Freedom Tower Folly
Now that the Freedom Tower is ready to top out, have we failed in our mission? Did we raise people’s hopes for something that never had a chance? Absolutely not.
We have not failed because new Twin Towers are still possible and — regardless of the short-term difficulties of making the transition at this point — they are still by far the most promising and rewarding plan for the long-term.
The other reason we haven’t failed is because, while the Port Authority has been building a tower, we have been building a record – and that is ready to top out, too. Truth matters. It can’t be bought or sold and it can’t be corrupted — it can only be suppressed, but not forever.
The only failure has been on the part of officials to be straight with the public. There were a number of times when a shift to the far more affordable, honorable, and popular “Twin Towers II” project was very feasible.* It really was a “no-brainer.” All that was lacking was the political courage it takes to admit that mistakes were made and tell the public the truth.
The Twin Towers Alliance was founded to promote new Twin Towers because that is what most people wanted. There were other compelling economic and strategic reasons to rebuild – but the one that really mattered, under the circumstances, was to make a full recovery by honoring the will of the people. The reason that did not happen is locked inside ten years of “executive sessions.”
The dedicated, idealistic workers who built the tower have done a superb job. But anyone who thinks that topping out One World Trade Center will help heal the city and nation is mistaken – because truth matters – particularly at Ground Zero. A tower that would never have gotten off the ground if the public had a choice is not going to inspire anybody who learns the truth.
Our quarrel is not with a building, but with the fact that it was lied into existence. They can’t even be honest about its size. Roof-height is what registers in the mind’s eye; the rest is hyperbole. New York never had to stretch the truth to be the best before. The only possible way to recover from our darkest hour is with more light — not more hype — and this tower is the antithesis of that remedy. It is a monument to closed doors, drawn shades, and officials’ willingness to say whatever advances their political agenda.
Now, in 2012, we probably have a better chance to make things right than ever since 2002. That is because all the time and public money they poured into the site couldn’t cure the current plan. The Freedom Tower still only has two subsidized-by-the-public tenants, the Silverstein building has no private tenants, the price for the grandiose transit “hub” keeps rising, and WTC 2 & 3 may never be built – so we will still have a skyline that looks like its front teeth were punched out.
If someone were dying and was told of a credible cure, it unthinkable that anyone would neglect looking into it, just in case it could be true. On the other hand, if a patient were dying and had a doctor who did not tell him or her about all of their options and let the patient and family decide which one to choose, that doctor would be in very serious trouble. But politicians do as they please, until, the Eureka! moment, when they feel the heat and see the light.
The Freedom Tower is not standing in the way of the Twin Towers – perception is; false assumptions are. And on that battlefield it is clearer all the time that the Port Authority and Silverstein don’t have a leg between them to stand on. That is why we have spent so much time on the contracts and Freedom of Information requests. They expose the thoroughly dishonest basis for the current plan.
Of course it would be a lot more expensive to build the Twin Towers now than when we sat with Christopher Ward in 2008, or appealled to Mayor Bloomberg in 2009. But at least we would have something truly great, instead of something half-baked.
In any case, it is not a decision that can be made without the public’s input. The current regime’s solution to the consequences of its bad choices is to use “value-engineering” to cheapen whatever they can of the current project and stick the public for the rest. The latest casualty is the spire, which established the dubious claim to the 1,776 feet height, will now be demoted to an antenna because there is no cost-effective way to maintain the forty-story structure. But that is not news.
The public needs honest information and honest numbers. An independent analysis of every public dollar that has been sent to the site, a history of the Silverstein stake, a report on what we have to show for the money, and a reckoning of how many hundreds of millions of public dollars were squandered has to be done. Only then can officials and the people work as a team to establish a World Trade Center that is worth the price we paid on 9/11 — and all the days since.
It is never too late to do the right thing.
Updated: May 12, 2012
* In a democracy, what the people think and want is supposed to matter more than what officials think and want – so why are we stuck with the World Trade Center George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg fashioned for us? If they had good reasons for dismissing the popular will, where is the letter or transcript or report detailing the reasons for their decision?
Those two individuals – who, along with former Port Authority Executive Director Christopher Ward, are most responsible for blighting the chances of a real recovery – rarely speak of the WTC site without extolling the democratic process, as if it actually produced the current project. They must know that is not true, but keep repeating the lie.
The Russell Sage Foundation did a scholarly study on the aftermath of 9/11 and the president of the foundation wrote in the introduction to one of three volumes the study produced: “After the veneer of public participation… wore off, the decision process revealed itself as a strikingly undemocratic contest among the governor, the mayor, the Port Authority, and the lease holder…”
In Sixteen Acres : Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero , a participant at one of the “Listening to the City” forums remembered it as “the story of a thousand people drinking Shirley Temples and smoking candy cigarettes, and they all think they’re in the back room with their scotch and cigars.”
A 2005 review of the book concludes: “Nobel’s book, together with other recent examinations, reveals the degree to which the process was manipulated by big money interests and a powerful governor on an election-year time table who dealt from a stacked deck.”
There have been many other opportunities to correct course, but clever manipulation of the media was employed to make a feeble plan that had nothing going for it seem inevitable – while the public dollars kept rolling in to build whatever officials wanted to build.
In 2005, the NYPD announcement that the first version of the Freedom Tower was not defensible coincided with media attention to the Twin Towers plan that resulted in the Donald Trump endorsement. But the media rolled over and tried (unsuccessfully) to make a joke of it by calling it “Trump’s Plan” – instead of revealing that it was the result of years of work by an incredibly devoted man, aided by an associate who had been a part of the original WTC team, to re-engineer the Twin Towers and heal the nation’s terrible wound.
In 2008, we secured a meeting with Chris Ward and introduced him to “Twin Towers II” designer, Ken Gardner. He promised to get back to us and never did. He also promised to visit the offices of Guy Tozzoli, the man who built the Twin Towers — just a mile away from the Port Authority headquarters — where the ten-foot presentation model of “Twin Towers II” was on display for six-months.
Mr. Tozzoli has since retired, but there were others, whose confidence we will not breach because they are still working in the construction/real estate industry, who shared his high opinion of the plan. He kept the model in the lobby of the World Trade Centers Association for six months simply because he wanted Christopher Ward to see the model and the blueprints for himself.
But Ward made and broke half a dozen appointments – because he must have instinctively known that he would find a far superior plan – and then what? He certainly would not be able to keep insisting that the Twin Towers option would mean going back to the drawing board and cost billions of dollars.
In 2009, we spent about two months on emails and phone calls to senior Bloomberg aides, regarding a proposed “Twin Towers II” presentation by Ken Gardner at The Gracie Mansion Summit. In the end we were brushed off – because they obviously weren’t willing to admit that there was a better plan.
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