NEW YORK — The tourists from California peered through the slats of a metal fence surrounding the World Trade Center site, looking down into the nearly empty 16 acres for a sign of what happened here on September 11, 2001.
Four years after terrorists hijacked jetliners that destroyed the twin towers, Steve and Marta Pilling thought they would find a memorial, something more than the names of the 2,749 victims on panels attached to the fence.
“This reminds me more of a construction site,” said Mr. Pilling of Murrieta, Calif.
Because the downtown Manhattan site is both a valuable piece of real estate with grand plans for skyscrapers and museums and the place where the nation’s worst terror attack occurred, it has driven a rebuilding process fraught with delicate negotiations among politicians, developers, architects and family members.
“It’s the most emotionally charged building project in the world,” said Robert Yaro, head of the Regional Plan Association advocacy group in New York.
Common ground at ground zero has been hard to find: Ambitious plans for everything from a 1,776-foot tower to a performing arts complex are on paper, but construction on most buildings has yet to begin.
Leaders of the process say a remarkable amount of work has been accomplished, and that rebuilding a site like this one is unprecedented.
“The public has to understand, it’s not just ‘build some buildings,’” said Daniel Libeskind, the architect who created a master plan for the entire site. Others say the plans are unfocused and prioritize rebuilding office space with a tallest-in-the-world skyscraper over a memorial and more pressing community needs.
“The memorial itself has been an afterthought,” said Bill Doyle, whose son, Joseph, died at the trade center. “It’s astounding to me that the only thing they have up there after four years are a couple of posters.”
The Freedom Tower has suffered more setbacks and missed deadlines than other plans for the space, which include four more office towers, a memorial surrounded by a grove of oak trees, a performing arts center and separate museums devoted to September 11 and to freedom.
City police last May forced rebuilding officials to order a third design of the building after police expressed concerns that it was not secure enough to withstand a potential terrorist attack.
The tower, which first had been scheduled to be “topped off” — with its steel structure in place — by 2006, is now set to open in 2010 or 2011. It is the cultural and memorial space that has provoked the most vehement, emotional responses of some family members of September 11 victims.
Leaders of several family groups recently started a “Take Back the Memorial” campaign, saying that including any museums other than one memorializing September 11 is inappropriate on the site. Some take offense at a design that places the memorial museum below ground.
“I will never go underground to remember my Marine firefighter brother,” said Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother, Firefighter Sean Tallon, was killed at the trade center. “We are not doing the right thing at this sacred site.”
With no plans to move the memorial museum, the status of the other two museums chosen for the site more than a year ago is in jeopardy. The Drawing Center is looking for a new home, and the Freedom Center will need to satisfy rebuilding officials with more details about its content before it can ensure its spot.