Stop memorial costbleeding and don’t shortchange Downtown

As we reported last week, $45 million of federal money the governor and mayor promised for Lower Manhattan “community enhancement” last year appears to have disappeared and coincidence or not, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is finalizing an agreement to spend yet another $45 million if there are cost overruns on the billion-dollar World Trade Center memorial. Even if the enhancement money is found and is spent on community projects, the L.M.D.C. should not further escalate the enormous public investment in the memorial.

In a world where government project cost overruns are routine, setting up a rainy day fund encourages hurricanes.

There should be a large public investment in the memorial and it will far surpass half a billion dollars. The L.M.D.C. is already paying $250 million for the memorial and museum, the Port Authority $150 million for underground infrastructure, New York State $80 million for the memorial visitor and education center, and the Federal Transit Administration $28 million for the memorial’s sidewalks. In addition, the L.M.D.C. is spending at least $266 million to buy the contaminated former Deutsche Bank building and an adjacent lot and to take the building down safely, and this land is expected to be traded to the Port in exchange for the memorial land.

Although this will be the most expensive memorial ever built by far, we acknowledge that such comparisons are not fair. The Sept. 11 attack gave us a seven-story hole in the ground that would be expensive to build back up to street level even without a memorial.

Only one part of the memorial cost-overrun formula makes sense. The Port, which is building the memorial, would have to cover the first $25 million over the Sciame-inspired $510 million memorial-museum budget. This gives the New York-New Jersey authority incentive to keep costs down.

The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation was able to raise $131 million in private donations even before it began a national ad campaign. It should be responsible for keeping the project within budget or if need be, raising more money to cover cost overruns.

With the possible shift of the $45 million into a memorial reserve fund, we’re left with the sinking feeling that the Lower Manhattan community is being made to bear more of the burden of memorial budget recklessness without the power to influence the process. Those with the power to guide the memorial’s development – the Port and the Memorial Foundation, should be responsible and take the consequences if they aren’t.

The L.M.D.C. needs to protect the $45 million community enhancement fund while they still have the mandate to do so and to create a mechanism to allocate it to its original purpose. There are huge issues confronting the Lower Manhattan community where these funds could logically be directed. None may be more important to the long term viability of the area than education; i.e., where are the kids in Downtown’s demographic boom going to find classroom seats? Another school is clearly needed beyond Beekman and the P.S. 234 annex.

Even though the L.M.D.C. is closing shop, its directors need to show strong leadership on these types of final issues.