Rebuilding Ground Zero was fraught with strategic consequence, for the city of New York and for the nation. Just as the original World Trade Center complex represented the culmination of a decades-long series of efforts aimed at revitalizing the city’s founding center of business, forty years later rebuilding those sixteen acres reprised history—with new meaning, in a new century, in a new geopolitical context brought forth by 9/11.
The destruction of the massive complex created a rare opportunity for New York City to rethink its long-term economic needs in the downtown area. With President George W. Bush’s promise of $20 billon of federal resources, those with responsibility for Ground Zero and beyond could think about taking bold actions to rebuild all of lower Manhattan, while sending a message to the world that regardless of whatever al-Qaeda terrorists aimed to do, New York City would come back stronger than ever. It was an unparalleled opportunity in the city’s history.
Opportunity quickened the pulse of ambition. All of the central players at Ground Zero harbored vaulting ambitions. Ambition suffused every vision, threaded through every conflict, and shaped the scale of every achievement in the rebuilding of these sixteen acres in lower Manhattan. To rebuild in defiance of the terrorists, to assure New York’s position as a global city, to rebuild the economic engine of lower Manhattan, to think big, plan right in a democratic fashion, and move quickly—these aims became drivers of decisions of how New York City rebuilt at Ground Zero.
Complexity prevailed on every level—political, economic, and emotional—and set up inevitable conflicts as public officials worked assiduously to implement the plans for rebuilding. September 11 transformed the human meaning of the Trade Center site. What was secular was now sacred, a graveyard for nearly three thousand souls as well as a commercial real estate opportunity. Those sixteen acres, achingly defined by past images of the iconic twin towers anchoring the skyline of lower Manhattan, were now unbearably painful ruins transformed into repositories of memory. Simply replacing what was lost or replicating past approaches to city building would constitute a pallid response to human loss and physical destruction of such magnitude. The rebuilding response demanded something beyond convention—a big, inspiring, physical presence that embodied the symbolic aspirations of American values.
How would the aspirations for symbolic meaning and opportunity for economic purpose come into focus? How would the rhetoric of defiance and resilience translate into concrete plans, architectural reality, political decisions, building priorities, and economic costs? How would the need to commemorate the loss of thousands of lives coexist on the site with the need to rebuild an economic future for lower Manhattan? Bring daily life to the lacerated sixteen acres? Most critically, who would have the power to execute the ideals and ambitions of rebuilding in a situation of split property ownership and fragmented political power? And where would the money come from to execute the grand ambitions of rebuilding Ground Zero?
The money question was at the heart of rebuilding. Important as the architectural phases of the process were for cauterizing the immediate trauma of 9/11 by engaging the public with forward-looking visions, the real coming to terms with competing ambitions was being conducted behind the scenes. It was always about money and the power to move it—and those behind-the-scenes actions revealed a truism of public real estate development: one cannot build large without politics.
The juxtaposition of opportunity and tragedy shaped an epic story. For more than a decade, rebuilding Ground Zero was the world’s most visible redevelopment project. While modern city building is often dismissed as cold-hearted and detached from meaning, the opposite was true at Ground Zero, where every action was infused with symbolic significance and debated with emotional intensity. But the question, “Why was it taking so long?” became a familiar refrain. What were the problems in delivering on these promises and executing those big plans in timely fashion? Why was the effort to rebuild these sixteen acres so contentious?
Power at Ground Zero answers these questions and many more. The story is not about heroes and villains, rather about people and personalities with ambitions big and small, all wanting to put their mark on Ground Zero. It is about their clashes, egos, conflicts, and resolutions. It explains why, when the consensus to reassert the city’s global position was so clear and strong, it was so hard to implement the ambitious vision of rebuilding focused on that goal. It tells the story of what it took to rebuild the sixteen acres at Ground Zero, from its ambitious plan through its tortuous execution and celebrated openings—who won and who lost in a relative sense—and in so doing the story offers readers a window on the issues that plague large-scale redevelopment projects—a window on the power and politics of money in American cities.