Ground Zero’s $11 Billion Morass Shows Gains Before Anniversary

PATH station
Steel arches that will form the ceiling of the PATH station concourse, at the World Trade Center in New York. A temporary false ceiling protects passengers walking underneath. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

As a tower crane swung overhead, I stood with Christopher Ward near the red steel framing of One World Trade Center. The $3.2 billion skyscraper has risen more than halfway to its 104-story height.

Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told me over the din how he galvanized the $11 billion World Trade Center site construction after years of political and management morass.

“People were managing so many different priorities that the project stagnated,” said Ward, 56, as we moved gingerly through gray snow, bustling workers and piles of reinforcing bar. “Political calendars guided the project rather than construction calendars.”

Snow still swaddled some of the almost 400 swamp white oak trees that will march in lines across the plaza of the National September 11 Memorial.

He spoke to me as we toured the 16-acre site, where some 2,000 workers are adding a floor a week to One World Trade Center, building a second skyscraper, a commuter-rail hub, a memorial, a memorial visitor center and a museum.

“In 2008, we committed to a road map that made completing the memorial plaza the driver. By recognizing that it had to open by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a lot of other things fell into place.” (The museum beneath the plaza is scheduled to open a year later.)

We peered into the memorial’s north pool, a 200-foot-square pit that, along with the south pool, was built on the footprint of the destroyed World Trade Center towers. When sheets of water start pouring down the 30-foot-deep gray granite walls, “I think it will take peoples’ breath away,” Ward said.

New Competition

The Port Authority dissolved an agreement contracting the entire site to Phoenix Constructors, a joint venture of Fluor Enterprises Inc., Skanska USA Civil Northeast Inc., Bovis Lend Lease LMB Inc., and Granite Construction Northeast Inc.

By opening the work up to many contractors -- some 17 of them on-site now -- the “competition drove real efficiencies,” Ward said.

He pointed to the skeleton of the memorial’s visitor center, where contractors are beginning to install a tilted web of window supports around a pair of “tridents,” fragments from one of the twin towers wrapped in protective fabric. “We didn’t think we would have the pavilion’s structural steel up by the 10th anniversary,” said Ward. “We have it up now. We’re very pleased with that.”

Out of Limbo

Above us loomed the steel frame of Tower 4, designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. It’s the first of three office towers that developer Larry Silverstein will build east of the memorial site. Two years of negotiation with Silverstein on how much the Port Authority would pay for the towers’ construction left that eastern side in limbo, Ward said, including Santiago Calatrava’s dramatically winged train-station entrance.

Now contractors in a 68-foot-deep pit are preparing foundations for the subway entrance and Silverstein towers 2 and 3.

With projects like Moynihan Station and its canceled tunnel to New Jersey losing public support in the wake of delays and skyrocketing costs, I wondered if infrastructure builders like the Port Authority can successfully manage transportation megaprojects. “For elected officials, realistic budgeting is always a challenge.” Ward said. “Clearing the decks on this site meant presenting a realistic budget. We’re tracking to those costs.”

Other big cities seem to manage large projects more successfully.

‘Willing to Spend’

“That is more a function of governments being willing to spend money on projects, or wealth in other parts of the world,” Ward said. “Not the lack of capacity locally or the Port Authority’s ability to deliver a project.”

We walked along the roof of the Number 1 subway tunnel, which rumbled underneath on temporary supports. Eventually Greenwich Street, which had been cut off when the twin towers were built, will again cross the site.

“We’re building the permanent box for the train from the top down to the bottom of the pit, so that the memorial plaza can be ready on time,” Ward said.

To one side, huge beams carried the graceful arches Calatrava had designed to roof the PATH commuter train platforms. Builders painstakingly set the beams and arches above a protective roof over passengers headed to trains that have run throughout construction. “This is the heart of the project in terms of engineering and construction complexity,” Ward said.

In other Port Authority projects, architect Skidmore Owings & Merrill will design the rebuilding of LaGuardia airport’s cramped central terminal. At John F. Kennedy airport, an expansion of Terminal 4 will allow, among other things, demolition of the flying-saucer-roofed Terminal 3 -- “that monstrosity,” Ward said.

The Port Authority has also started building some train-level and passenger-concourse improvements at benighted Penn Station. “By the time we get the transportation improvements done in about two years, we think the federal government and Amtrak will be willing partners in the next phase of development.”

Progress at Ground Zero offers hope.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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