Silverstein breaks the silence in W.T.C. dispute


Developer Larry Silverstein sometimes thinks about leaving the quagmire of the World Trade Center site behind and casting off on his yacht, but he said he’s afraid that without him, the site will never get rebuilt.

“Without a push from the private sector to move this damn thing forward, it wouldn’t happen,” Silverstein said Wednesday at the RealShare New York real estate conference in Midtown.

Silverstein’s comments were among the first he has made on the Trade Center since he and the Port Authority entered arbitration this summer. Back then, in a well-publicized dispute, Silverstein charged that the Port was years behind on key infrastructure projects at the site, preventing Silverstein from building his three office towers on Church St. To compensate for the delays and the frozen credit markets, Silverstein wanted the Port to help him finance two of the Church St. towers. The Port offered some assistance, but said Silverstein needed to put in more money as well.

The argument has largely disappeared from the spotlight as Silverstein and the Port make their cases privately before an arbitration panel. As Silverstein pointed out Wednesday, “There’s not a hell of a lot I can say, for obvious reasons.” But he went on to speak about the World Trade Center for half an hour with moderator John Salustri, editorial director for the ALM-Real Estate Media Group.

One problem with rebuilding the Trade Center has been the revolving door of New York and New Jersey governors, who share control of the Port Authority, Silverstein said.

“Every time there’s a change of executive, there’s a change of agenda,” Silverstein said. “And every time there’s a change of agenda, it wreaks havoc with everything you’re trying to accomplish if you’re trying to hold a specific timeframe.”

Silverstein also criticized the Port Authority, though he started by saying they’re “not bad people.”

“The unfortunate thing,” Silverstein said, “is the people who built the Trade Center — the last major high-rise project they were involved with — are long since gone. And the people who are there today don’t have the experience, don’t have the ability, don’t have the comprehension of what it takes, the need for timely decisions.

“You know,” Silverstein continued, “the attitude is, ‘I’ll get back to you for the decision.’ Construction doesn’t wait for people who say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ You need the decision now.”

Silverstein said he committed shortly after 9/11 to stay at the World Trade Center for 10 years to rebuild it. Now an optimistic estimate looks more like 17 years, but he said he’s not going anywhere.

“My attitude is you’ve gotta stay there,” Silverstein said. “On a daily basis, you’ve gotta make the decisions that you are required to make so the construction will flow unimpeded…. I want very much to be around to see it accomplished. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to stay right where I am.”

Silverstein said he was not worried that the Port would find a way to complete the project without him.

Silverstein expects the arbitration to finish before the end of the year. A source familiar with Silverstein’s position said a few months ago that the developer would ask the arbiters to award him at least $2.75 billion as compensation for Port delays and for all of the rent and insurance he has paid to the authority.

The panel just finished hearing two weeks of testimony from Silverstein and is now hearing two weeks from the Port, Silverstein said. If the panel rules in favor of Silverstein and forces the Port to give him the resources he needs to build the towers, Silverstein said the entire site with all three of his office towers could be complete by 2016. The Port previously wanted Silverstein to only build Tower 4 and wait to build Towers 2 and 3 until the market improved.

A Port Authority spokesperson declined to comment on the arbitration but said in a statement, “We are 100 percent committed to restoring Downtown and continue to make important progress on all of the public projects on the site, including the 9/11 Memorial, which is our highest priority.” Previously, the Port has objected to risking billions of dollars on Silverstein’s private office towers, saying the expense would compromise the Port’s ability to complete public infrastructure projects elsewhere.

Silverstein also gave a brief update on 99 Church St., the fenced-off site next to the Woolworth Building that was supposed to be an 80-story condo and hotel tower run by the Four Seasons. Silverstein stopped construction on the tower this summer after finishing the foundation because he could not get a loan to continue building above street level.

“We’re going to have to be patient,” Silverstein said. “Four Seasons’ attitude is, ‘Hey, whenever it comes, it comes. We’re there, we’re ready.’”

Silverstein said he feels the same way and he expects to get a loan in 2011 and finish the building in 2013 or 2014.