On Sunday's Gothamist publishes opinions submitted to us by readers, in this case Andrew Bast. These opinions do not necessarily represent those of Gothamist LLC or its editors.
Almost two years ago, Governor George Pataki helped to lay the 20-ton, Adirondack granite cornerstone for the Freedom Tower. And it wasn't until just this past month that the financial bickering between Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority were finally sorted out so construction could begin in earnest.
The thing is, more important than valuable commercial real estate, New York City needs a memorial. And tragically, almost five years since the attacks, we're up against a wall. Monica Iken, who lost her husand in Tower 2, wrote in the Daily News this week that the memorial is, "on a fast track to failure."
It was more than two years ago that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation orchestrated a design competition for the site. Of course, there's no way to say how much time must pass before deciding the way New York, and it's millions of yearly visitors, should remember that day, but the competition seemed to come at the right time. From 5,200 submissions (the entry fee was a paltry $25), a panel of judges spent months choosing only eight finalists. A 34-year-old, Israeli graduate of Georgia Tech's architecture school named Michael Arad emerged victorious with his design, pictured above, "Reflecting Absence." The competition was a success.
At the time, the LMDC president, Kevin Rampe, said the memorial would be built with private funds and construction would begin by the end of 2004. Only interests had pulled and tugged the entire project away from Arad's original plan. The design had changed. Gone was the facinating, ominous open space. The landscape had been infested with trees, and while the revised design still preserved the footprints with gorgeous reflecting pools, the memorial had taken on more the feel of a plaza. See the image at right. On first glance, it almost looks like a park. Rather than offering the solemn echoes of the lives lost, families wrecked and heroes sacrificed, it offered a lot of green in the unrelenting concrete jungles of Wall Street.
Not only the design changed, but the reigns were handed over to the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. The Foundation board, which includes victim's families and a host of bigwigs and financial moguls such as Howard W. Lutnick, chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, Richard Parsons, head of Time Warner and David Rockefeller, dropped a bombshell last week. The foundation recently commissioned a cost assessment. (Don't we all wish that cost, in a matter so emotionally charged for so many, wouldn't be an issue? Don't we all wish that money simply weren't part of this equation? Sadly, like it or not, the bottom line has become an obscene obstacle.) The foundation reported back that the memorial, which would house a museum, will be $1 billion. On top of that, it will cost $40 - $60 million annually to keep it running.
In a roundup entitled "Memorial Mess," the Wall Street Journal reported this week, "Even at $500 million, the memorial would dwarf the costs of similar tributes around the world." WWII memorial in the National Mall: $182 million (including an endowment to cover future operating expenses). Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin: $35 million. The Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, which will be completed this fall: $12 million.
A billion dollars is absurd, not to mention prohibitive. Building the World Trade Center itself in the 1970's cost $1 billion (according to the Times, equivalent to $3.7 billion today). More, the exhorbitant cost misses the point of what a memorial ought to be. Finally, there's not a billion in the budget. While fundraising ought to be the role of the foundation, they've ponied up $130 million, which they plan to push up to $300 million. The LMDC and the Port Authority are both pitching in to the tune of $200 and $100 million, which brings us to Mayor Bloomberg's magic number, $500 million. He says it should be a spending cap, and "let's get on with it."
Everyone's calling for leadership, and rightly so. Though Governor Pataki once called the memorial "the single most important thing we have to do in lower Manhattan," he's proved to be no savior. And despite the fact that Arad's design was chosen so long ago, and by such a respectable process, no leader has stood up to say no to the rampant competing interests. Granted, this might be the most emotionally charged site in the entire country, and in turn agreement on what to do there is fleeting at best, but the city needs to heal the wound in Lower Manhattan without dressing up the scar.
I was eating lunch with a friend Saturday afternoon who was NYPD on 9/11. He worked that day downtown, and many days after, and he said, "I haven't been back down there since. Why would I go? Would you?" What if they built a perfect, magnificent memorial? "I might go see it, but no, I don't want to go down there."
His is only one of a million wildly differing personal connections to the site. Exactly the reason the entire process has been bungled. Though Arad's original is far better than the revised design on the table today, it's doubtful the plans will revert. That said, the Port Authority ought to take charge. First, write a $500 million budget. Bloomberg's spending cap is both wise and prudent. Second, change the plan to work within that budget. Great memorials have been done for considerably less. If this means putting the museum on hold, so be it.
The Foundation must concentrate on raising money. When their contribution exceeds the $300 million they're already due, they can propose changes to the site. More than anything, this memorial must endure, to help the generations that follow to remember what happened. If it's so complicated to simply maintain the facility for at least the next century, the memorial has failed.
It's leadership that will end this mess. And what we need most in a leader now is the courage to say no.
Andrew Bast edits The New York Inquirer.