Volume 21, Number 39 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 6 - 12, 2009
Ward says no to a watchman for the Port
By Julie Shapiro
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wants an independent monitor to oversee the World Trade Center construction, but the Port Authority, which owns the site, wants to stay in charge.
Silver suggested the monitor at an Assembly hearing in Lower Manhattan last Thursday, which all the major stakeholders attended. An independent monitor would gather information from the stakeholders to determine whether the Port’s new timeline for the delay-plagued site is realistic, Silver said. The hearing also revealed communication and financial concerns that a monitor could address.
But Chris Ward, the Port’s executive director, told Silver the Port is already handling that role and adding a layer of oversight is unnecessary.
“This is probably one of the most transparent projects in the region,” said Ward, who was appointed last spring.
After Ward defended his agency, Silver asked, “Your clear answer is, you’re not interested in independent oversight?”
“That’s my clear answer,” Ward said.
Silver was not dissuaded and later suggested that the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, which undertook a study several years ago showing that the site was far behind schedule, resume its watchdog role on a more permanent basis. Bob Harvey, L.M.C.C.C.’s acting executive director, said he was amenable to taking on the job.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also wants to expand the role of the L.M.C.C.C., but in a different direction. Bloomberg wants to shutter the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and give the L.M.C.C.C., a subsidiary agency, sole responsibility for the demolition of the contaminated Deutsche Bank building. That is unlikely to happen soon, as Gov. David Paterson does not support the change and Silver strongly opposes it.
Larry Silverstein, who is building Towers 2, 3 and 4 on the site, called the independent monitor “a salutary idea.”
During the hearing, Silverstein revealed his frustration that the Port is not communicating with him about rebuilding the site, which could cause delays.
Last summer, Silverstein and the Port worked together closely, sharing information and making plans that would enable Silverstein to build his towers, Silverstein said during Thursday’s hearing.
Around Labor Day, “The meetings stopped,” Silverstein said. “And the next thing we knew is that we were no longer participants. We were being told what the delivery dates would be of the different components [of the W.T.C. site], as determined by the Port Authority without our input.”
That same lack of communication continues today, with infrequent meetings and no communication between top-level stakeholders, Silverstein said. After the Port unilaterally released the new timeline for the $10.9 billion project, Silverstein asked for the documents showing where those new dates came from. The documents, Silverstein said, have been “extremely slow in coming.”
“Every once in a while there’s a spurt of renewed activity between the staff at the Port Authority and ourselves,” Silverstein said. “But then, for some reason, things begin to decline.”
Since Silverstein does not have access to the Port’s detailed engineering information, he does not know how much stock to put in the new quarterly milestones the Port has begun to release. Ward announced earlier this month that the Port met eight of the nine milestones for the last quarter of 2008 and he set new milestones for this quarter.
“A project this size literally has thousands of milestones,” Silverstein said. “It’s terribly important to be able to get behind the information, to validate it, to understand it.”
Ward said Thursday that he would release more detail about long-term milestones for the project, rather than just releasing small-picture goals quarter by quarter. He made similar statements in an interview with Downtown Express three weeks ago.
Silver also questioned the milestones, and, in another call for an independent monitor, he asked Ward, “Who’s going to tell us those are the right milestones?”
After the hearing, Port spokesperson Candace McAdams said the Port has lots of oversight, including an integrity monitor and the Federal Transportation Administration. She also said the Port meets weekly with Silverstein Properties and biweekly with high-level Silverstein staff.
At Thursday’s hearing, Silverstein compared the intricate 16-acre site to a jigsaw puzzle and said each of his towers must fit into the pieces of infrastructure the Port Authority is constructing. The interwoven nature of the site has repeatedly caused conflicts, most notably when the Port left a wall that supports the No. 1 subway standing where a column for Silverstein’s Tower 4 needed to go — a matter that was only resolved after an arbitration that resulted in the Port resuming payment of a $300,000-a-day penalty to Silverstein.
The preparation of the sites for Towers 2, 3 and 4 was the one fourth-quarter milestone the Port missed, and Ward said Thursday it would take months to finish the work that was supposed to be done in the middle of last year.
The foundations of Towers 2 and 3 have to stay on schedule or they could delay the construction of the PATH hub, which overlaps with them. Silverstein said he has to do the foundation for Tower 2 this year and the foundation for Tower 3 next year, but he won’t have possession of the sites until the Port finishes its work.
“You can’t take it piece by piece and develop [each piece] by itself,” Silverstein said. “It’s all integrated…. Transparency here is critical because the complexities are so great.”
One piece of the 16-acre project that may not be developed all at once is the office space Silverstein is building in Towers 2 and 3. Ward told Downtown Express Jan. 13 that Silverstein may have to wait to build those towers until the economy improves.
If the towers are delayed, the sites will not sit vacant. Ward said Silverstein might build retail-filled podiums first, and then add the office space once the market improves, comments he repeated to reporters last week. Asked if retail tenants would sign leases in a podium in the midst of other construction, Ward sounded optimistic, saying Downtown is vastly underserved by retail and will have new demand in the form of the 5 million yearly visitors expected at the memorial.
Silverstein does not think the podiums will be necessary, and he committed to build the towers as soon as the Port gives him the sites. He has insurance proceeds in pocket already, which will last well into 2010. Around the end of 2010, he will go to market with his Liberty Bonds, he said, assuming the economy is stronger.
“The market will be there,” Silverstein said. “The city will need those buildings.”
Silverstein was skeptical that retailers would want to move into a podium below an unfinished tower.
“It’s almost impossible to get quality retail down below while you’re building massive towers up above,” he said. “They’re almost mutually exclusive.”
Despite concerns about communication, Silverstein and several Assemblymembers praised Ward’s leadership and his work to get the project back on track and keep it there.
“Let’s all pray you don’t get hit by a truck,” Assemblymember Richard Brodsky told Ward.
“I agree with that,” Ward replied.