Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Battle For Ground Zero Revisited

It's been a decade since the 9/11 attacks, and I've chronicled the recovery and rebuilding efforts every step along the way. I started writing the Battle For Ground Zero series in 2005 as the demolition and clearing of debris ended at Ground Zero and the plans for a new memorial and construction began progressing from whispers to plans to fruition. This was followed by the Rebuilding of Ground Zero series, which continues to the present as the World Trade Center is physically rising from street level. (Timeline of events)

This video shows the memorial and museum being built - it spans the period from 2004 through 2011:

The WSJ has put together an interactive feature allowing people to explore the ongoing work at Ground Zero.

Photographing the reconstruction atop the ever rising 1WTC gives a glimpse into what it is like to work on a skyscraper project that has now risen above all other skyscrapers in New York except the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, but will soon be the tallest in North America.

But to get to the point of construction today, one has to see where we were just a few years ago. It was an abject mess - and Ground Zero was barren and desolate.

Larry Silverstein, who won the right to lease out the WTC complex just weeks before the attacks, managed to rebuild 7WTC years before steel began rising from elsewhere in the WTC complex. He's still responsible for rebuilding 2, 3, and 4 WTC, but was essentially booted from building 1WTC in a Port Authority power play.

His company, Silverstein Properties, put together a slick video showing what the WTC complex will look like in just a few years - combining ongoing construction progress with proposed site designs:

Towers 2 and 3 are now peeking above ground level as the foundation and basement work is being completed. That doesn't mean that the towers will be completed as per previously acknowledged schedules, but it's a step in the right direction.

It took far too long before any actual construction took place that brought the eye above street level. The Freedom Tower (1WTC) was little more than a set of plans for years, undergoing several redesigns (and a site change for security reasons) in the process. The design now rising is not the Daniel Libeskind vision, but rather one designed by David Childs of SOM.

The Port Authority has looked awful throughout much of the rebuilding process - not just at the outset when it put forth proposed master plan designs by Beyer Blinder and Belle that were less than inspiring. It then held a design competition that received thousands of designs but in the end picked a design by Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind proposed a series of skyscrapers descending in height from 1WTC around a memorial plaza space that ultimately was designed in a separate competition won by Michael Arad. Libeskind had designs for the skyscrapers but no actual experience in designing and building skyscrapers of the size and scope necessary for Lower Manhattan. Ultimately, he was unceremoniously booted from that job and replaced by notable architects Richard Rogers (3WTC), Santiago Calatrava (designing the transit hub), Sir Norman Foster (2WTC), and Maki and Associates (4WTC). Building those towers was not a sure thing even as recently as a few years ago due to the global economic woes and concerns about office demand. Things have turned around since 2009, and the demise of the Foster skyscraper is greatly exaggerated.

The Port Authority incurred penalties for delays in turning parts of the site over to Silverstein Properties.

I'm just glad that we're still not staring at a barren pit, even as some families had proposed just that as a memorial (or relocating to the WTC site millions of tons of debris removed from Ground Zero and brought to Fresh Kills in the months following the attacks).

There was never going to be a plan that was satisfactory to all constituencies, but some designs did manage to find broad appeal, including rebuilding the Twin Towers (championed by none other than Donald Trump (and here)) bigger and up to current safety standards or Foster's Kissing Towers approach.

Yet for some, the rebuilding and the impending memorial opening isn't satisfactory. Some families continue complaining about the memorial design, including Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son Christian in the attacks.
Family member Sally Regenhard, a vocal critic of the memorial and of plans to store victims' unidentified remains in a medical examiner's office built under the plaza, said the memorial is extravagant and not what many family members wanted.

"It's just an egregious example of waste," said Regenhard, whose firefighter son, Christian, died on 9/11. "I have real concerns about the cost of maintaining this going forward, and I think it's going to be problematic."

Planners have said the memorial will cost about $60 million annually to operate. The majority of the nearly $700 million in construction costs for the memorial and an underground museum will be covered by private donations, they have said.

Regenhard said she would have preferred a "simple" tribute that displayed the image, age and other biographical information about each victim. She will attend the ceremony on Sunday, she said, but it is likely to be the last time she visits the site.
There are indeed concerns about the cost of maintaining the site going forward and no one has come up with a good plan of how to deal with it.

Proposals to impose fees are a nonstarter, but that hasn't stopped some officials proposing fees as high as $25. New York or the federal government must find the funds to maintain the museum and memorial as a free learning experience to all those that wish to visit the site.

The museum will house objects recovered from the Twin Towers, including the Survivors Staircase, tridents that comprised the exterior of the Towers, fire and police equipment, and personal effects recovered from Ground Zero.

In the end, what's important is that a memorial is now built and in time will likely rival the Vietnam Memorial in terms of emotional impact. After all, when Maya Lin's memorial design was proposed, it was widely reviled as inappropriate for the Washington Mall and to memorialize and honor those who died in the war. Organizers of that project eventually included a more traditional statue to accompany the wall in order to secure approvals, but the wall is one of the most visited sites because of its starkness and simple design - a list of names of all those killed and it evokes quite an emotional response precisely because of its simplicity.

The WTC memorial will carry through with some of the same elements - a list of names arranged across the perimeters of the waterfalls that represent the fallen towers while surrounded by a grove of trees.

That grove of trees will now be surrounded by four of the tallest skyscrapers in New York, including the tallest in North America. And I'll continue to chronicle the developments until they're completed.

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