Commentary: Redevelopment Bickering Has Deep Roots

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It’s been an ugly week in the Lower Manhattan redevelopment process, with the Freedom Tower design scuttled by security concerns and finger-pointing over who was to blame.

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says it’s a new story with some old roots.

In their new book, 102 Minutes: The Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, authors Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn give us a revealing glimpse of history. In 1965, the developers of the World Trade Center decided to build it to fire safety standards less rigorous than those in the New York City building code. They could do this because the world’s tallest buildings were being constructed by the Port Authority - a bi-state agency not under control of the city government. The standards they chose to adhere to were contained in a proposed new building code being pushed by the construction union and the real estate industry to make building cheaper, according to the book. And it’s the reason the Twin Towers had only three stairwells on each floor while the Empire State Building had up to nine. That code was eventually adopted citywide.

The sorry news of this week about the dysfunction in Ground Zero redevelopment contains an eerie echo of 1965. The Port Authority is still independent from the city. And this week we learned that it developed its plans for the 1776-foot Freedom Tower without Ray Kelly and the NYPD at the table. The plans came undone when Kelly spoke up publicly and said the proposed tower was way too close to the street to protect it from terrorist attacks. Now Governor Pataki has sent the Freedom Tower back to the drawing board for a security overhaul.

But the Governor’s appointee overseeing the process didn’t just begin the redesign. John Whitehead had to take a shot at Ray Kelly, expressing regret that Kelly hadn’t spoken up sooner. In fact, Kelly had. WNYC News reported on Tuesday that the NYPD said it expressed reservations about the Freedom Tower design as early as November 2003. And Friday’s New York Times revealed a letter from the Police Department sounding an alarm about the design to those in charge last August. When the August letter was ignored, the Police Department sent another letter in the fall.

We don’t know exactly why the early warnings were ignored. But it’s very possible that, like in 1965, the owners of the property were motivated by money. Pulling the Freedom Tower in from the street would mean less rentable office space, and therefore less income for leaseholder Larry Silverstein. Silverstein is already raising eyebrows by asking 50 dollars a square foot for 7-World Trade Center and so far, he has no takers. Asked about this by WNYC’s Bob Hennelly, Mayor Bloomberg said he is not considering a public subsidy to help tenants pay that much rent. Let the market decide who pays what and how the space is used. But Governor Pataki, asked the subsidy question on Friday, said he might.

At a time when New York City has an affordable housing crisis, it’s hard to see how tax dollars would be better spent helping Silverstein make money on an office building. Meanwhile, Governor Pataki has a lot of catching up to do after letting his Ground Zero redevelopment process get away from him like this. Look for a lot of earnest downtown news conferences by the Governor in the next few weeks. Maybe one of them will make the Port Authority accountable for what it builds in New York.