WHY GOV. SPITZER SHOULD PUT PATAKI'S 'ICONIC' PLAN ON HOLD
February 7, 2007 -- FIVE and a half years late, Ground Zero is finally showing progress. The Port Authority is industriously building the east bathtub so developer Larry Silverstein can start work on towers 3 and 4. It's the right time for Gov. Spitzer to liberate Pataki's Pit from the Freedom Tower - a defeatist scheme inappropriate to today's resurgent Downtown.
Spitzer needn't outright kill the "iconic" edifice that's now the PA's to build and rent. He doesn't even have to meddle directly in its design (as his predecessor did, with disastrous results).
But the Freedom Tower needs a caring intervention - which means putting it on hold. Not forever; only until Silverstein's first two new office buildings are rising and on their way to being leased. They will bring world-class architecture (by Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki) and vibrant life into the hole. Just as important, they'll re-legitimize the site as a place to do business - something the Freedom Tower, for now, can't.
ESSENTIAL work on the Freedom Tower's underground infrastructure, now in progess, must be completed. It is absolutely necessary to finish that job (likely to take 18 more months) so that everything will be in place once above-ground construction is ready to start.
But let's hold up on leasing efforts and letting out any more contracts (beyond what's already committed), until we know exactly what we want a "Freedom Tower" to be.
Properly handled, it can be the most valuable property in the world by late 2009 or 2010. That's when steel for towers 3 and 4 will be filling the sky.
Those buildings will be among the largest and tallest in town, rising to 1,155 feet and 957 feet. Once they're under way in earnest, no one will any longer be able to say that Ground Zero is going nowhere (as this newspaper first accurately called it four years ago).
Moreover, the plan on the table - calling for all four Ground Zero office buildings to open around the same time - threatens a glut. With the "iconic" tower on hiatus, Silverstein can bargain with tenants able to pay market rents - without being undercut by Freedom Tower's subsidized prices.
DOUGLAS Durst, builder of 4 Times Square and the new One Bryant Park, is one of many developers who know the Freedom Tower should wait for Silverstein's towers to be under way - but one of the few willing to say so. In his view, "as the World Trade Center site gets developed and people see progress, the value of it will increase, just as the value of 7 World Trade Center increased as people saw it was being completed and occupied."
Now, maybe Durst would rather minimize competition with his own buildings (although he has no argument with the 4.5 million square feet that towers 2, 3 and 4 will bring to the market). Or maybe, like others in his league, he secretly dreams of one day having a crack himself at what should be the city's most desirable development site.
But his argument embraces the reality of Downtown today: It's one of the hottest business districts in the world, commanding office rents unimaginable a few years ago and drawing ever more people to glamorous new apartment buildings, hotels, parks and stores.
The Freedom Tower should be the exclamation point proclaiming the area's rebirth. But an exclamation point must come last, not first.
After all the delays at Ground Zero, it's worth waiting a few more years to get the site's crowning achievement right.
TODAY, nothing about the Freedom Tower is right. The PA has little more enthusiasm to build it than Silverstein did. The project as now conceived, designed and scheduled was born out of desperation and political expediency four years ago, when Downtown's plight looked desperate. No one had any idea how to rebuild the WTC. No one was sure if companies would ever again want to be there.
The infamous Daniel Libeskind master site plan (chosen by then-Gov. Pataki) called for an "iconic" tower to reclaim the skyline while also, somehow, relating to the Statue of Liberty. Absent any other serious planning at Ground Zero, and with Silverstein tapping accomplished architect David Childs for the project, it seemed a good idea at the time.
It might even have worked. But Pataki brought the scheme to ruin - by letting Libeskind "collaborate" on it, by personally interfering in the design and by causing a 14-month delay that resulted from his inattention to NYPD security concerns.
The result, after a rushed redesign in 2005, lacks the majesty of Childs' original. Yet cost estimates are already rising - to $3 billion, as The Post's Tom Topousis reported this week. And the design isn't even truly finished - plans for its most symbolic feature, a "sculptural" broadcast antenna rising to 1,776 feet above ground, are still mired in the early stages.
YET, despite its staggering cost, the PA is prepared to peddle the project on the cheap. To kick-start leasing, the PA is negotiating with the federal General Service Administration and the state Office of General Services to take about half its total 2.6 million square feet.
That was Pataki's last and perhaps most lethal blunder. If those deals go through, the PA will likely have to find even more government offices to fill the remaining half. Why? Because private-sector firms of the sort that should be at a "World Trade Center" don't want to share a building with public-sector bureaucracies paying subsidized rents. "Having government tenants will take away from the value being created," Durst warns.
THE starting rent for GSA and OGS, which wouldn't take effect until the tower opens at least five years out, is $58.50 per square foot - more than government should pay, but ridiculously low compared with what new, first-class Downtown office space is certain to command by 2012. (Many real-estate insiders believe the rent is really $50 a foot because, they say, the PA undercounted the floor space.) By comparison, Silverstein is asking more than $60 a foot today for the remaining floors at his new 7 WTC.
Why should the most important new building ever to rise in New York be peddled as if it's damaged goods?
Well, because the Freedom Tower now on the table is damaged goods to the corporate world and the real-estate community. Its tortured history enables the negativism of brokers and prospective tenants who claim, without any rational basis, that the tower's great height - maybe even its Orwellian name - will encourage terrorists to strike again.
But naysayers just a few years back told us all that no one would want to live anywhere Downtown, and that the new 7 WTC would never draw tenants. All it took to refute the cynics was for the first new residents and office tenants to break the ice. Today, every apartment nearby is taken, and 7 WTC is more than 60 percent leased.
So it will be with the Freedom Tower, once the first companies sign leases for towers 3 and 4 - projects with giant floor plates specifically tailored to Wall Street firms.
PAUSING the Freedom Tower entails risk: If any thing goes wrong with the other office buildings, we could be left right where we were before. But in a booming market, and with dire financial penalties if he stalls, Silverstein has every reason to build in a timely fashion.
With a little good will all around and some luck, the PA ought to be able to name its price for the Freedom Tower by 2010. It will find corporate tenants who can pay what an iconic location is worth. It's not too devilish to suggest that the PA might even want to put it up for bid to private developers - who, if recent history tells us anything, would go to war over the rights.
Who knows? A pause might even prompt Spitzer to finally drop "Freedom Tower" and call the project by its rightful name: 1 World Trade Center.