Today, I’m in the Financial District of New York, recovering from my midnight shopping trip and yesterday’s delicious Thanksgiving meal. Sitting blocks away from Ground Zero is always a sobering reminder of how our world has changed in the past few years. While I generally think this in terms of threats of terrorism, walking by the lunch hour at the construction site for the future Freedom Tower reminded me of another way our country has changed…

In March of 1930, the old Waldorf-Astoria was demolished to make way for a new skyscraper on 5th Avenue & 33rd St. Fourteen months later, on May 14, 1931, all 102 stories of the Empire State building were completed. The building was the tallest in the world for forty years, and remains a New York icon. Of course, since this was during a depression the amount of people working on this project was roughly 3,4000 daily. Though they did not have any of the advanced technology we do today, only five deaths were officially recorded during construction.

Okay, okay, I can see the comments from here. “So what? Anyone would have worked on any construction site during the 1930s, it was a depression!” (hey, wait!). Well, let’s consider the building of the first World Trade Center in the 1960s. In the mid-1960s, the city of New York began to clear out businesses in lower Manhattan to make room for a new world trade center. (As an aside, my grandfather’s first piece of property in America, a bar, was included in this.) Despite the immense amount of complex engineering necessary to create a slurry wall that would aptly ward out water from the nearby Hudson River (creating part of Battery Park City in the process!), the entire construction effort took only five years from groundbreaking until the official opening. Tishman Realty, one of the oldest and the best construction firms, was hired to oversee the project. The city had a vested interest in catering to the area that held the financial sector, as well as providing transportation to downtown New York directly from New Jersey.

Today, nine years after the World Trade Center was destroyed in an act of war, the buildings hardly stand above ground. Rumor has it that they will be finished around 2018, six years past the original 2012 deadline, but others say it may only be delayed by a year. The whole process, though, has been grossly politicized by state and local officials. Larry Silverstein, the head of Silverstein properties – which holds a 99-year lease on the site, gave this insight in a recent interview:

The greatest challenge to date is dealing with [changing] political leadership. We have dealt with four governors of the State of New York, five governors of the State of New Jersey since 9/11… Every time a political leader comes into office, he wants to stop and look and examine. That does not bring certainty, that does not bring predictability, that doesn’t give you a feeling of great comfort when everything you do is based upon a timeline that has very distinct requirements for completion of certain phases of a project. You can’t stop and say, “Stop everything, I want to take a look,” and shift gears. ‘Cause you got billions of dollars worth of contracts out there. To stop is horrendous. Sometimes it’s difficult for people who are not business people – people who have not been involved in this kind of project to appreciate the magnitude of lead time that’s required to order steel, to order elevators, to order curtain wall, to make design decisions – huge amounts of time. To come in after the fact, a year later or two years later, and say, “Stop, I want to look at everything,” becomes hugely problematic.

How does working with effective political leaders help you on the development side?
A person who understands the need to get the job done, to move the process forward, to get it finished and get it built
. ‘Cause he wants to see this built in his lifetime, as do I want to see it built in my lifetime, as the mayor wants to see it in his lifetime.”

In 2006, Marketplace radio gave a similar account of the difficulty of dealing with unions when construction delays first began. “[T]he managing director of the General Contractors Assn. of New York is quoted as saying that the basic pay scale for these [striking] operating engineers is between $72 and $82.65 an hour. Of course, they don’t always work a lot of hours, if they get rained out or whatever. Well, the union has rejected a five-year contract with a 6 percent increase per year. The contractors say some of those workers do little more than turn lights on and off. The union has said that it wants to make sure that members who lose jobs get phased out and get adequate retraining.”

Frankly, I’m disgusted with the way the reconstruction of the World Trade Center has manifested. (Don’t even get me started on the design.) What is more saddening than the lack of monument, though, is the fact that I know we can do better.


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