Melting the frozen zone’s last 16 acres

By David Stanke

Remember the day, April 27, 2006. On April 25, Larry Silverstein accepted in principle the Port Authority’s terms for renegotiation of his lease to rebuild the World Trade Center. April 26, the day the Port approved the agreement, was the last day of the history of 9/11/2001 at Ground Zero. The next day, equipment moved into the pit to begin work on the Freedom Tower. April 27, 2006 was the first day of the future of the W.T.C.

In September 2001, after the collapse of the W.T.C., security forces took control of the site. A defensive perimeter was set up around a good chunk of Downtown New York so all rescue and recovery efforts could proceed unhindered. The zone extended from Battery Park to Canal St. and from the Hudson River to Broadway. The area became known as the Red Zone. In the red zone, private property had no meaning. Government set the terms for access. Those with badges were insiders. Those without were intruders.

The red zone was a staging ground for the recovery. It was impossible to restore homes or run a business. Life was on hold. Businesses waited or failed. People moved away. Over time, boundaries of the red zone were contracted, exposing new views of a disaster and allowing city life to struggle back, block by block.

Until last week, the red zone never completely went away. Its borders froze at the 16 acres of the W.T.C. and the blocks containing the beleaguered Deutsche Bank building. Liberty St. is still not fully open, even for pedestrians. One last private enterprise, Silverstein Properties, responsible for 10 million square feet of commercial space was held under government control.

The recovery of the neighborhood has been inspiring. People dealt with the uncertainty of environmental contamination and doubts about the viability of their homes and businesses. Some people ran at the first opportunity. Some stayed, but subsequently left, unwilling to wait out the recovery. Others tried to make it but failed, leaving empty apartments and closed store fronts. But with few exceptions, people did everything possible to take care of their own property.

The impulse to restore damaged property drove the recovery of Downtown. Government support programs for businesses and residents helped, but most of them were too late and ineffectively directed. People and businesses repairing their own property were the force that turned on the lights . . . everywhere but in the red zone.

With last week’s agreement between the Port and Silverstein Properties, the last private enterprise has been given the right to restore its own property. With that simple agreement, progress at the W.T.C. leaves the realm of politicians, special interest groups, and public debate and falls into the hands of an owner looking to restore property. Finally, that force which restored the rest of Downtown will be unleashed at the W.T.C.

The last 16 acres of the red zone was a tough nut to crack. Too many agendas have been launched and sustained on this site. Two wars have been started. The laws of this nation have been changed. The intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been restructured. Political careers have been launched. Power brokers from around the world have come for photo ops. The rhetoric and dogma have grown so routine that almost nothing said about the site has meaning.

Mayor Bloomberg’s negative media campaign against Silverstein exposed the public consciousness to just how badly things had failed. But in overloading an exhausted public, the politicians weakened the appeal of the W.T.C. as a tool for further agendas. The public doesn’t care about box beam columns. They expect a memorial, but few will see injustice in an 8-acre memorial. Not every agenda sold with “remember 9/11” is actually worth pursuing. The broader public doesn’t want to “hear” anything else about the W.T.C. They just want to see construction. They want the gaping hole of national embarrassment filled.

For weeks and months officials have blasted away at Larry Silverstein while they struggled to get their own acts together. On April 27th, those politicians stood behind Larry Silverstein for another political photo-op, smiling as equipment moved onto the site.

Was the deal with Larry Silverstein in the public interest? That is a complex question that perhaps, only time will answer. But this is not the time for accounting. This is the time to celebrate, to celebrate the dissolution of the red zone. The power of the W.T.C. as the fuel of personal objectives has been spent. Soon we will walk freely through these 16 acres again.

David Stanke lives and writes in Downtown Manhattan. His e-mail is davestanke@ebond.com.

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