Facing Reality

Yesterday’s newspapers reported what we, as New Yorkers, had already understood for a long time: that the plans for the new structures that were supposed to replace the World Trade Center were irretrievably screwed up, and that, without several months of further analysis, it would not even be possible to make a reasonable projection about when they might be finished.

We used to be a city, and a nation, of big plans and big achievements: the first New York subway was designed and built from scratch in eight years; we won World War II; we went to the moon in a decade; the original World Trade Center towers were built in eight years.

After the attacks of 11 September, we rebuilt the necessary pieces of infrastructure pretty quickly: the power grid got fixed in a few months; the IRT subway that ran through the site was reopened in a year (it would have been sooner, but Governor Pataki wanted to preside at the reopening ceremony); the PATH terminal and the tunnels to New Jersey were back in a little over two years.

And then, when it came to properly rebuilding the site, the wheels fell off.

What happened?

There are lots of things that one could point to, but an obvious one is the difference between leadership and management. The Port Authority in the 1960s, had a vision of how they would improve the city by building two really tall buildings. They held on to their vision, despite some measure of public opposition, and the original Twin Towers were built.

Today, the management of the project is fractured. The Port Authority owns the site, but is subject to direction from the state, the city, Larry Silverstein (to whom the World Trade Center site was leased shortly before 11 September), and a cast of characters. Worse, nobody seems to see anything wrong with this.

A project like this, with many competing interests, needs leader whom everyone trusts, who has a reasonable understanding of the interests involved, who can fairly decide when someone won’t get exactly what they want, and who has the authority to make his decisions stick,

But that isn’t the modern management style. There are no heroes; there are no ‘lone wolves.’ Instead there is management by consensus, a thoughtful balancing of the interests of the ‘stakeholders.’

The problem is that leads to decisions that are ‘safe,’ but really crappy:

  • The proper way to show that we refuse to give in to the terrorists is to build something as awesome as the original Twin Towers. Replicating the Towers would be a good idea, but isn’t the only alternative. But as much as the site and the New York psyche cries for iconic skyscrapers, that would be too dangerous. So instead we have a parade of boxes.
  • The actual height of the Freedom Tower (minus the spire) is actually only slightly shorter than the original Twin Towers. So it really isn’t that much less dangerous, if we’re worried about an event similar to 11 September.
  • And who gave us the name ‘Freedom Tower’? The site is still called the World Trade Center, and the other buildings will carry World Trade Center addresses. Are we really celebrating freedom in a building that had to be redesigned so as to make it more resistant to truck bombs?
  • The Port Authority, afraid that commercial tenants might not want to occupy an iconic skyscraper, has leased about 30% of the space in the Freedom Tower to other government agencies. While this guarantees a revenue stream to the Port Authority, it’s also the kiss of death for A-list tenants who would pay top dollar to occupy a building where they wouldn’t have to rub elbows with civil servants.

More tomorrow, or whenever I have some time to write….

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