Image by Angela Rutherford via Flickr
Plans to build a Muslim community center near the site of the former World Trade Centers have stoked a nationwide controversy and brought Ground Zero back into the national spotlight again in recent weeks. But the storm that the mosque plans have generated obscures the real failings at the site, where some 3,000 people (most of them workers in the Twin Towers) died in the Sept. 11.
Nearly a decade after the attacks, we are still several years away from the first office tenants moving back in and commerce resuming on a site that was the commercial heartbeat of Lower Manhattan. Although the towers became a target specifically because they represented to the fanatics who attacked them a central element of our way of life, over the last nine years planning for the vacant site has been hijacked by a variety of interests trying to turn Ground Zero into everything from a tourist destination to a housing complex to a gleaming ideal of 21st Century urban central planning.
Only the general public's desire, repeated over and over again in surveys and town meetings, to see something like the Twin Towers themselves reemerge on the site, and the persistence of the developer Larry Silverstein, who controlled the site on the day of the attack, has brought Ground Zero to the point where there is at least the prospect that it will one day be a place primarily devoted again to trade, as it was before Sept. 11, 2001.
Today, meaningful business actually does take place at the former World Trade Center site, but not on what is known as Ground Zero. One of the buildings to fall on Sept. 11, 2001, was 7 World Trade, built and owned by Silverstein, which crumbled from the force of the collapse of the Twin Towers. Silverstein resolved to build a new 7 World Trade swiftly and was able to do so because the tower was not considered part of the government-controlled World Trade Center site.
Politicians and the bureaucrats in charge of planning and redeveloping Ground Zero tried to stop him. They wanted him to wait till an appropriate redevelopment plan for the whole area was in place, but the developer, a veteran of New York City real estate, knew how government operates in Gotham, and so instead he forged ahead, breaking ground in May of 2002 and opening 7 World Trade for business four years ago with a host of new tenants. For several years now the occupants of 7 World Trade, including Moody's, Ameriprise Financial and Silverstein's own real estate firm, have gotten a bird's eye view of how slowly the rest of the former World Trade Center site is developing.
The attacks of 9-11 brought out the best in New York City, but the planning and the aftermath brought out the worst. Skeptics who had said that Lower Manhattan was dying as a business district (even though the area had revived in the 1990s) used the attacks as an occasion to argue that the land should be appropriated for everything from subsidized housing to an arts complex. The head of the public entity created to redevelop the site suggested all of the area should be turned into a massive monument to the day of the attacks sustained by tourism revenues, a kind of Disneyland of death.
Even work on those elements of the site which everyone agreed upon, such as a memorial to those who died and a new transportation facility to replace the one that had operated on the site, got sidetracked by the unrealistic and unaffordable ambitions of its government planners and designers. The original design of the transportation center proved so costly, upwards of $3.2 billion, that its construction had to be put off until it could be redesigned, while the original price on the memorial was a whopping and unaffordable $1 billion, until it was scaled down to a mere $500 million.
For even that hefty price Americans will get a monument that mostly just commemorates the absence of those who died that day, but which makes no reference to the values of democratic capitalism that underscore our way of life and which prompted the terrorists to choose the Twin Towers as a target.
Fortunately, something else will also rise on that site, though years too late. The main tower planned there, originally called the Freedom Tower and slated to be occupied mainly by government tenants, has lately attracted some interest from private tenants, including Conde Nast, which has a tentative agreement to take up to 1 million square feet. The tower was also the subject of an intense bidding war in the spring among real estate developers who wanted to buy a stake in the suddenly hot property.
Still, after years of delay, the rebuilt tower won't open until 2013. Other office buildings will follow later, depending on how quickly (or not) New York recovers from the current downturn.
Twelve years is a long time to bring back to the site what was its essential component when it was attacked: commerce.
This article first appeared on RealClearMarkets.