- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years after the Sept. 11 tragedy, construction at the Ground Zero site is finally rising above street level. In August, 24 70-ton steel columns began to be erected as part of the base for the largest of the site’s buildings. One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, is now slated to be completed in 2013 at a budget of over $3 billion. When completed it will be the tallest building in America at 1776 feet.

Three other buildings planned for the site are impressive by themselves. The roof of one of them, the soaring, crystalline Tower Two, will be taller than that of the Empire State Building. A $3.2 billion transit hub is being constructed, and work is ongoing on the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which may or may not be open by the 10th anniversary of the attacks, depending whom you ask.

We appreciate the magnitude of the task, but the fact that the project has taken so long is a standing embarrassment. Compare New York’s lack of alacrity to the rebuilding effort at the Pentagon. Original estimates were that the site would not even be ready for construction for 18 months. But by August 2002, workers were moving into offices in the reconstructed outer ring at the site where American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building. Project Phoenix, the Pentagon’s rebuilding program, adopted the motto “Let’s Roll.” The motto for Ground Zero apparently was “Let’s Not.”

There is a much closer comparison. Seven World Trade Center was located across the street from the Twin Towers and collapsed the evening of Sept. 11 after being damaged by debris and fire. Construction on the new 52-storey building started in 2002 and was completed by 2006. Not a big enough project? Look at the nearly complete super skyscraper Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Construction began in 2004. By 2007, it had risen above Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building. By 2008, Burj Dubai became the tallest man-made structure, surpassing the KVLY-TV mast in Blanchard, N.D. When completed this year, the Dubai tower will dwarf the “Freedom” tower at nearly 2,700 feet.

The reasons for the delay are not hard to fathom. Some point to the recession as one of the causes, but between 2002 and 2007 the United States experienced one of the largest building booms in its history. The Empire State Building went up in 18 months during the Great Depression, but of course that was back when America was serious.

Ground Zero has just ground along. The project falls under the guidance of 19 government agencies with no central coordinating mechanism, 101 construction companies and subcontractors, 33 designers, architects and builders. Legal wranglings between Larry Silverstein, the lease holder, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the site owner, are legendary. Add design revisions, cost overruns, accusations of cronyism and arguments over aesthetics, symbolism and political correctness — and it is a wonder anything has gotten done at all. It’s understandable that some people want to just make the area a 16-acre park and be done with it, but we doubt that would get done very quickly either.

The design for One World Trade Center has attracted substantial criticism, which is to be expected with a project of such public importance. Some of the gripes have merit. Overall, the finished site will be less impressive than the twin towers it is replacing. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times called the design “somber, oppressive and clumsily conceived, the project suggests a monument to a society that has turned its back on any notion of cultural openness.” Not to mention any notion of collective courage in the face of the terrorist threat.

The building’s most objectionable feature is the 186-foot-high windowless concrete base, which is intended to make the structure withstand truck bombs. The fact that the original towers were attacked from underground and the sky makes this surface-level concession to the hyper-security mindset somewhat overdone. And regardless of the plans to dress the concrete in colorful blast-resistant glass made in China, the base will lend a grim sterility to the streetscape in front of the building, diminishing rather than elevating people who approach it.

Tower Two boasts an inviting 65-foot lobby encased in glass. It’s just as well that the Port Authority prefers not to call One World Trade Center the Freedom Tower. Transfer that name to Tower Two, a building that tells the world that America will not cower behind blast walls, and that we do not need tons of concrete to prove that our foundations are strong.