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Symbol of Resilience Rises from NY’s Ground Zero


Freedom Tower was going to signify America's determination to rebuild quickly and steeply at Ground Zero after 9/11. It would rise a symbolic 1,776 feet, making it the world's tallest building, and feature an asymmetrical spire that evoked the Statue of Liberty's upraised torch.

Fascinated, the city and nation waited. And waited. And lost patience. And interest.

Yet now - after years of redesigns, blown deadlines, bureaucratic snafus and political infighting; in the midst of a recession, when almost no new skyscrapers are planned anywhere - Freedom Tower's frame is almost 20 stories high, finally visible above the blue construction fences around the 16-acre site that was once Ground Zero.

But it won't be the world's tallest building.

It won't evoke the Statue of Liberty.

It won't open by the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks, in 2011. Or the 11th. Or the 12th.

And it won't be known, officially, as Freedom Tower.

Its tortuous saga shows what can happen when too much is asked of a building, says Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is building the tower.

Freedom Tower had to be a symbol of a political idea, a monument to what stood in its place, and a profitable real estate venture - "as if the Washington Monument had to be rented out," says Michael Mostoller, an architecture professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

And, with its bull's-eye name and site, it had to be safe from terrorism.

"That's a lot of load for any building to carry," Mostoller says.

Years in the making

For once, Freedom Tower's timing is right. When the economy seized up last fall, the project was so far along it was too late to turn back.

"It's happening because it had to happen, because of all that's been invested, financially and emotionally," says Antony Wood, director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an industry group. It's odd to see an office tower ascending at a time when the market for office space has collapsed. Yet super tall buildings - those more than 1,000 feet - typically are planned and designed at the height of an economic boom, and constructed during a subsequent downturn.

Wood likens a skyscraper under construction to an iceberg. You see skeletal steel, but you can't see the investment in land acquisition, design, site preparation and materials. Even if a building is still no more than a foundation, it may be economically impractical to stop - unless the builder runs out of money or credit.

As a result, many super tall buildings are completed even though their builders realize it could take years to fill them. The Empire State Building, for example, was planned at the end of the Roaring Twenties and completed in the Great Depression year of 1931. Derided as the "Empty State Building," it didn't make money until after World War II.

Some super tall buildings proceed despite economic slumps because they're not really economic propositions. They're designed to enhance a brand - a company's, a nation's or, in the case of Freedom Tower, an idea's.

The building that has been the world's tallest for five years, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, still is not fully occupied. But that's not such a problem, Wood says, because the tower was intended to boost its nation's global status.

Now, Freedom Tower is part of a global, recession-era skyscraper boom that has helped kill its chance to be the world's tallest.

The average height of the 10 tallest buildings completed last year was 1,050 feet (about the height of New York's Chrysler Building), the highest since 1997's average of 935 feet.

The average height of the 10 tallest finished this year will jump to 1,378 feet , largely because of the completion of the Burj Dubai tower in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai. (At 2,684 feet, it's 60 percent taller than Taipei 101, and more than twice as tall as the Empire State Building.) In 2010 the average will rise to about 1,444 feet, Wood estimates.

It's actually a good time to build. Construction costs are down, steel is cheaper, and the unemployment rate in New York's construction trades is 21 percent and rising.

With 24 cranes on the job, the new World Trade Center has become one of New York's few reliable sources of economic growth.

Work on the site's long-delayed components - including a transportation hub, a 9/11 memorial and museum, Freedom Tower and at least one office building by private developer Larry Silverstein - is expected to generate tens of thousands of jobs by 2016, the Port Authority says.

Freedom Tower alone will cost at least $3.1 billion, with the money coming from the state, the Port Authority and insurance on the old Trade Center.

The current state of the market for office space is irrelevant to the tower's ultimate success, Wood says. Freedom Tower won't be ready for another four or five years; by then the economy probably will have rebounded - and with it the demand for premium, high-rise views.

A response to terrorism

From the first hours after hijackers flew two jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers felt the urge to restore their shattered skyline.

Brian Lyons was a construction manager who watched the towers fall as he looked out his office window. His younger brother, Michael, a firefighter, was at Ground Zero.

The next day, Brian, wearing Michael's backup fire gear for protection, went to the site and joined the search. He was there when Michael's remains were found.

Even then, he says, "in the back of my mind, I had to rebuild Ground Zero. I thought, "We're gonna clean this place up, and then we're gonna rebuild it bigger and better than any place that's ever been rebuilt.' "

tower-designIn December 2003, a design was unveiled for what then-New York governor George Pataki called "Freedom Tower." It would top out by the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he promised; by the 10th anniversary, it would be occupied.

And it would be the world's tallest building - a title conferred by the Tall Buildings Council to "habitable buildings" with frames and floors throughout, a definition that excludes structures such as the CN Tower in Toronto.

Silverstein, who had leased the Trade Center and claimed the right to rebuild, had his own ideas about how and where the tower should be built. Stalemate.

Even so, on July 4, 2004, with his party's Republican National Convention coming to town the next month, Pataki helped dedicate a cornerstone inscribed: "To honor and remember those who lost lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom."

The following year, however, the New York Police Department, which had not previously been consulted, said the planned tower would be too close to a major boulevard and too vulnerable to a truck bomb. Architects designed a new tower farther from traffic with a virtually windowless, 20-story concrete base. It would be topped by a symmetrical, 408-foot antenna tower to bring its official height to 1,776 feet.

"New York Times" architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it "a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness ... an impregnable tower braced against the outside world." From a distance, he said, it resembled "a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on the top."

The cornerstone, now rendered obsolete by the tower's new location, was trucked to a stonecutting yard on Long Island, where it sits to this day.

Freedom Tower had become a joke. Campaigning for governor, Democrat Eliot Spitzer called it "a white elephant" on which he might pull the plug.

Who would work in a building whose name and design seemed to define itself as a terror target? One obvious tenant was the Port Authority, which built, owned and had its offices in the Trade Center, and which in 2006 took over construction of Freedom Tower from Silverstein.

In 2003, when Freedom Tower was unveiled, Port Authority Executive Director Joseph Seymour said that on 9/11 employees of his agency "lost their home. ... I think they all want to come back here."

By 2006, however, Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia had heard an earful from employees who'd fled attacks on the Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. He said the Authority would not move into Freedom Tower and that he'd resign before he'd force employees to do so.

The Authority also began to back away from Pataki's name for the building. "One World Trade Center" began to appear after "Freedom Tower" - in parentheses or after a comma.

This year, when the building's first non-governmental lease was announced, Port Authority publicity described the tower as One World Trade Center; Freedom Tower was a parenthetic afterthought.

Some believe the tower's name was changed to allay fears of another terrorist attack and thus make it easier to lease. "Would "you" want to work up in that building?" asks Lori Solomon, a downtown office worker, as she walks past the site.

Port Authority officials won't talk directly about terrorism fears but say that using the tower's "legal address" is the best strategy for filling it with office tenants. "We want to present the building in the best possible way," Coscia says, and One World Trade Center is "easiest for people to identify with."

freedom-nightFreedom Tower will contain 2.6 million square feet, including space for offices (floors 20 to 90) and an observation deck and restaurant (top floors 101 and 102). So far, two government agencies - the federal General Services Administration and the state Office of General Services - together have promised to lease more than 1 million square feet. A Chinese firm has signed up for another 190,000.

Last month, however, a forecast prepared for the Port Authority said the tower would not be fully leased until 2019.

Changing a 'sacred' name

Whatever its impact on business, Pataki says, the name change is a disgrace.

One World Trade Center, he says, was the address of the Trade Center's north tower, a "sacred name" that should no more be used for marketing than that of the battleship Arizona, sunk by Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor.

Some relatives of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, also question the decision.

"Anyone who thinks the building's name makes it more or less of a target does not understand our enemies," says Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. "They don't care what we name it. They'll just want to knock it down."

Pataki, who has practiced law since leaving office at the end of 2006, says he wouldn't be afraid: "I'd be honored to work in that building. Are we going to think small and build small because we were attacked? ... Freedom is "why" we were attacked."

At the construction site, Brian Lyons says it doesn't matter what the tower is called - "we just call 'em One, Four, whatever. We never called it Freedom Tower much."

Lyons, now 49, lost a brother on 9/11 but found a mission. He has spent every working day since at Ground Zero. He's on his 11th pair of work boots.

He spent a year working in the Freedom Tower foundation hole as its first construction supervisor. He says that when they trucked in the first steel, it got to him, because he'd been there when the last piece of steel wreckage from the old WTC was taken out.

These days he works across the construction site at Four World Trade Center, Silverstein's building. "It's pretty satisfying after all these years to actually see it coming to life," he says of Freedom Tower. "The world's watching this job. People like to see something coming out of the ground."

He says New Yorkers will call the tower whatever they want to call it, just like the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge is still known as the "Triboro." Regardless, he says, the building is a tribute to everyone lost on 9/11, including his brother.

"I'm proud to be working here. I know he would be proud," he says. "I'm staying until the last bolt is done."

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