It's time for positive action at Ground Zero


Kathryn Tully
Published on:

Exactly four years on from the September 11 attacks, there's been little construction activity to encourage banks to move back into Lower Manhattan. Goldman Sachs's decision to build a new headquarters on the site might be crucial

This month, on September 11, the world's attention will once again turn to the memorial ceremony being held at Ground Zero to mark the fourth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Once again a roll call of the names of the 2,749 victims will be delivered. This time, the brothers and sisters of those who died will be asked to read out the names of the siblings they lost.

Yet there's no formal memorial at Ground Zero for friends and relatives to visit. In fact, four years on from 9/11 there has been very little development at the site. In June, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced that two temporary memorials would be created until the permanent memorial on the site, Reflecting Absence, was finished in 2009, and already Reflecting Absence is beset by criticisms from some parties that the exhibits will be anti-American.

Apart from reading about the history of the World Trade Center on panels attached to the high wire fence around the perimeter, all visitors to the site can do is gawp into the vast basin the fence encloses where the foundations of the Twin Towers once stood. In the basin are some temporary construction site buildings and evidence of the reconstruction work that was abandoned in May, less than a year after it began, when the New York Police Department voiced concerns about the safety of the design of the new Freedom Tower intended for the site.

Four years on, the project had to go back to the drawing board once again. It meant that on June 29 the third version and second complete overhaul of the Freedom Tower's design was unveiled following architect Daniel Libeskind's presentation of his original winning conception in February 2003.

With architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill now in control, having been appointed by site developer and leaseholder Larry Silverstein, the latest design bears little resemblance to Libeskind's original plan. Now a single tower, set on a 200-foot-high cubic base built out of reinforced concrete and covered in steel and titanium for security reasons, it will contain 69 office floors. It will also be set back further on the site to avoid the threat of car bombs from the West Street highway.

Construction of the footings is not due to start until early next year and even if it is ready for tenants to move in as intended in 2010, that is still two years later than originally planned. Worse still, no tenants, other than the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the governor of New York State's office, want to move in yet.

Even the gleaming new 52-storey 7 World Trade Center, the first new building completed on the site last October, has had trouble attracting tenants. It found its first tenants in July, when American Express Financial Advisors agreed to take 20,000 square feet, but nearly 1.7 million square feet are still available.

Elsewhere around the site there has been impressive progress. The beautiful 1926 32-storey Art Deco-style Verizon building at 140 West Street was severely damaged on two sides on 9/11. The restoration of the interior and exterior, finished in 2003, has since won several awards.

On the other side of the WTC site, at 130 Liberty Street, the Deutsche Bank building has fared less well. It has stood derelict and empty since a 15-storey gash was cut in the north facade of the building on 9/11. A legal wrangle between owners Deutsche Bank and the building's insurers meant that it has still not been demolished, and even though the LMDC now owns it, no date has been set for this. In the meantime, it stands as it has done ever since the attacks, concealed under a black fabric shroud.

A more solid foundation for Ground Zero's future might be provided by Goldman Sachs which, according to a recent New York Times report, has agreed to build a $2 billion new headquarters on West Street. The firm pulled out in April because of security concerns and traffic plans. A reported $150 million of new city and state tax credits, plus $600 million of government-assisted Liberty Bonds to decrease Goldman's borrowing expense associated with the project, might have helped it to change its mind, but Goldman Sachs wouldn't comment on these plans.

If Goldman does move back into the area, it will be one of only three major investment banks, along with Merrill Lynch in the nearby World Financial Center and Deutsche Bank on Wall Street, that remain committed to the downtown area at all. All the other big banks are ensconced in mid-town.

The LMDC believes that the rebuilding of the World Trade Center will generate $15 billion in total economic output in the city and an average of 8,000 jobs each year for 13 years. Other banks will need to be convinced of the merits of moving to the site if that target is ever to be reached. Four years on, a more pressing concern at Ground Zero is to get construction of the Freedom Tower and memorial going at all. Only then will tenants and visitors alike be able to start believing in its future.