Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan

power-at-ground-zeroLynne Sagalyn begins her story of the battle over the World Trade Center site with the battle of Mayor Guiliani versus American Express. The nation’s most respected credit card, also a mainstay of downtown Manhattan, was asking for a little too much; a huge NYPD security detail in exchange for staying. Rudy, in typical Rudy style, said no, and said it loudly. He wouldn’t give what he called “private contracts” that would tie the hands of the NYPD. Say what you like about him as the meanest mayor, but he was no bagman for the 1%. The problem was that even without the WTC tragedy, downtown Manhattan was already losing business.

In the 1960’s, when the Chase Manhattan Plaza was going up, firms were moving from the Wall Street area to midtown. The Twin Towers would have more office space than the city could possibly need, and in the decades afterward, half the complex was empty. It was built on the site of Radio Row, where the electronics repair shops were located, and few in the area were happy about losing their stores. Sagalyn’s book portrays the World Trade Center as something built for show, rather than for offices.

In most of the book, the problem seems to be finance. Port Authority ended up with most of the cost, but how could a tiny police agency be expected to handle a construction project, let alone the management? There would be the cost of clearing the site, the design, and the construction, which would take years and millions of dollars. Then there were the politicians in Albany, most of whom didn’t trust Larry Siverstein, and weren’t convinced that Port Authority could steward the project.

With regard to Mayor Rudy, he wasn’t in charge when the WTC went up. He didn’t have to deal with the massive crisis that the city was going through, and his problem was crime, not finance. In this book, the WTC is seen as a financial issue that either a disaster that crippled the city or an experimental medicine to cure the disease. Rudy, unlike earlier mayors, wasn’t swayed by huge business. He wasn’t going to give Amex a free security detail, any more than he would build the Yankees a new stadium. But his predecessors didn’t have a choice.

Sagalyn doesn’t give a positive look on the World Trade Center. It was clearly a megaproject in an era when the city was bankrupt, and it was not a time to be borrowing money. Ironically, the architect who designed the place was the same guy that designed Pruitt-Igoe, another megaproject that never paid off. Maybe that shows us something about the effect of megaprojects on a city? You also have to wonder if the city would’ve been better off without the WTC. There was already a surplus of office space, so nobody needed those huge buildings. As for “revitalization,” there were other areas, like the South Street Seaport, that were ripe for improvement.

Looking back on the WTC, I’m reminded of something Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. Back in the 1980’s, when he turned the Commodore Hotel into the New York Hyatt, he had to go through acres of red tape to get it started. The New York Central Railroad, which owned the hotel, owed millions in taxes, and the city, famously bankrupt, needed the tax money. But it wasn’t like Mayor Kotch jumped at the opportunity to pay off the debts and revamp the area; on the contrary the Mayor waffled on it. The same thing happened when he tried (and eventually begged) to fix the Wollman skating rink in Central Park. It was probably easier to get the permits to build the World Trade Center than it was to get a permit to fix that skating rink.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s easier in this city to do a megaproject than it is to do a small one.

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