Downtown Express photo (right) by Jefferson Siegel
The Port Authority, which is building the World Trade Center memorial, has done a good deal of the steel work for the reflecting pool that will be built where the north Twin Tower stood. Chris Ward, the Port’s executive director, below, promised continued construction activity. “The last thing that’s good economically and the last thing for the community is to…have it feel like some pit,” he said.
Port: Recession could change W.T.C. timeline
By Julie Shapiro and Josh Rogers
The Port Authority may try to delay the opening of some World Trade Center offices if the economy takes too long to bounce back, the agency’s leader said this week.
The best way to ensure that Towers 2 and 3 are successful may be to phase them in over time, said Chris Ward, the Port’s executive director.
“It would be naïve to think real estate can respond in the same way it was expected to respond in 2006,” Ward said in an hour-long interview with Downtown Express Tuesday. “It’s a different, different world.”
If Towers 2 and 3 do not rise over the next several years, as was expected, Ward promised that something temporary would go in their place. One possibility is to build a retail-filled podium of several stories, then add the skyscrapers when the economy improves. Another possibility is to build a platform at grade. No matter what, the sites will not remain fenced off behind barriers indefinitely.
“This will not be left a construction site,” said Ward, who took over the Port last May. “The last thing that’s good economically and the last thing for the community is to…have it feel like some pit.”
The two towers are being developed by Silverstein Properties, which signed a 99-year lease with the Port for the World Trade Center two months before 9/11. Larry Silverstein, the firm’s head, has maintained that tough economic times are the ideal time to build offices.
“By building now, even if demand for offices either Downtown or anywhere else in the city softens temporarily, we will be ready when the New York and U.S. economies rebound,” Silverstein wrote in a Downtown Express column two months ago. “And have no doubt — they will. They always do.”
Silverstein Properties declined to comment Wednesday on Ward’s remarks.
Ward said Tower 4 will be the easiest for Silverstein to build on time (2012) because it is the most economically viable — the city and the Port have already agreed to lease two-thirds of the office space from Silverstein.
Ward said he was optimistic the incoming Obama administration, which is emphasizing economic stimulus, will back extending the deadline for the tax-free Liberty Bonds beyond the end of the year. Silverstein plans to use the bonds for three W.T.C. office towers and the Port will use them for the Freedom Tower, which is under construction. The bonds will be difficult to sell if they are put on the market long before the buildings’ openings.
Ward also spoke Tuesday about the newly released quarterly milestones for the W.T.C. site. The Port met eight of its nine goals for the fourth quarter of 2008 and set nine more goals for this quarter.
The one goal the Port did not meet was to turn over the excavated sites for Towers 2, 3 and 4 to Silverstein so he can build the towers. The Port initially said in October that the sites for Towers 2 and 4 were ready, but Silverstein disputed that, and an arbitration panel ruled last month that the Port had more work to do. The largest problem was a 200-foot wall the Port left standing right where a column for Tower 4 needed to go.
Ward told Downtown Express that he knew the wall needed to come down, but he thought Silverstein had enough space to work around it and build other parts of the tower’s foundation first. He acknowledged Tuesday that the Port may have overstated its case.
“If we were overly aggressive in that assertion, it was in the sense that we were paying a lot of money in the failure to deliver [the site],” Ward said.
The Port is paying Silverstein $300,000 a day until the sites are cleared and ready for construction under an agreement renegotiated in 2006. The Port also missed another deadline at the end of the year for work on the sites for Towers 2 and 3 and has racked up $60 million worth of fines to date for missing the June and December 2008 deadlines. As a result of the arbitration, the Port and Silverstein have agreed on more detailed guidelines to determine when the sites are done.
Ward said the No. 1 lesson he learned from the arbitration was that communication is essential.
“If we’d been there earlier, better and more often, I don’t think we’d have come to this problem,” Ward said.
It’s the same lesson he’s learned with the community and the public as a whole, whether it’s about street closures or the site’s schedule and budget: The more upfront the Port can be, the better.
But no matter how candid Ward is, many New Yorkers won’t believe in progress at the site until they see it with their own eyes.
“There’s such a cynicism that’s in society right now about building,” Ward said, referring to other major construction projects as well. “That’s just bad for the city, to have the feeling we’re not really building.”
Ward expects the perception to change between the middle and end of the year, as steel for the memorial rises above street level and the Freedom Tower continues to grow. This is a critical year for the project, as work shifts from excavating behind construction barriers to pushing steel skyward, Ward said.
The quarterly milestones are part of Ward’s effort to gain the public’s trust that he will meet the revised schedule for the site, announced last fall. He hopes to add more detail to the milestones and release the goals further in advance, providing a detailed map the public can trace toward completion.
Looking ahead, Ward does not foresee any engineering or planning crises, but he said meeting the deadlines will come down to teamwork and timing — along with good weather.
“There’s no leisure to it,” Ward said. “You can’t take a week off. You can’t think about, ‘I’ll make that up later….’ Those days for this project are literally over.”
One potential source of delay is 130 Liberty St., the contaminated former Deutsche Bank building that stands right where the Vehicle Security Center will go. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. recently announced another delay of six weeks to three months on the building’s demolition, and that in turn will delay the Vehicle Security Center by the same amount of time.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done without having it completely down,” Ward said.
As construction of the Trade Center progresses, the many projects crammed onto the 16-acre site will continue coming into conflict over the limited space and resources. Ward described his priorities for the site whenever those conflicts arise, and for him, it all goes back to getting the memorial plaza open by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
Opening the memorial leads to the priority of finishing the PATH Hub and Vehicle Security Center, which will both open after the 10-year anniversary but will be important to getting people on the site. The 10-year anniversary also made the Port prioritize Greenwich St., the site’s north-south spine, which people will use to access the memorial.
After that comes the office towers: the Port’s Freedom Tower and Silverstein’s Towers 2, 3 and 4. Finally, Ward listed the site’s other projects, like Liberty Park and the performing arts center, which are not as integral to the plan.
One conflict the Port has already resolved required the redesign of the Santiago Calatrava’s PATH hub. To open the memorial on time, the Port added some columns to Calatrava’s belowground mezzanine, enabling workers to build the roof of the mezzanine first, which gives the memorial a floor. Silverstein, the city and the memorial foundation all lobbied the Port to scale back the $3.2 billion station further, but Ward said that was much more difficult than it seemed because everything is interconnected.
“You couldn’t simply say, ‘Make it smaller,’” Ward said, “because then it would have an implication for how much mechanical equipment could you put below-grade, which affected whether or not you could pump the amount of water that you need to pump to make the fountains work…. Probably a fair number of people think we didn’t do enough, but I think we struck the right balance.”
Ward is also trying to balance the community’s concerns with his goal of keeping the project on schedule. Nowhere is that clearer than Vesey St., which the Port had said might have to close between Church St. and W. Broadway for utility work.
“At some point, for hopefully a limited amount of time, it will have to close, and that’s just a fact of life,” Ward said Tuesday. He expects the closure to last less than a year.
More than 15,000 pedestrians use Vesey St. during the morning rush hour, pouring out of the temporary PATH station at Greenwich St., and Ward said he would try to minimize the impact of the closure by keeping the Vesey St. pedestrian bridge open.
The community is particularly concerned about Vesey’s closure because the Port is definitely closing Liberty St. on the south side of the site at the end of this year. Liberty St. will be closed for much longer than Vesey St., but the two closures will likely overlap.