Volume 18, Number 1 | MAY 27 —JUNE 2, 2005, 2005

W.T.C. should rise in the east first, Silver says

By Josh Rogers

The best way to get the World Trade Center rebuilding process back on track is to go east, says Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

With construction of the Freedom Tower now delayed to satisfy security concerns, Silver said building retail stores and offices on Church St. at the east end of the site is a higher priority.

“We bogged down on the Freedom Tower — it’s going to take an extra year or 18 months,” Silver said in a telephone interview Monday. “I think we should get things going and start at the other end of the site.”

The speaker first announced he favored speeding up the timetable on Church St. in a May 20 speech organized by the Association for a Better New York and the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association. He also called for rent subsidies for the first tenants at the W.T.C. and eliminating the commercial rent tax Downtown as part of his “Marshall Plan” for Lower Manhattan.

Two members of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. board, Madelyn Wils and Carl Weisbrod, said Silver is right to put the emphasis on Church St.

Wils said regardless of how fast Freedom Tower construction proceeds at West and Fulton Sts, the site will still seem closed “as long as Church St. is bare and empty.”

“It’s really important to get the retail up and going and at least one office [on Church St.],” said Weisbrod, who runs Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district.

The W.T.C. master site plan for Church St. calls for three office towers with 330,000 square feet of retail space although not all of the stores would be on the Church St. side.

Lynn Rasic, a spokesperson for Gov. George Pataki, who has often differed with Silver, said the governor agreed with many of the speaker’s ideas including getting retail built quickly on Church St.

According to one source, Larry Silverstein, the W.T.C. developer, is not anxious to build the Church St. buildings right away because of the costs and cash flow problems with the insurance money he is collecting for the terrorist attack. The source, who requested anonymity, has spoken with Silverstein about the idea.

Speaker Silver is also proposing a $5 per square-foot rent subsidy for the first 500,000 square feet of office space leased at 7 W.T.C., which is nearing completion across the street from the site, and the site first 750,000 square feet leased on the itself. Silverstein, who owns 7 W.T.C. and the leasing rights to the site’s offices, has agreed to match the $5 reduction.

Silver said he envisions the subsidies applying to the first four years of a 10-year lease and being paid for out of existing state and city economic development budgets. The rent break would be available to companies who moved to Lower Manhattan, Silver said.

Howard Rubenstein, spokesperson for Silverstein, released a statement praising Silver’s plan. “He is absolutely right about the need for government incentives that will encourage companies to locate their offices and employees in Lower Manhattan during this transitional period,” Rubenstein said.

David Dyssegaard Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a non-profit advocacy group said it would be a waste of public money to subsidize Silverstein since the developer is asking for too much rent. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said a few weeks ago that the reason Silverstein has no tenants yet at 7 W.T.C. is that he is asking for more than $50 per square foot when the going rate Downtown is in the 30s. Silverstein countered that Lower Manhattan offices were all built at least 20 years ago.

“There’s a fail-safe way to test whether he is asking for too much – how many tenants does he have?” Kallick said.

Bill Rudin, president of Rudin Management, a large property owner Downtown, said he didn’t think the subsidies would give Silverstein an unfair advantage, and he thought the developer was being reasonable. “What he’s asking for and what he’s taking are two different things,” Rudin told Downtown Express.

Kallick said public investment should be targeted for things that help all businesses, not just selected landlords.

“We want to create the kind of Downtown environment that attracts residents and businesses,” Kallick said. “If we have to subsidize businesses, it means we are not making Downtown into a place that we want it to be.”

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, made up of C.E.O.s from the city’s largest firms, said she would agree with that argument in almost any case except the W.T.C.

She said there are three difficult problems to overcome at ground zero: many employees would feel unsafe working there, firms don’t want to spend “a decade or two in the middle of a construction site,” and companies are concerned about the pace of the rebuilding.

Wylde said Gov. Pataki has moved well to address all three problems by naming John Cahill to oversee all Lower Manhattan initiatives, Charles Maikish to coordinate construction and James Kallstrom to handle security matters, but “the proof of their effectiveness will come two years from now and in the meantime you have large rents to be paid [by firms moving to 7 W.T.C.].”

“An investment to support launch tenants, I think is a very reasonable thing to do and is less costly than having public agencies go in as the lead tenants,” Wylde said.

International and financial industry companies had the best chance to attract high-end supporting companies such as law firms, Wylde said. She does not oppose Silver’s call for a short-term state office building at the site, but thought it would not be as beneficial as enticing private firms.

In his speech, Silver said Downtown has 67,000 fewer jobs since 9/11 and that hurts small and large businesses. “That’s 67,000 diners not dining in our restaurants,” he said at Cipriani Wall Street, the site of Pataki’s Lower Manhattan speech a week earlier. “That’s 67,000 shoppers not shopping in our retail outlets….”

He recalled that as a freshman Assemblymember in the ’70s his office was in the Twin Towers and he proposed moving state offices there at least for a few years. He said he would move the speaker’s office to the site and said the governor, comptroller and the Empire State Development Corporation could all move their offices from Midtown. Pataki has already pledged to move his city office into the Freedom Tower.

Silver praised the governor’s May 12 announcement that the L.M.D.C. would provide the last $15 million the Borough of Manhattan Community College needed to demolish Fiterman Hall, which was badly damaged on 9/11 when 7 W.T.C. collapsed. In interviews with Downtown Express one week ago, officials with the City University of New York and the state’s Dormitory Authority, which will oversee the project, did not commit to Pataki’s timetable of beginning demolition this October. Silver said after the governor’s announcement, he met with CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who agreed to begin demolition in October, finish in May 2006 and complete a new school building in May 2008.

“I told them it’s unacceptable,” Silver said of his message to CUNY. “They have to speed up the timetable. Larry Silverstein is having trouble renting 7 World Trade Center because of this blight in the neighborhood.”

Michael Arena, CUNY spokesperson, did not dispute Silver’s characterization of the meeting and confirmed the school hopes to begin demolition in October.

Josh@DowntownExpress.com

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