Residents clash with 9/11 families

By Ronda Kaysen

The rift between 9/11 family groups frustrated with the direction of the redevelopment and Downtown residents eager to see their neighborhood rebuilt just got bigger.

A group of Downtown residents and business leaders have voiced their opposition to a lawsuit lobbed by the Coalition of 9/11 Families that would halt the construction of the World Trade Center memorial.

“The fear is that the site will be mired in perpetual litigation and nobody wants to see that happen,” said John Dellaportas, chairperson of the West Street Coalition, a neighborhood group that intends to sign onto a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority. The lawsuit argues that the memorial will not adequately preserve the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers and calls for an injunction to block the construction until an alternative can explored.

The memorial design, Reflecting Absence, was selected in 2004 from more than 5,000 applicants by a panel of jurors as part of a memorial competition. The public had the opportunity to speak to the jurors before the jury saw the designs and to weigh in on the memorial finalists.

“It’s not appropriate for people who dissent from the outcome of a public process to go to court and basically overturn that process,” said Jeff Galloway, a commercial litigation lawyer whose firm, Hughes, Hubbard and Reed, is representing the various community groups. “No one stakeholder should have the ability to dictate what goes on at that site.”

Galloway, a Battery Park City resident, is also a member of Community Board 1, which will sign the brief, if the city’s Corporation Counsel permits it. Two business groups – the Downtown Alliance and the Tribeca Organization – and Battery Park City United, another residential group, may also sign the brief.

The Coalition of 9/11 Families filed the lawsuit in March against the L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority, claiming the design process did not take into account historic preservation laws protecting the footprint of the North Trade Center tower.

“We’re just trying to get the L.M.D.C. to do what is required of them by law, which is to find alternatives to their plan and find ways to minimize the damage to the remnants,” said Anthony Gardner, an executive board member of 9/11 Families and a plaintiff on the lawsuit. Gardner’s brother, Harvey, died in the Trade Center disaster.

L.M.D.C. insists it has consistently followed historic preservation law when building the memorial. “We have taken into account historic sites, which are being preserved, with great expense and great enthusiasm,” L.M.D.C. president Stefan Pryor said in a telephone interview. “To suggest that the memorial plans ought to be jettisoned for additional historic preservation objectives that have already been discussed seems to be extreme.”

This week, C.B. 1 passed a resolution calling for the memorial to be built “without further delays” and urged the mayor, the governor and City Councilmember Alan Gerson to “support the rebuilding.”

“The memorial needs to get on track and it needs to get built and we don’t feel there can be any delay,” said C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin, a member of the 9/11 memorial jury.

With much of the rebuilding effort bogged down in a political quagmire, construction on the memorial is one of the few projects actually moving forward. But even without the recent lawsuit, the memorial has had its problems. The Memorial Foundation has only raised $130 million in private funds for the $490 million memorial, which the mayor said could actually cost as much as $1 billion.

Last summer, plans to build a cultural building near the memorial were derailed by a group of 9/11 family members who said the museums at the site – the International Freedom Center, a museum dedicated to freedom, and the Drawing Center – would offend visitors.

Residents and business leaders have become increasingly impatient with 9/11 family groups that they say throw one monkey wrench after another into the rebuilding effort. When Gerson held a hearing last month to discuss the memorial, he evoked the ire of some Downtown residents who said Gerson did not come out strongly supporting the views of the residents and spent too much time considering changes to the memorial design.

The hearing “did strike those of us who testified as somewhat unbalanced,” said Pryor.

The recent lawsuit against the memorial is just one of several lawsuits filed by family groups that affect the rebuilding process. Last October, 9/11 Families filed suit against the Port Authority to stop construction of the Calatrava PATH station at the Trade Center.

Last August, another group, WTC Families for a Proper Burial, sued the city to bring W.T.C. debris buried at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island back to the Trade Center site because they argue it contains human remains.

But the lawsuits are not intended to stall the rebuilding effort; they’re intended to make sure the final result is a good one, say family members. “We’re not just wackos that are filled with grief,” said Bruce De Cell, a 9/11 Families member and plaintiff on the memorial lawsuit. De Cell’s son-in-law died in the Trade Center disaster. “We’re just trying to make sure they do the right thing so years from now people don’t look at this country and say, ‘What a piece of crap.’”

It is impossible to anticipate what people — including the critics — will actually think of the final outcome, said Galloway of Hughes, Hubbard and Reed, recalling criticism that preceeded Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Many veterans groups chafed at the prospect of a memorial that did not include epic statues of soldiers and American flags. But in the end, the memorial was hailed as one of the nation’s greatest. “I’m not a memorial expert, but I don’t think that any one of us is necessarily able to say with any authority that something is bad or is good until they actually see it,” said Galloway.


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