No One Wants to Live in a Symbol (or a Hole in the Ground)

Why the Big Apple is still free of the Freedom Tower


"Today we build the Freedom Tower," New York Gov. George Pataki grandly announced as he laid the cornerstone for the building meant to rise from the ashes of the Twin Towers as a testament to America's resilience and can-do spirit. That was on July 4, 2004, more than two years ago.

On June 23, 2006, the cornerstone was quietly removed from the site and returned to the original masons for storage and recutting. The stone was no longer the right shape, nor was it in the right place, after a redesign and bureaucratic reshuffle.

Eliot Spitzer, aspiring New York governor, warned in March that the Freedom Tower was becoming a "white elephant." He declared, "The economic viability of that building is very much in doubt."

The doubt stems mostly from the inability of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land, to convince business tenants to buy into a building on a site that has twice been attacked by terrorists, symbolically named the Freedom Tower and planned at a symbolic 1,776 feet high, situated the farthest from public transportation of any of the buildings at Ground Zero, surrounded by a 200-foot concrete bunker encasing some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Oh, but right now it's just a big muddy hole in the ground and has been for the last five years. Who could have guessed filling the space would be tough?

Don't worry, though; we've been through this before. When the original World Trade Towers were completed in 1973, they lacked for tenants too. So a bunch of government workers were jammed inside to make the buildings viable.

By the late 1990s, the World Trade Center was a hot property, full of fancy financial firms and other private tenants. This was what induced Larry Silverstein to compete against three other private developers to grab a 99-year lease for the buildings from the Port Authority—a few weeks before September 11, 2001.

After years of wrangling and delays, Silverstein has turned the Freedom Tower project, which is somewhere between its sixth and seventh publicly vetted redesign, back over to the Port Authority. Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have assured the Port Authority that the government will help fill the building this time as well. According to current estimates, government tenants will occupy about a quarter of the commercial space at Ground Zero and almost 40 percent of the Freedom Tower.

The memorial at Ground Zero has suffered from similar fits and starts: Work on "Reflecting Absence," two large pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers, started in March but stopped in May when it became clear that the project was going to cost more than $1 billion. Two competing official committees have since been formed to find ways to cut construction costs and decide whether visitors should be charged an entrance fee to cover the pools' estimated annual operating cost of $49 million.

Work began (again) on the Freedom Tower in April, with excavation of bedrock and other work on the foundation and infrastructure. It won't be until 2008 that new construction will be visible at street level—plenty of time for the planners to change their minds again. Around the same time the real construction crews arrived at the site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)—"charged with distributing $10 billion in federal dollars in the area and ensuring Lower Manhattan recovers from the attacks and emerges even better than it was before"—announced it was closing up shop, just in time for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. "We're nearing the end of the mission," said Chairman Kevin Rampe.

While not quite on par with the president's famous "Mission Accomplished" declaration, Rampe's assessment does seem to be a bit of an exaggeration. The LMDC did manage to hand out all that cash, but it is leaving its successor organizations, the WTC Memorial Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, with a lot of work to do. The LMDC's mission statement said it would "plan and coordinate the rebuilding and revitalization of Lower Manhattan." All that's left to do now is rebuild and revitalize the place where the planes actually hit.

A 2006 New York magazine article eulogized the Ground Zero project as "a bloated, preposterous funeral, requiring a headstone so grand that no one could possibly complete it." Spitzer called the LMDC and its efforts "an absolute failure," adding, "It is now time to rethink the array of bureaucracies overseeing ground zero."

It should warm a libertarian's heart to see politicians talking smack about government charities and at least one governmental body putting itself out of business. But a dozen other organizations have jumped in to fill the void in the business of filling the void. And none have managed to get anything built yet.