- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

NEW YORK Larry A. Silverstein, the developer who holds the lease on the World Trade Center site, used to be a low-profile operator in the bare-knuckle world of Manhattan real estate. Unlike Donald Trump, for example, he did not turn up in the tabloids.
But all that changed Sept. 12, 2001, the day after hijackers plowed two airliners into his prize property and landed him at the center of a struggle with the city's most powerful political and economic interests.
Mr. Silverstein, philanthropist and yachtsman, insisted from the start that he would rebuild the trade center and its 10 million square feet of office space with proceeds from his insurers. Despite the much-ballyhooed design contests, he is determined to rebuild with his own architect.
"All the necessary decisions are being made now," he said recently in an interview with The Washington Times at his bright Fifth Avenue offices.
Rapping the table with his knuckles three times, he added, "The first steel for what I call the iconic towers, the world's tallest building with its 1,776 feet, will rise in 2006 and be finished in 2008."
If all goes according to plan, new steel for five buildings on the 16-acre site would be set consecutively each year until completion by 2012. With mounting certainty in his voice, he added, "It will be illuminated at night, and it will redefine the New York skyline."
But the scenario playing out is not so tidy.
Mr. Silverstein signed a 99-year lease on the 16-acre site, which is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, on July 26, 2001, six weeks before the September 11 terrorist attack.
But for a dermatologist appointment, he would have been in his trade center office the day of the attack. Two of his children, who worked at the towers, also were running late that morning.
As rebuilding plans got under way, it seemed to many that Mr. Silverstein had been pushed aside by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC), the big-shouldered agency created to oversee the design and construction. After a robust public-relations assault and a stiff letter to the LMDC that was made public, the builder got their attention.
When Mr. Silverstein talks about Daniel Liebeskind, the celebrated Berlin-based architect chosen by the LMDC with much fanfare, he is diplomatic but firm: "What Dan did was provide a series of sketches, and those aren't plans. In the last analysis, we will design the buildings.
"What the public has seen are conceptual drawings that now need to be developed into something that is workable and functional. That's my job."
More vexing to the 71-year-old tycoon is the question of how much the insurance companies will pay. This depends on whether Mr. Silverstein prevails in a legal battle with the 23 insurers of the center. He says the two-plane attack constitutes two "occurrences" not one as the insurers insist.
If he wins, the payout will be $6.7 billion. If the court decides the attack was one occurrence, Mr. Silverstein will be eligible for $3.5 billion. Building is already under way for a 52-story skyscraper at World Trade Center, another Silverstein structure that was covered by a separate insurance agreement.
If the legal wrangling spells headaches for the developer, Steven Brill's new book, "After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era," is a migraine. The author charges that within hours of the Twin Towers' collapse, Mr. Silverstein was on the phone with his attorney, plotting to change the terms of the policies so he could increase the payout.
Describing him as a "slight, tense-looking man whose white hair seemed poorly dyed," Mr. Brill also accused the builder of maneuvering to take for himself a minimum of $1 billion.
Mr. Silverstein's voice rose from whispered indulgence to high-pitched indignation. "It's nuts," he said, saying Mr. Brill had been "reached" by one of the insurers.
"It's the grassy-knoll theory," his public relations representative chimed in.
A series of intricate court actions have set the scene for a trial with oral arguments set to begin early next month. "We're riding a bucking bronco, but we're hanging on to it," said Marc Wolinsky, one of the Silverstein attorneys.
Mr. Silverstein concludes his visit with a symbolic moment he shrewdly has shared with several reporters. A Montague Dawson picture on a nearby wall depicts a storm-racked ship on rough seas, its sails tattered, heading for home port as shards of sunlight break through the clouds.
"It's a symbol," the building baron whispered. "New York will come back stronger than ever."


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