Do you remember the cornerstone of the Freedom tower laid this summer? Have you heard Governor Pataki talk about the future of the World Trade Center on his occasional tours of the site? The reality is that not one construction project is underway at the W.T.C. and every project is being fought on historic grounds: the Freedom Tower, the Path Station—every single project. The W.T.C. now stands as the ultimate symbol of an American weakness: the ability of powerful special interest group to manipulate the system against the greater public good.
In a conference room in Port Authority offices on Broadway, a few hundred feet from the W.T.C., “Section 106” hearings will determine if the land destroyed by terrorists should be preserved exclusively for future generations of tourists or developed to support a vital urban center. The Coalition of 9/11 Families, preservation organizations, and numerous lawyers and consultants put one side forward. The other is defended by a broad array of community groups and our local elected politicians. Despite what most of the country thinks, the future development of the W.T.C. site is still in limbo.
The current issue is whether the P.A. should be allowed to expand the PATH station with an additional platform.
Projections for commuter growth indicate it is needed to support ridership over the next 25 years. The Port Authority acknowledges underestimating the PATH ridership rebound since 9/11. And any one familiar with the city knows the consequences of insufficient public transportation capacity. Congestion gets ugly, transportation costs soar and expansion takes forever.
The PATH was already at capacity before 9/11/01. If the P.A. does not expand PATH now, it will be a drag on Downtown and New Jersey for perpetuity.
A powerful special interest group is determined to stop this expansion. This assault is presented in the guise of preservation of historic assets. In reality, it is simply a turf war and power play. The Coalition of 9/11 Families has latched on to the metal footings of the W.T.C. columns severed off at the cement 90 feet below ground level in the pit of W.T.C. These column footings are the lines in the sand of the battle to stop W.T.C. redevelopment. And if the Coalition doesn’t get their way, they threaten to take their case to the courts.
The stated issue with the PATH station expansion is eight or nine column footings under the north tower — a few percent of the total — that will be covered. The reasoning is not simply that each column is historically important; it is that every available column must be preserved and presented in their entirety to demonstrate the total footprint. Anything less will destroy a national treasure.
Of course, if this standard were applied elsewhere, every single column, piece of glass, section of siding and pile of toxic dust would be a historic artifact. The P.A., owner of the site, builder of the Twin Towers and victim on many levels of the 9/11 attacks, has already set aside the artifacts that they considered most expressive.
On a recent trip to the bottom of the W.T.C., people I spoke to were at a loss to see the power of these columns, even some family members. When my wife saw a picture of one, she asked if one of our first grade children had been playing with the camera again. These columns have no distinct, recognizable importance and do not recall any visible feature of the towers.
Preservationists argue that the magnitude of the destruction can only be conveyed through presentation of the entire footprints at the bottom of the W.T.C. Consider that the whole area under discussion lies beneath a 4+ acre memorial designating the original location of both towers with 30-foot deep, one-acre pools of water. From 30 feet below ground to 110-stories high and beyond, there will be nothing. But evidently, the Reflecting Absence memorial is not sufficient to communicate the size of the W.T.C.
Preservationists and the Coalition frequently phrase their arguments on behalf of people who are not at the meetings. At one meeting, members of the Coalition even claimed to speak for both deceased and living architects and engineers involved with building the W.T.C. site.
Good luck to the Port Authority in grinding its way through this process and convincing the state and federal agencies to approve the project. In the end, sanity may prevail. On the other hand, legislation, perhaps unrelated, is being considered in Washington to bring back W.T.C. debris back to the site. And even state politicians appear weak-kneed to fight it. Until I see cranes loading construction materials into the W.T.C. site, I will not be confident that this country has the will to recover from the terrorist attacks on our home ground.
Imagine in 2024 that a 16-year-old from Kansas comes to New York. He will come to the W.T.C. to see the site of the largest attack on the U.S. homeland. His uncle died in the early stages of the war on terror in Iraq. At the W.T.C., he will see two one-acre ponds where once stood two buildings he has never seen. He will walk through the memorial and read a few of the names of the 3,000 who died. He will see an expansive exhibit at the W.T.C. Memorial Center, which he will cut short because it would take 5 hours to complete. He will buy a book and documentary DVDs containing actual footage of all of the events of 9/11/2001. He’ll see massive beams twisted like pieces of wire. He’ll see rows of fire trucks, police cars, and private vehicles smashed by the falling towers.
But as he walks along the bottom of the bathtub and looks down to see the column footings, will he look out across beam filled basement of the W.T.C. and regret that he can’t see 10 of the footings because they were covered by the PATH station on the other side of the wall? After reading stories of people killed 23 years ago, will one acre of columns seem insufficient? Will he walk away feeling empty?