Volume 20 Issue 3 | June 1 -7, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

David Emil, the L.M.D.C.’s new president, said “some begging” may be involved in making sure the W.T.C. master plan is developed appropriately.

New rebuilding leader draws on old B.P.C. record for guidance

By Skye H. McFarlane

Just a few months ago, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s monthly public meetings featured more empty chairs than eager listeners. With the agency going out of business, more board members stopped attending, choosing instead to phone in to the 8 a.m. gatherings.

The L.M.D.C. was back in full force May 18, however, as the agency’s board and staffers squeezed around the meeting room table at 1 Liberty Plaza. Despite a cold rain outside, residents, reporters and government aides filled the room to watch the agency confirm its new president and begin its revived mission of overseeing Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment.

Those in attendance also had the opportunity to hear from the L.M.D.C.’s new leaders, chairperson Avi Schick and president David Emil. Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced the appointment of Schick and Emil to their new posts back in April, a few days after saying the once-moribund L.M.D.C. would be staying in operation throughout the World Trade Center rebuilding process.

Though Schick has been making the rounds Downtown for a while in his role as the president of the Empire State Development Corporation, some mystery had surrounded Emil’s hiring. Most recently known as the owner of the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center, Emil, 56, had stayed largely mum on his new job. Some longtime members of the Downtown community voiced concerns over the appointment back in April, citing Emil’s somewhat contentious relationship with Community Board 1 during his days as the president of the Battery Park City Authority from 1988 to 1994, under Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In an interview Friday after the meeting, Emil smiled when asked about the reported battles back at the authority.

“Please don’t believe everything you read in the old clips,” he said, adding that his experience as president of the authority taught him how important it was to have “a close relationship” with the community board.

With that close relationship in mind, Emil reached out to Community Board 1 chairperson Julie Menin shortly after his appointment. He has also offered to have a meet-and-greet with the full board. Both Menin and Emil called their initial tete-a-tete very productive.

“I found him to be very receptive to the community’s concerns,” Menin said last week. “We’re definitely starting off in a positive vein and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.”

Menin said she will continue to push for a C.B. 1 seat on the development corporation’s board. She also wants the community to have an active voice in selecting retailers for the World Trade Center site, so that residents can be sure that the new stores will serve their needs as well as those of tourists and office workers. As for the role of the revived rebuilding agency, Menin said she hopes that the L.M.D.C. will help to bring the Performing Arts Center project to the front burner.

The city took over the planning of the PAC last year and announced a few weeks ago that it would be redesigning the center to make it smaller and less expensive. The L.M.D.C. has hinted that once the city is done with its current eight-week planning process, the state will begin to take a more active role in the project.

At the May 18 meeting, Emil said that the L.M.D.C. was working with the city and the Port Authority to explore the options for the PAC with regards to the “realities of construction” on the site. Because of construction on the PATH terminal, a vehicle security facility and staging for the Freedom Tower, authorities have said that they cannot begin building the PAC until at least 2011. However, the city must produce basic engineering plans soon so that the Port can build the PAC’s substructure.

The L.M.D.C. is a state-city authority created at the end of 2001, but it is a subsidiary of a state agency, E.S.D.C., and the governor has always had more control than City Hall.

Emil, after working at the old World Trade towers and losing many friends and employees on 9/11, is deeply attached to the W.T.C. site. Yet he never expected to be working at the site again so soon. In the aftermath of 9/11, Emil was lauded for his efforts to find jobs and other assistance for his former Windows’ employees. Since then he has had his hand in a number of restaurant ventures in the New York metro area, including the Latin lounge Noche in Times Square and the Shore House Tavern in Stamford, Conn.

The offer to head the rebuilding agency, he said, came “out of the blue.” As an ardent supporter of then-Attorney General Spitzer, Emil sent the new governor a note of congratulations following his election last fall. Within the note was an offer to help out if Spitzer ever needed assistance in Lower Manhattan.

Spitzer sent back a polite thank you note and that, it seemed, was the end of that. But then in March Emil got a call from Schick, who wondered if Emil’s offer to help was still valid. Schick asked Emil to consider the L.M.D.C. president’s post. Impressed by Schick and honored by the offer, Emil decided to accept.

“He’s a tremendously smart and dedicated public servant. He comes from the ‘let’s do this together’ school of thought,” Emil said of Schick. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think highly of him.”

Since the state announced the L.M.D.C. would be staying in business, the most frequently mentioned reasons for the revival have been the desire to give the Spitzer administration a voice in the rebuilding process and the need to oversee the millions of dollars in federal funding that the agency has distributed — and will distribute — to Downtown community groups and development projects.

While Emil agrees with those reasons, he also believes that as a development agency, the L.M.D.C. has a duty to make sure the World Trade Center master plan comes to fruition. When Gov. George Pataki announced last summer that the L.M.D.C. would be going out of business, he said the agency’s job of planning W.T.C. redevelopment was largely complete. Emil argued May 18 that planning is only half the battle.

“The job is not done with the planning,” Emil said. “You need to follow through — all the way through.”

To support his point, Emil spoke of his old stomping ground in Battery Park City. He pointed out that while the neighborhood’s master plan was finalized years ago, the Battery Park City Authority has stayed in place to ensure that the plan gets implemented properly and adjusted where need be. He believes that the L.M.D.C. can play a powerful role as an inter-agency manager, helping the reconstruction projects to proceed as efficiently as possible. Though he said a “long perspective” is needed in planning Lower Manhattan’s future, Emil believes that the L.M.D.C. now has an opportunity to step in and focus on the details of the plan’s execution.

As for his own role within the jigsaw puzzle of public agencies and authorities Downtown, Emil sees himself working together with other officials as well as stakeholders in the community.

“It’s a complex intergovernmental relations post,” Emil said. “There may be some cajoling or some begging involved, but I think we can really make this a beautiful project.”

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