Volume 19 Issue 53 | May 18 -24, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Construction activity at the W.T.C.

Look out below! Billions worth of building down at the W.T.C.

By Josh Rogers

Anthony Shorris pulls out a picture of the barren World Trade Center site from January 2006 as he raises his voice to talk over the noise created by the cranes and other equipment now working on the entire 16-acre sunken area.

“This is why people believed that nothing was happening,” Shorris, the Port Authority’s new executive director, said as he pointed to the picture. Now there’s about 500 people working on what is becoming an increasingly busy and crowded site. Shorris and Steve Plate, the Port’s director of W.T.C. construction, revealed two new details about the site’s plans during a tour they gave to Downtown Express last Thursday:

• If JPMorgan Chase makes a deal to build headquarters with large trading floors cantilevered over Liberty St. at the Tower 5 site, the extension will not cast any additional shadows on the small park planned for the southwest corner of the site.

• Only part of the memorial plaza will open in September 2009, the targeted completion date for the entire memorial.

“A portion of the plaza will open in 2009,” Plate said. “The museum will be a year or two after that.”

Plate said officials haven’t decided precisely where and how big the initial plaza area will be, and whether or not any of the plaza trees will be planted by 2009. The phased opening could relieve one looming problem in the current plans – finding a place for tour buses to park during the memorial’s first two years when the largest crowds, an estimated 7 million a year, will visit.

An underground garage is planned near the Tower 5 site, but construction on that can’t begin until the gradual dismantling of the former Deutsche Building is completed, perhaps by the end of this year.

Plate said the so-called bus gap problem contributed to the delay decision but it was not the only factor — it is also difficult to coordinate the opening of different components of the project, he said. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, is responsible for the construction of the memorial, train station and slurry walls needed to build the office towers. It will take control of the Freedom Tower after W.T.C. developer Larry Silverstein completes it at the end of 2011, under the current schedule.

Given the history of W.T.C. redevelopment, officials continue to be sensitive about acknowledging delays. The Port let Plate’s comments about the memorial stand for five days, until Downtown Express asked the W.T.C. Memorial Foundation for a comment about them. Within hours of the call, Steve Coleman, a Port spokesperson, contradicted Plate, the agency’s construction director, and said the entire memorial — the plaza, trees and the sunken reflecting pools at the footprints of the Twin Towers — would be completed in 2009. Coleman agreed the underground memorial museum will be finished a year or two later.

The foundation is a private organization whose chairperson is Mayor Mike Bloomberg. It is close to meeting its $350 million fundraising goal to help finish construction of the memorial, which it will run.

Officials also have not given up on solving the bus parking problem before the garage is built. Memorial Foundation staffers told Community Board 1 they have formed a committee with the Port, Silverstein, and the city Dept. of Transportation to look for a solution. The foundation also said the garage will not be finished until 2012, but the Port says it remains on schedule for an opening early in 2011.

Construction costs

Plate and Shorris said even with skyrocketing construction costs, they have so far managed to stay within the memorial’s budget but they added it was a fragile position since only 20 percent of the project has been contracted out.

“It’s not like nobody thought of inflation,” Plate said. Frank Sciame, a construction analyst who was recruited by the mayor and Gov. George Pataki to find cost savings in the memorial, was able to cut $285 million last year with only modest changes to the design, bringing the total price tag to $768 million. Sciame built in the rising costs as part of his estimate. In addition, the Port and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. have set aside $90 million to cover cost overruns.

The Port’s leaders said buying steel and concrete has become like buying in a commodities market, and a nationwide construction slowdown does not help prices because they are competing with China and the rest of the world for materials.

Construction contracts for the Freedom Tower, which the Port is paying Silverstein to build, are about 50 percent completed so it is safer from cost overruns than the memorial. More and more steel is rising from the ground on the 1,776-foot tower, expected to become the world’s tallest building.

Shorris said progress on the site is exactly where it should be, but there are three steps needed before the reality reaches the public. The first has been taken — getting actual work underway. The second will come shortly — having cranes below street level — visible to passersby. The third should come next year when much of the site will be built up to street level and people can monitor the work themselves.

The Port is a bi-state agency created by Congress and is also responsible for the PATH commuter lines and many of the region’s tunnels and bridges. When Shorris was asked how much of his time he is spending on the W.T.C., he quickly said “ a lot,” before mentioning the man who hired him a few months ago to run the Port, Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

“There’s $16 billion worth of construction on 16 acres and we have a lot of emotional ties because we lost so many people…,” he said referring to the 84 Port employees killed on Sept. 11, 2001. “The governor asks about it constantly. Eliot’s been on the site a few times.”
By tradition, the New Jersey governor selects the Port’s chairperson and the New York governor picks the executive director.

Last year, the Port and city were concerned that Silverstein did not have the money to build the entire site and the agency renegotiated its long-term lease with the developer. Silverstein agreed to give up control of the two least valuable parcels — the Freedom Tower site and Tower 5 — some of the insurance money, and some of the tax-free Liberty Bonds, in exchange for retaining the rights to the three office sites and retail space on Church St. The Port is building the eastern “bathtub” slurry wall and must have the Tower 3 and 4 sites ready for Silverstein by Jan. 1, or pay him $300,000 a day while it finishes up.

Shorris said they are on track to have the sites ready right on time, which means one setback could trigger expensive fines. “That’s what we lose a lot of sleep over — delivering the site on time,” he said.

Taking pictures of the site remains a popular tourist activity.

Chasing Chase

Shorris said he hopes JPMorgan Chase makes a deal to move Downtown to the Tower 5 site, but he has made it clear to their executives that they can’t let the cantilevered trading floor affect the planned park on Liberty St. He said he understands the concerns of residents, since his son plays Little League near the site. His message to Chase: “Don’t mess up the park and reduce the square footage.”

Plate said the extended trading floor will not increase the shadows in the park. “We did shadow studies and it’s the same before or after,” he said. The park will have shadows though, from the buildings near it.

Julie Menin, C.B. 1’s chairperson, met recently with Shorris and said she was impressed with his level of concern for residents. “There’s so much more outreach to the community board,” she said. Menin, also a member of the Memorial Foundation’s board, said she had not heard of a possible phased opening of the memorial and declined to comment on Plate’s assessment.

The Chase floor would hang over a planned new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, although praying in shadows will be nothing new for the congregation whose church was dwarfed by the Twin Towers before it was destroyed on 9/11. Father Alex Karloutsos, a spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox church, said the church will not comment before there is a deal.

Stairway surrounded

When Downtown Express last visited the site in August, the 175-ton “Survivors’ Stairway” sat alone in open space. Last week, it was surrounded by equipment. Plate said there are three or four different construction projects within 10 feet of the stairs. He didn’t say it was slowing down the work but did say “we need to get it out of the way.”

The stairs once led from the W.T.C. plaza to Vesey St. and some survivors ran down them to escape the trade center complex on Sept. 11. The L.M.D.C. had proposed breaking up the stairs to save a remnant for the memorial museum and incorporate a piece in the Tower 2 entrance. Gov. Spitzer objected to the L.M.D.C. plan and his Empire State Development Corp. has been searching for a site to store the stairs intact.

Stairway proponents argue that since it is the only public W.T.C. remnant that is still on the site and was the last leg of survivors’ run to safety, it should be preserved entirely. Opponents counter that just the cost of moving it intact from and then back to the site would be over $2 million and that displaying it on the memorial plaza would create the mistaken impression that it was damaged by the collapsing towers. The stairs were damaged during the cleanup of the site.

Errol Cockfield, a spokesperson for Empire State, said the agency is moving quickly toward a decision but he did not know if it would be made in a matter of weeks. He did not comment on whether Battery Park City’s Site 2B, which residents hope will be the site of a new school, is under consideration to store the stairs.

Sayar Lonial, a senior aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson, told C.B. 1 members Tuesday that “it sounds like they will be putting the stairs on Site 2B.” He said E.S.D.C. has given assurances the stairway won’t remain on the site long enough to interfere with school construction. Lonial said he’s inclined to believe the promise because unlike the Pataki administration, Spitzer’s aides “don’t just say things to make us happy.”

Gerson and Spitzer are Democrats and Pataki is a Republican.

Train station

The temporary PATH commuter station will remain open at the W.T.C. while contractors continue to build the $2 billion commuter-subway station designed by the “poet of train stations,” Santiago Calatrava. Keeping it open during construction will require two more temporary entrances before the station opens at the end of 2009.

Next month, the Port’s contractors will demolish the station’s overhang awning entrance and recycle the valuable materials, which will help defray the project’s costs. The new entrance will move about 50 feet to the south and will stay there until December when the third temporary entrance will be built on Vesey St., on a site that is slated to get an arts center.

Is the June move the big thing Plate’s focused on now?

“There are a gazillion ‘big things,’” he said. “That’s the technical name.”

With reporting by Skye H. McFarlane

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