Bickering dogs rebirth of Ground Zero site

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2006, 12:00am

The arguments began long before the last of the 1.8 million tonnes of Ground Zero rubble was carted off to the eerily named Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. How to rebuild the World Trade Centre site and ensure the dead were honoured in a fitting manner?

Five years of wrangling resulted in ground being broken just three weeks ago on the foundations of a memorial, museum and visitors centre that are scheduled to open on September 11, 2009.

Two huge reflecting pools with cascading waterfalls will fill the footprints where the towers once stood and the names of the dead will be inscribed in a viewing wall that will surround the entire 35 hectare site. 'Reflecting Absence', by designers Michael Arad and Peter Walker, was selected as the winner from a competition that attracted more than 5,200 entries.

Yet from the outset the process was mired in controversy, lawsuits and delays. Families of the victims complained they were cut out of the consultation process.

The cost of building the memorial soared to almost US$1 billion, forcing a rethink of the original design. And there was tension between the WTC Memorial Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, charged with overseeing construction.

Anthony Gardner, executive director of the WTC United Family group, who lost his brother Harvey on September 11, 2001, says the politicians involved in the process, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, had the wrong priorities.

'These elected officials were more concentrated on rebuilding office space,' he said. 'Because of their focus on a political and economic agenda they overlooked the main purpose, and the irony is that their focus on schedule led to more delays.

'Had these politicians not been involved it would have been an entirely different process. It compounded the grieving process and made things more difficult as we tried to move on with our lives because we made a pledge to our loved ones to make sure they were honoured and remembered.'

Among the project's setbacks was the resignation of foundation president, Gretchen Dykstra, in June when she became frustrated that 'the multiplicity of authorities and unclear roles made it difficult for anyone to move expeditiously'.

Earlier, Mr Bloomberg and Mr Pataki criticised the foundation for raising only US$130 million in donations.

Although the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the New York Port Authority also gave US$300 million, that still left a huge shortfall, even on the revised US$650 million cost of the memorial.

At the ground-breaking ceremony on August 17, acting president Joe Daniels made an emotional appeal for more public money, including the sale of sponsored US$500 cobblestones on the Memorial Plaza. 'With the fifth anniversary of September 11 approaching, it's time for the public to join our efforts to build a lasting memorial by making a contribution in memory of those we lost,' he said.

Meanwhile, plans for the redevelopment of the rest of the World Trade Centre site also suffered setbacks.

Polish architect Daniel Libeskind's original design for an 82-storey Freedom Tower, as the centrepiece of five new high-rises, was widely unpopular and had to be reworked.

The revised tower will be four floors shorter because of safety regulations, but with a spire at 540 metres (1,776ft - to commemorate the year of America's Declaration of Independence) it will still become the tallest building in the US. It is scheduled for completion in 2011.

Although construction on the site is finally under way, there are several other controversial issues to be resolved. One is the future of the Deutsche Bank building in Liberty Street, damaged by the falling south tower and subsequently found to contain human remains. Many victims' families want demolition halted for the building to be thoroughly checked.