Put the Freedom Tower on hold

If tomorrow we could open the Freedom Tower as well as a new building to replace the shrouded Deutsche Bank building haunting the World Trade Center site, we’d be years ahead of where we are now but we’d have the same problem. The site would still look like a hole in the ground.

Rebuilding Church St. is the fastest way to bring life back to the site and that must be the urgent focus rather than constructing a symbolic building on West St. that will be hard to rent and may only increase the pessimism after it opens. Construction is ready to begin on the Freedom Tower in April but finding tenants there will be hard. As one business leader told us, the building has a constituency of one: Gov. George Pataki. W.T.C. developer Larry Silverstein originally wanted to build closer to Church St. first and he was right.

We were delighted that Silverstein announced two weeks ago that Norman Foster would design Tower 2 on Church and Vesey Sts. and even happier when Lord Foster told us his first priority for the corner is to make it lively. Many of our readers still longingly recall the corner where Borders Books helped make the W.T.C. mall the country’s most profitable per square foot. Tower 2 should be easier to rent because it will be adjacent to the magnificent train station where construction began last month.

With Silverstein’s continued problems renting out 7 W.T.C. across the street in spite of generous government incentives, it is foolish to rush into building the site’s least viable building. We are well aware of the real, collective psychological harm that will be caused by delaying construction yet again, but that short-term pain is well worth it if we can rebuild viable buildings quicker.

It doesn’t matter to us whether any officials acknowledge mistakes as they shift the focus, just that they do. But mea culpas are not hard and we’ll start. Up until now, we have criticized aspects of the rebuilding plans, but have endorsed the general thrust. We should have recognized sooner the danger of beginning construction on the site’s west side.

The Port Authority, which owns the site, says that Silverstein could start building Tower 2 in 2007 and Towers 3 and 4 in the middle of 2008, when the protective “bathtub” for the Church St. buildings is complete. The Port holds out the chance of speeding up the timetable by six months. It is clear to us that both parties need more of a sense of urgency on Church St. and they should commit right now to the fastest possible timetable. The Port should have been working sooner to design and build the bathtub — which they have known for years would be necessary. The P.A., which is controlled by Pataki and the governor of New Jersey, has had the money to begin constructing the protection at least since this summer when the Federal Transit Administration authorized it.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has focused on the right issues as we prepare to build – getting as much of the construction done at the same time as possible and building buildings the marketplace will support. Most, if not all of the remaining $3.35 billion in Liberty Bonds should go to the W.T.C. but that money can be spent on hotels and retail stores in addition to offices. The P.A. should prepare the Church St. underground infrastructure, and bill back the developer later for the developer’s fair share.

As for the Freedom Tower, we are beyond symbolism, which does not translate to commercial viability.


In the hard copy edition of the editorial in this week’s Downtown Express, the Port Authority claimed that developer Larry Silverstein would be able to begin foundation work at the World Trade Center site’s Church St. lots in the spring of 2006, but the P.A. has now retracted its assertion. Steve Coleman, a P.A. spokesperson, made the original claim, but in a followup interview after press time, Coleman said he was misinformed and withdrew his previous statements.

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