Controversy dwarfs Freedom Tower

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am

In a gesture intended to restore a sense of optimism to the beleaguered Freedom Tower project, architect David Childs last week unveiled the building's latest redesign.

In an attempt to appease critics who regarded its previously metal-clad, security-bunker entrance as anything but a symbol of freedom, the new version features a reflective glass sheathing that covers the building's base. Improvements have also been made to the design of the surrounding plaza area.

But will the tower's proposed height of 1,776 feet ultimately be dwarfed by the controversy surrounding it?

The port authority is due to assume control of the tower from developer Larry Silverstein, but before it does so it has committed to leasing one million square feet - 38 per cent of the building's space - by September.

Port authority chairman Anthony Coscia has stated that if this cannot be done, then the tower may have to be scaled down.

The federal government has agreed to negotiate a lease for about 60,000 square feet, while other agencies such as US Customs and Border Protection and the FBI will follow suit. However, doubts as to the leasing potential of what is still perceived as a terrorist target remain.

'It's questionable at this point as to whether they will reach the potential that they're looking for,' said Andy Joynt of Boston-based Property & Portfolio Research, an independent property research firm.

'There is a sense that some firms are scared to relocate back into the world trade centre area, simply because the Freedom Tower is going to stand out. It's very possible that the building isn't going to be as large as originally intended.'

A spokesman for the Silverstein Group would not be drawn on the leasing doubts surrounding the tower, instead pointing to the fact that construction is now underway.

'Everything is at full steam ahead and work is continuing at a hectic pace down at the site itself,' said spokesman Dara McQuillan. 'The excavation of bedrock has been underway for some weeks now, and from a design perspective, we've completed the design development for the building. As far as the port authority and the governor's office are concerned, they committed to finding one million square feet of tenants for the Freedom Tower and that's now out of our hands.'

Mr Coscia admits that the port authority is 'not at that point' where it considers the project to be financially viable, however. The sense that what was intended as a totem to the United States' defiance against terrorism might instead be increasingly seen as folly driven by sentimentality, is inescapable.

'You look at the whole concept of it and you wonder how sensible the idea of building it really is,' noted one New York-based analyst who wished to remain anonymous. 'The bottom line is, who would want to work in such a blatant target?'

Others concur that a sense of pride may have blinded some to economic realities.

'For a lot of people this is an opportunity to show that New York and lower Manhattan is back on its feet,' said Paul Briggs of Property & Portfolio Research. 'They also have the insurance money to replace the building, the market in Manhattan is very strong right now and so there's good impetus to rebuild.

'However, I think it's a big risk to build a building of this size without knowing for sure that demand is going to be there.'