What World Trade Center? What We Need is a Sheriff

11/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday is September 11th, a day that has become our national, annual moment of truth: "Has it really been that long?" we ask ourselves. "Are we any safer or better off?" "What have we accomplished?"

In New York City, all eyes turn to ground zero our symbolic barometer of progress where the answer to the last question is inevitably, "Not much." This year, after ninety six months of starts and stops, re-designs and security modifications, court battles and other miscellaneous delays, a few steel columns of the new World Trade Center tower are finally visible, emerging from a concrete bulwark in the northwest corner of the site.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has promised that the 1,776 foot-tall skyscraper (49 feet taller with the antenna than the original twin towers) will be completed in 2013 at an estimated cost of $ 3.1 billion. New Yorkers, though, are dubious. Many completion deadlines and budget estimates have already been blown. The Daily News recently cited a confidential report by the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center (LMCCC) that warns that the tower may not be finished until 2018. Even the name of the building is mired in uncertainty. In March, the Port Authority replaced the Freedom Tower moniker with One World Trade Center, hoping that the less ideological and more practical designation would make leasing space an easier sell (they announced the change one day after signing up the building's first and, so far, only commercial lessee, Vantone Industrial Co, a Chinese enterprise).

Most of the World Trade Center site is still a vast, open lot. The Port Authority and developer Larry Silverstein are in arbitration about financing the erection of three additional office towers (the Port Authority took over the construction of the formerly called Freedom Tower in 2006), which, one report purports, will not be economically feasible until 2030. Consequently, when and how the rest of the area will be transformed into a futuristic transportation hub, shopping mall, performing arts center and September 11 museum and memorial remains, despite assurances to the contrary, largely, up in the air.

Councilman Alan J. Gerson, chairman of the City Council's Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, is one of those officials unhappy with the progress to date. "We should be further along," he told me. "It is unacceptable that we have lingering uncertainty about whether or not the September 11th Memorial Plaza and Museum will be completed by the 10th anniversary deadline, whether or not there will be two or three office towers built. It is totally unacceptable not to have a real specific date for the completion of these projects."

Gerson, who faces a tough reelection campaign this fall, lays much of the blame for the reconstruction delays on the multiple chains of command involved and the Port Authority. He urged Christopher Ward, executive director of the Port Authority, to issue a roadmap with specific timetables and benchmarks. Further action, Gerson went on, has to be taken. "There needs to be an assertion of political leadership that demands [and] brings together the Port Authority and Silverstein into the same room to work out the financing."

The problem with that idea is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg already tried to muscle the opposing parties together in a summit meeting called last May. Representatives of Silverstein Properties, Governors David Paterson and Jon Corzine, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Port Authority officials met and decided to come up with a plan by June 11th. But they failed to agree on how to finance the construction of the buildings. Silverstein, according to a Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment report, argued that frozen credit markets made raising private capital impossible and demanded more than a billion dollars in loans and guarantees from the Port Authority.

"It's all about the financing," Gerson said.

The collapse of the economy has certainly taken its toll, but what had happened to the billions in insurance money and federal aid? Gerson didn't know, but I did some research and, it turns out, most of it has already been spent, legitimately.

I suggested to the councilman that perhaps the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center might help in the leadership arena - at least the name sounds assertive. Gerson agreed that the command center was a possibility, but that it was funded by and reporting to too many bosses. "To be effective they need to be more established --a fully funded, independent watch dog," he said. "What this site needs is a sheriff."

Hickok or none, New Yorkers, accustomed to seeing a corner deli replaced by a forty story residential tower in a matter of months, are understandably dismissive of the whole affair. "It's a political football," Liz Nevin, a born and bred in New York friend of mine, scoffed. "It will never get done in our lifetime." Most of America hopes she's wrong.