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At Ground Zero, Balancing Memories and Function

Security at ground zero in New York. Photo by Tatyana Budanskaya/www.fiveWphoto.com

If you’ve spent any time in recent days looking at the illustrations and photos of the 9/11 memorial opening at ground zero this weekend, you may have thought to yourself: How can the memorial and the larger reconstruction project at the former World Trade Center site take more than 10 years to complete?

The answer, of course, lies in just how difficult it’s been to strike the right balance between competing interests:

Money and commercial real estate were pitted against a demand for sacred space for those killed in the Twin Towers; politicians with legacies and constituencies on the line battled among themselves and with other agencies; architects grappled with a push for new public spaces versus a call for tighter security; problems with cost overruns and insurance claims played into it all — and those are just some of the issues at hand.

But to at least some of the key players in the efforts to rebuild ground zero, the complexity of the project is so immense that perhaps, they say, it only makes sense that it will take more than 10 years to complete the job. In hindsight, they say, a quicker timeframe was probably not realistic.

“I don’t think there is a precedent for this project,” Daniel Libeskind, architect of the original master plan for the 16-acre site, told the NewsHour this week. “There’s no blueprint from the past that you can turn to, no guideline from another project.”

“No one thought it would be easy,” said Alice Greenwald, the director of the 9/11 Museum that’s still being completed. “But I also think the expectation that a project of this magnitude and complexity would happen more quickly was also naïve.”

Watch a time-lapse video of work on the memorial here:

“There are so many stakeholders and it’s like designing a score for an orchestra where you have to make adjustments,” Libeskind said. “The original sketch for the master plan was done in a moment of passion and inspiration. But you also have to respond to other needs – there are so many lawyers, so many politicians. And the construction of the towers [must] respond to the economics of the market.”

In sheer size and scope, the rebuild of ground zero is a daunting project that may cost more than $11 billion, while changing the tip of lower Manhattan. Consider what it is expected to include (several buildings are only in initial phases of construction):

  • 10 million feet of office space divided between five new skyscrapers will offset most of the lost space from the Twin Towers.

  • The tallest building, One World Trade Center (which was originally known as Freedom Tower) will reach 1,776 feet high.

  • A new memorial taking up eight acres in the original footprints of the World Trade Center towers will remember those killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as well as those killed in an attack on the Twin Towers in 1993.

  • 2,982 names will be listed on the sides of two memorial pools that contain 485,000 gallons of water apiece.

  • A small park will be built to accompany the memorial and a museum featuring artifacts of the tragedy and a recollection of each individual life.

  • A transportation center and redesigned subway station will be built.

  • A new performing arts center also is planned.

  • Streets that once were blocked by the WTC plaza will now be open to pedestrians.

“You’re building seven stories down to begin with,” Greenwald noted. “You have two subterranean rail lines that have had to keep working nonstop for 10 years and build it around existing infrastructure. And you’ve given over half of the space to memory.”

Ground Zero construction in New York as seen on Friday, Sept. 9, 2011; Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr.com/zokuga
Ground Zero construction in New York as seen on Friday, Sept. 9, 2011; Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr.com/zokuga

Libeskind has seen his share of battles in the effort to design and recreate the site.

WTC developer and leaseholder Larry Silverstein brought in other high-profile architects, rather than Libeskind, to design the buildings for his plan. Moreover, it’s not clear how many more years it may take to finish all of the towers envisioned — a point architecture critic Paul Goldberger made to Jeffrey Brown in this conversation.

But Libeskind says he believes his vision for a master plan remains on track. And he adds the debates over what should be at the site have evolved, or in some cases dissipated, from what they were in the aftermath of 9/11.

Original Sketch of Master Plan (c) by Daniel Libeskind

“I think the site is very close to the original plan,” he said. “There was such skepticism when I even proposed the first tower. People said then, ‘Let’s just have smaller buildings.’

“But after all of those struggles, I think there is an agreement on a shared site. In the end, people understood that we needed to create a neighborhood and that’s what we’re doing, I think. We are creating something more functional, more cultural, more emotional.”

That said, many questions and criticisms remain.

Some family members would like to have seen the whole space treated as sacred ground.

Then there’s the question of whether all of that commercial real estate is needed.

Anthony Coscia, a former chair of the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that the finances of One World Trade Center will be a problem.

“You’re building it at a rate of $1,400 a foot in a marketplace where the rents can barely support $500 a foot,” he said.

And New York Times columnist Joe Nocera called the building a “9/11 white elephant.”

“Despite the shroud of patriotism that its supporters have always cloaked it in,” he wrote, “it’s really just a big, fancy office building. An office building with such poor economics that it will soak New Jersey and New York commuters for decades to come.”

But for her part, Greenwald hopes the public takes a moment this weekend to focus on the achievements in a revived lower Manhattan and not the battles surrounding it.

“I think it’s time to step back,” she said, “and instead of flagellating ourselves about what took so long say, ‘My goodness. We got here.'”

Related Resource:

Patchwork Nation: 10 Years After 9/11, Who Feels Safer?

View all of our 9/11 coverage and watch the PBS NewsHour’s special broadcast on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

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