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Last week, the Downtown Express sat down with Janno Lieber, president of World Trade Center Properties, an affiliate of Silverstein Properties, to discuss the construction progress and leasing prospects of W.T.C. 2, 3, and 4; developer Larry Silverstein’s hiring of a co-chief executive officer; and other aspects of the W.T.C. redevelopment project.
BY Aline Reynolds
DE: How long have you been with Silverstein Properties? What is your role in supervising the rebuilding of the W.T.C.?
I’ve been working here since 2003. I do a little bit of everything: I work on W.T.C. business matters, as well as environmental, legal, public affairs and leasing issues. I also deal with stakeholder-related design and construction issues, which is like being a U.N. diplomat. We don’t have a lot of controversies right at this moment, though, so I actually got to go to my 11-year-old daughter’s basketball game for the first time this week!
According to previous announcements by Silverstein Properties, 4 W.T.C. is scheduled to open in 2013; and 2 and 3 W.T.C. are to be completed by 2015. Are you on schedule with all three towers?
Four W.T.C. will be completed by 2013. Three W.T.C. should be up by 2015; although; we do have one milestone to hit: We need to get a 400,000-square-foot tenant in order to get a financing backstop that makes sure we will complete that building. So, that’s a question mark, and it’s a major priority of Silverstein Properties. Two W.T.C. will be brought to sidewalk level in 2012, but the final completion is uncertain. It’s not getting any government credit backstop; so right now, we need a tenant or a new financing scheme. We’re very hopeful that some big company will want to occupy it, but that could happen in 2016 or later.
What was it like prior to Silverstein Properties’ 2010 W.T.C. deal with the Port Authority? How has the deal affected progress at the site?
Before we got the 2010 deal done, there were about five years when a lot of people were grinding their teeth and, in effect, second-guessing Daniel Libeskind’s W.T.C. master plan. They were always ready to reopen issues and start all over again. In the meantime, some people who understood the city, understood that Lower Manhattan was organically turning into a world-class residential neighborhood: That the vision of a mixed-use Downtown was being achieved, but that the commercial office redevelopment needed a push in order for Downtown to reemerge as a world class business center. The fact that the deal got done — and that there’s now an alignment between government and the private sector to get the project completed — created momentum in itself. And we got the financing done for Tower 4, which created an additional level of certainty, momentum and progress. Then, we actually have the physical manifestations — visible skyscrapers. So all of these things together have dramatically improved both the perception and the reality of the site.
Are you fearful of a double-dip recession?
I’m always worried about the city’s economy as it impacts near-term on our business. But I’m long-run optimistic about the city: it’s definitely not the easiest place to do business in some respects, but I think it’s still where businesses want to be, for all the right reasons.
Are there any leasing prospects at the moment for 3 W.T.C.?
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest anything is imminent, but we’re very optimistic, as there are real tenants out there who would satisfy the 400,000 square feet pre-leasing agreement.
What about 2 W.T.C.?
There are a few big companies — “mega” tenants, if you will — that are in the marketplace. That’s as much as I’ll say at the moment. If and when a deal is happening, I’m sure you’ll be on to it.
Could a delay in the completion of W.T.C. 3 and 2 disrupt future connectivity at the site?
No. Below-grade connectivity will be maintained, since the underground retail will be open through the concourses. The retail above-grade comes on line as each of the buildings are finished.
So, why did Larry appoint a co-C.E.O.? Is he starting to scale back his work schedule?
No: Larry is working his tail off. He’s [still] very, very present, he’s just taking a very responsible approach to planning for the future of the company, which recently doubled its staff, let stand growing geographically and in its breadth of projects. If you’re going to continue to grow and expand, you need to raise more capital as well. That was something that Larry always did personally, and now he’s got a great, new, young partner to help him with that.
Describe your rapport with Patrick Foye, the Port Authority’s new executive director.
We have a very good and highly functioning relationship. Pat was my contact person in the Governor’s office on some of the Port Authority-related issues; he was a problem solver during the complicated financing of Tower 4. Is the Port Authority a hugely complicated beast to run, and are different things pulling him in different directions? Absolutely: I don’t know how any particular issue is going to be resolved. All I know is that Pat Foye is a very smart guy and has real confidence from Governor Cuomo.
Do you hope to see the Performing Arts Center come to fruition?
Absolutely. We cannot forget that the P.A.C. was a central aspect of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the W.T.C. site. Larry ceded some of the site back to the public sector so it could be built. Think about it: You’ve got Tower 1 and Tower 2, both big buildings. What should be between them? Well, there ought to be what was conceived of in the original plan, which is a low-lying building of some kind that introduces some public activity and that is going to add a dimension of excitement and interest to the whole neighborhood. We still think it’s the right thing to do, and we’re certainly supporting the mayor, the governor and others who are puzzling through how to get it done.