x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Twin towers' replacement struggles to rise from the ashes

Squabbling over design and funding delays $3.2bn project in New York.

NEW YORK // The gaping hole where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand in downtown Manhattan before September 11 often attracts as many tourists as Times Square. Visitors include parties of school students who go to pay homage at the site, where almost 3,000 people died. Many people also wonder why there are no completed buildings at the site, which remains a chaotic jumble of cranes and lorries more than seven years later.

"For all the talk of standing up to terrorists, memorials and new buildings rising up out of the ashes, it's just politics as usual," said Christine, a native New Yorker, who lost a friend in the attacks. Even before the recession hit the city, development at the 6.5-hectare site was held up by acrimonious and unseemly squabbling between politicians and developers. In the latest twist, a row over funding threatens to reduce planned new towers to mere stumps.

The delays were "an embarrassment to our city, our state and to the nation", Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York state assembly, said on Friday. "For whatever reason, the dynamic has broken down again. We cannot afford to halt negotiations, to continuously alter and re-alter our plans." Not unsurprisingly, the city's lively tabloid press is all over the saga. A recent New York Post editorial came out in a rare show of support for the state speaker, saying: "Way to go, Shelly Silver".

"The fact that the project has faltered yet again is an infamy," the editorial said. "It is not only New York that is shamed by this; the nation stands humiliated before the world. A heroic response to Islamic terror? A show of strength and resilience? Forget that." The dispute pits Larry Silverstein, a property magnate, against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a financially self-supporting public agency that owns the trade centre site. Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor, has stepped in to act as broker and invited all the parties to a summit to be held soon at Gracie Mansion.

Mr Silverstein has the rights to build three office towers. The Port Authority is building a transport terminal, a 540m tower and has the rights to build a fifth tower, at a cost of US$3.2 billion (Dh11.7bn). Mr Silverstein has now asked the Port Authority to back financing for all three of his towers, but the agency has agreed to back only one amid a faltering real estate market. He is reported to be down to the last $1bn of the $4.5bn he received in insurance after the towers' destruction.

"The port authority must be realistic about putting its limited public resources towards the most public benefit, which means keeping the memorial and the public transport projects moving forward, and building the office and retail developments to meet the market," said Stephen Sigmund, a Port Authority spokesman. However, the Port Authority has itself received flak over the lavishly designed transport centre and the office tower, whose original moniker "Freedom Tower" has been dropped in favour of the more neutral "One World Trade Centre". It has promised to open the tower in 2013 and the transport terminal in 2014. It hoped to open most of the memorial in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

A revised design for the transport terminal by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect, was unveiled last week. It was slammed by Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times's architecture critic, as a white elephant that was far too extravagant for the limited number of passengers it would serve. He said the building's design, including a soaring glass and steel dome, embodied the "toxic climate" of the immediate aftermath of September 11. "While the city grieved, politicians were vowing to rebuild as fast as possible, as if that would somehow accelerate the healing process," he wrote.

"Practical considerations were set aside. Jingoism ruled. Egotism dominated over softer, gentler voices." The plan for the original "Freedom Tower" was unveiled in 2003 by George Pataki, the New York state governor at the time. He promised completion of the structure by the fifth anniversary of September 11 and occupancy by the 10th anniversary. Mr Silverstein disputed the site's plans. Later on, architects were forced back to the drawing board after the New York Police Department said the tower would be vulnerable to a lorry bomb because it was too close to a main street.

The change in name to the legal address of "One World Trade Centre" came this year because the port authority hoped it would make it easier to market the building to prospective tenants, who might have been put off by the site's memories as well as fears of another attack. "I'd be honoured to work in that building," Mr Pataki said then. "Are we going to think small and build small because we were attacked? Freedom is why we were attacked.

sdevi@thenational.ae