Unknown Stories

The Port Authority’s July 2001 landmark deal privatizing the World Trade Center and its twin towers was twenty years in the making. The quest with which the governors of New York and New Jersey pursued this policy agenda foretold much about how political tensions between the two governing sides of the authority would impact the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

Unknown to most everyone but the signatories to the deal, if Larry Silverstein and his partners had waited until the last day to close on their acquisition of the World Trade Center—September 13, 2001—the story of rebuilding would have played out quite differently.

The noisy and contentious public debate about how to rebuild Ground Zero served as a means by which public officials, citizens, and the world at large came to understand the meaning of rebuilding.

By the end of 2003, Larry Silverstein’s investment partnership had recouped its equity in the deal as part of a series of buyouts of the WTC property interests of Marriott, GMAC and Westfield.

What you don’t see on the site—the centralized servicing underground—complicated rebuilding in many ways, both political and technical.

Contrary to conception, Ground Zero is being rebuilt in shorter time than what it has taken to realize other large-scale city building ventures, for example, 42nd Street/Times Square and Battery Park City.

Competition for prominence at Ground Zero surfaced as a motive for a set of activist families, who opposed any cultural activities on the site but a memorial to the fallen.

Larry Silverstein and his PR team created a public persona for the developer that constantly cast him in the most positive light and minimized focus on the underlying business side of the rebuilding story.

The celebrated but fragile 2006 deal between the Port Authority and the Silverstein partnership recast responsibilities for rebuilding and provided a path forward, yet did not solve the math of rebuilding. To facilitate the development of Silverstein’s three privately-owned office towers, the public sector later provided multiple layers of subsidy.

The PA’s efforts to comply with federal law on historic preservation—as monitored carefully by activist 9/11 family members and preservationists—challenged the agency’s execution of the underground complex but the agency worked hard to do the right thing—an achievement that is not widely understood or recognized.

In a reversal of roles, the architect of the Transportation Hub, Santiago Calatrava, gained extraordinary control of the project until a new executive director at the bi-state authority visited Calatrava at his Manhattan townhouse and told the celebrated architect that the agency would now be making whatever design decisions were necessary to deliver schedule certainty and cost containment. Even though cost escalations and constructibility problems turned the phoenix-like project into high-profile embarrassment for the legacy-proud institution that had built so much of the region’s important transportation infrastructure, the Port Authority was still locked into the complex design for the Transportation Hub.

An estimate of rebuilding’s total (undisciplined) costs: $25.5 billion.