throughout the design. A glassy exterior dramatically mirrors prevailing weather conditions. Inside, 10-foot floor-to-ceiling windows and column-free space create an airy feeling often absent from high-rise offices. Once natural light fades, the building continues to shine. Pedestrian movement outside activates video cameras that project beams of colored lights through vertical slats in the base, which in turn, reflect off the stainless steel. Famous quotations about New York City scroll luminously behind the lobby's reception desk, repeating every 36 hours. Artist Jenny Holzer's installation isn't just poetic; it's protective, as the laminated display wall doubles as a blast shield. Safety features are so progressive that they're expected to become standard code for future skyscrapers. The building's glass, stainless steel, and cement base is blast resistant. A concrete core - rather than the exterior walls of the felled towers - supports the building. This dense core is two feet thick, and surrounds the lobby, elevators, and stairwells. Emergency stairs are 20 percent wider than required to facilitate evacuation and rescue response. The threat of fire that consumed the original building has been eliminated with fireproofing 10 times more adhesive and twice as thick as current codes mandate. Sustainability also factored into the design. Windows are coated to reflect heat, and daylight dimming controls conserve energy. The plumbing system reduces water consumption by 30%. Rainwater from the roof flushes toilets and feeds the cooling system. It also irrigates an adjacent park showcasing a Jeff Koons sculpture and set with azaleas and sweet gum trees that change color as the seasons cycle. Freedom from Factions It's no coincidence that 7 WTC is fully functional before aboveground construction began on the Freedom Tower (a.k.a. Tower 1). The reason lies in the lease, which Silverstein purchased in 1980 from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a quasi-governmental body responsible for the city's bridges, tunnels, and airports. Despite its name, 7 WTC was not part of the World Trade Center complex. Instead, it stood across the street from the site's northern end. As a result, the property was never caught up in the infighting that has stymied development on the adjacent site. The Los Angeles Times called 7 WTC "Lower Manhattan's real freedom tower: a skyscraper free from bureaucratic wrangling, at least by New York City standards, and all the more successful for it." The combination of hallowed ground and prime real estate has activated a mix of competing factions. While each attempts to advance its agenda, it also requires the cooperation of power-centric rivals to get anything done. The private and public sector have clashed over control and financing, most notably developer Silverstein with the Port Authority. Silverstein has found himself both vilified and vaunted in local editorials titled "Greed vs. Good at Ground Zero" (The New York Times), "Get Lost, Larry" (Daily News), and "Larry Silverstein, Patriot" (New York Post). "I am committed to rebuilding the World Trade Center, and it is a pledge I aim to keep," said President and CEO Larry Silverstein. Meanwhile, New York's Governor George Pataki - eyeing a bid for the next Republican presidential nomination - has also attacked Silverstein, once saying the developer "has betrayed the public's trust and that of all New Yorkers" for placing profit before public interest. Ground zero is political capital, and its success is crucial to the Governor's chances in 2008. Other contending voices include Mayor Michael Bloomberg, families of victims, the city's police and fire departments, and health authorities. Pataki spokesperson Joanna Rose acknowledged this diverse group and "unprecedented public participation" as factors affecting the race to rebuild. Spokesman for the Port Authority Steve Coleman agreed: "Throughout the past five years, we have heard from hundreds of people - from residents to business owners to victims' family members to average citizens around the country - who all have an opinion about what should be built on the site. "If there has been any obstacle, it has been the extensive public process that was followed to allow all stakeholders to have a say in what happens with the site," he said. Silverstein also recognized the significance of the construction's legacy. "We must rebuild today so that generations to come can see how we responded to this challenge," he said. "We want them to be proud and say 'they did their very best.'" Sixteen Contentious Acres Control over the Trade Center site was presumably settled six weeks before 9/11. That's when Silverstein scored the biggest real estate transaction in city history: a $3.2 billion, 99-year lease for America's most famous twins. As the lessor, the Port Authority retained rights to the land over which they soared. Within weeks Silverstein's investment was leveled to zero - ground zero, which became the final resting place for more than 2,700 victims. The charred land remained vested with the Port Authority, who continued to collect Silverstein's $10 million rent check each month. Did Silverstein have the right to rebuild? Would insurance cover his losses? Lawyers rolled up their sleeves. A scramble to influence the site's fate began with the rubble still smoldering. Silverstein called for immediate rebuilding as a moral and contractual obligation, but the public and press viewed the timing as insensitive. "This is an intensely personal endeavor for me," Silverstein said. "I recall those who we lost on that day, as do so many of us. And I believe our best response is to honor the past, seize the present, and believe in the future." Outgoing mayor Rudolph Giuliani advocated that the entire site forever be left as a memorial, as did some families of the victims. As a compromise, a "Reflecting Absence" memorial will feature two sunken pools in the square footprints of the towers. Israeli-born architect Michael Arad's design was selected from 5,200 competitors, but ballooning costs and disputes over how and where to list the names of victims have impeded a final design. "Overall, I think most of the challenges speak to the unprecedented nature of what we are trying to accomplish," Lieber said. "This is un-chartered territory for everyone involved." Freedom Tower, Take Two The Freedom Tower has grabbed center stage in the ground zero saga. Silverstein chose David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, as its architect for the Freedom Tower. Other SOM credits include 7 WTC, the new terminal at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and America's tallest building (the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago), a superlative the Freedom Tower will inherit upon its completion. Daniel Libeskind, the site's master planner, fumed. Egos flared, and Libeskind litigated. The conflict was settled leaving Childs as architect, and Libeskind as master planner. Although the cornerstone was ceremonially laid on July 4, 2004 to coincide with US Independence Day, construction only started this past April - all of it in the pit. Steel won't rise much above ground until 2008. That's because Child's first effort required redesign. Even the cornerstone had to be quietly uprooted. Just prior to ordering foundation steel in April 2004, police concerns over the building's vulnerability to a truck bomb triggered a complete makeover. The plan for the Freedom Tower at ground zero was sent back to square one. "A Torch of Freedom" The Freedom Tower will exceed even 7 WTC's cutting-edge safety features. An office high-rise will be fortified to the same standards as a US embassy. A leading Israeli architectural-engineering firm specializing in protective structures has also been consulted. The stairs, elevators, and communication and sprinkler systems in the building's core are ringed by three feet of concrete. A separate stairwell exists exclusively for firefighters. The building's concrete and steel base is 20 stories, and to satisfy police demands is set back from the road 90 feet instead of the original 25. Nonetheless, the cubic base has inviting entrances on all four sides while underground plans call for extensive retail space and access to public transportation. Three layers of laminated, shatterproof glass serve as prismatic wallpaper to dress the rock-solid base behind it. In the event of a blast, windows would crack like automobile glass, neither shattering onto the street nor blowing back inside. As with 7 WTC, the effect of light striking the edifice will be dazzling. This is the first skyscraper to be surrounded in a continuous wall of glass. Each 13-foot glass panel will cover the window and the spaces around it for a seamless effect so stunning that a two-story mock-up is being studied to make sure the sparkle doesn't temporarily blind pedestrians and motorists. As the tower rises 77 stories, its square edges are beveled back to create elongated triangular patterns on the fa ade. A restaurant and observation deck are slated for the top like in the original towers. A crowning white spire housing TV broadcast antenna will elevate the building to 1,776 feet (541 meters), symbolic of the year America declared independence. At night, a "torch of freedom," as Governor Pataki called it, will emit diodes and floodlights like an urban lighthouse, echoing the flame of the nearby Statue of Liberty. This breathtaking display should illuminate the sky above New York by 2011. Towers Two, Three, and Four Unveiled Coinciding with the fifth anniversary, designs for three smaller towers will be revealed. Silverstein selected a world-renowned architect to design each building. Lord Norman Foster is the architect for Two. Foster & Partners also designed Jerusalem's Sackler Galleries in 1988. Londoner Richard Rogers, who collaborated on the Pompidou Center in Paris, was tapped for Tower Three while Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki is responsible for Four. Ensuring that diverse styles complement rather than compete is essential. Coordinating the three design teams is the job of Silverstein project executive Mickey Kupperman. "I'm the orchestrator seeing to it that the effort is more of a symphony than a rock concert," he said, noting that shared task force space in 7 WTC aids communication and cooperation among the teams. As for these new plans, Kupperman said, "They were designed by three wonderful architects who respect the work of their colleagues and understand the site and the neighborhood. It's not surprising that there are three different buildings that work extraordinarily well together." Construction, slated for July, should be completed in 2012. The towers, memorial, performing arts center, and transportation hub that round out the Trade Center vision could cost $16 billion, or $1 billion per acre, an astounding sum even in a city synonymous with expensive. For perspective, Israel's military expenditures last year were about $9.45 billion. Looking ahead to the 10th anniversary, Silverstein said, "I am confident that the site will be almost fully realized and that New Yorkers - as well as the rest of the world - will be amazed by how stunning it will look and what a fitting tribute it will be." Ever Upward In the meantime, stumbling blocks persist, but progress is being made. According to Coleman, construction began on the WTC transportation hub in September 2005. Construction began on the Freedom Tower in April 2006 and on the memorial in August 2006. "We are seeing tremendous progress this summer and all of these projects are moving ahead on schedule," Coleman said. A Luxembourg foundry has already manufactured steel beams for the Freedom Tower to arrive on site by year's end. September 7th's unveiling of three additional towers marks a seminal step forward. "September 11 was an attack on democracy, and the [Pataki] administration deeply believed that the rebuilding had to occur through a democratic process," Rose said. "There will always be critics who say it was too fast or too slow, but we have always felt it was more important to get it right."