15 years later: WTC redevelopment players talk project’s lessons, political tensions

Port Authority took a bit of a beating in the panels

Dec.December 08, 2016 03:00 PM

Though the competition drew prominent architects from all over the world, many of the contestants’ designs for the World Trade Center site were “crap,” according to one former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive.

“What always surprised me was the crap that came out of that architectural process,” said Chris Ward, a former top executive at Port Authority and now a senior vice president at AECOM. “I was just struck by, when you open it up to these world-wide architects, these world-wide architects often have their own vision that has little or nothing to do with the future and substance of New York, and we need to be thoughtful and skeptical of that.”

Ward was one of six panelists on Thursday who spoke at a symposium held by Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate at 7 World Trade Center. He didn’t specify which of the four site designs he disliked, but said he ultimately supported Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the site. He also complimented Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s 7 World Trade Center. (At the time, SOM Managing Partner Ken Lewis was seated next to him.)

The panelists — all major players in the World Trade Center’s redevelopment — spoke about the challenges they faced in getting the project off the ground and the lessons learned in the 15 years following September 11th. After the terrorist attacks, two opposing ideas quickly emerged: Rebuild the site just as it was, or keep it as a 16-acre park. Neither option survived, but the arguments for both were fierce.

It was in this tense climate — a complicated web of political, emotional and economic interests — that developers and public officials began moving forward with reconstructing a devastated Lower Manhattan.

“What made this tragedy and development different from any other urban development, is everyone in the city and beyond felt that they had an emotional connection to it, and an equity stake in the outcome,” said Carl Weisbrod, director of the city’s Planning Commission and former president of the Downtown Alliance. “Each of those constituents, and each of those interest groups felt that their particular equity stake was paramount and should trump all others.”

The Port Authority took a bit of a hit during the panels. Weisbrod referred to the relationship between the bi-state agency and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. as a “marriage without sex.” Alex Garvin, who resigned from the LMDC in 2003 after clashing with the Port Authority and then-New York Gov. George Pataki, called the agency one of New York’s enemies. As the Port Authority’s only representative on the panel, Ward warned that he’s “deeply skeptical about history” and that the different players in the redevelopment all have their own versions of events. He joked that at least the “evil Port Authority” had galvanized the community and officials to get rebuilding the World Trade Center underway.

Responding to Ward’s criticism of some of the proposed designs for the site, Janno Lieber, who spearheaded Silverstein Properties’ efforts to rebuild at the WTC, noted that Libeskind’s masterplan restored the street grid in the area and provided a new location for the World Trade Center PATH station.

“It was a plan that convinced folks that you could reconcile a lot of the different agendas and goals for the site,” he said. “I think was a tremendous force for getting people together after that somewhat didactic debate about what it should it be.”

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