Not since I peered over the Berlin Wall from West to East in 1987 has the contrast between capitalism and socialism been as stark as it was last week in Manhattan.
On the north side of Vesey Street, real-estate developer Larry Silverstein led the joyous, May 23 grand opening of 7 World Trade Center — a sleek, sparkling, 52-story high-rise that replaces its namesake predecessor. That building collapsed in flames at 5:20 P.M. on September 11, 2001.
On Vesey’s south side, Ground Zero remains a grim, gaping cavity where the Twin Towers proudly stood until al Qaeda agents demolished them with passenger-filled missiles.
Four years and eight months after Islamo-fascists disfigured this country, Silverstein, a private entrepreneur, delivered a skyscraper that elegantly says, “The barbarians crashed the gates, but we repelled them, with our beauty and prowess intact.”
Yards away, a tangle of politicians and bureaucrats — dizzyingly misdirected by New York’s blundering GOP governor, George Pataki — has stalled, squabbled, and spun in circles. The distinction is staggering: Above, a palace of commerce; below, a canyon of tears.
Why this jarring juxtaposition?
“The redevelopment of the Trade Center has taken an excruciatingly long time,” Silverstein told journalists in his stylish new lobby. “There is the state of New York. There is the state of New Jersey. There’s the city of New York . . . The process is a very complex one.” Once all these politicians crawled into Silverstein’s bed, it’s a wonder he has slept a wink in nearly five years.
Silverstein has obeyed his contract, which compels him to rebuild 10 million square feet among five office towers. He also has paid $10 million in rent every month since 9/11, even though the buildings he leased currently occupy a Staten Island landfill.
Nonetheless, Pataki, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Port Authority personnel, and other functionaries have dragooned Silverstein into moving the Freedom Tower, redesigning it, and agreeing to surrender it to the Port Authority upon completion. They have rerouted federal Liberty Bonds from Lower Manhattan, where Congress targeted them, to Midtown high-rises, luxury residences, and a Queens electrical plant. The Port Authority has failed to build a concrete slurry wall, without which a transit station and Towers 2, 3, and 4, cannot ascend.
Officials threatened to seize Silverstein’s property, partially to build residential units. Silverstein replied in a February 9 statement, “What the City (and the Port Authority) propose is a Soviet-style confiscation.” (His emphasis.)
Administrators also slimed Silverstein for not surrendering when they ignored his lease and shook him down for money and space.
“We thought we were negotiating in good faith,” Port Authority vice-chairman Charles Gargano told reporters March 14. “He clearly demonstrated that greed is his main motivation.”
Silverstein “has betrayed the public’s trust and that of all New Yorkers,” Pataki hissed March 16. Silverstein “must honor his commitment and finally put the interests of our nation ahead of his own financial interests.”
Greedy and unpatriotic? This is the thanks New York’s shameless politicians give Silverstein. Never mind his $500 million down payment, plus $560 million so far, to rent a non-income-generating chasm.
So, how is government handling its Ground Zero duties?
“There are a couple of trucks down there, along with a pile of gravel,” says one worker who overlooks Pataki’s Pit. “They move it from one side of the site to the other every two weeks, like clockwork.”
The Deutsche Bank Building was scarred, though not destroyed, on 9-11. Then it filled with mold. Like a weeping widow, it is shrouded in black cloth. Its dismantlement finally has begun, after almost five years of political bickering and finger pointing.
Last Friday, Gretchen Dykstra, CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, resigned her $350,000-per-year position. She had raised only $131 million of the $300 million she was supposed to generate to build “Reflecting Absence,” artists Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s monument to the 2,749 people al-Qaeda murdered at the WTC on September 11. The memorial — largely derided as a lugubrious pair of holes that coincide with the Twin Towers’ former footprints — zoomed in cost from an initial $500 million to $1 billion. Mayor Bloomberg recently intervened and capped its budget at $500 million, plunging the entire project into chaos. Among many questions on the table: How will the memorial’s signature waterfalls flow in the dead of winter?
“There is a general agreement that multiplicity of authorities, and the unclear roles, has made it difficult for anyone to move expeditiously,” Dykstra wrote in her resignation letter. “Perhaps it would help if there were one less player.”
How, then, did 7 WTC grow so smoothly?
While the Port Authority owns the underlying land, the structure is governed by a 1980 agreement, not the 99-year lease that Silverstein signed July 24, 2001, just seven weeks before al-Qaeda demolished the WTC.
Beyond that, “Government got out of the way,” says one rebuilding executive. “Politicians just were not involved in the process. Larry was free to hire his own architect, not one selected by committee, nor by the governor.” Pataki handpicked Daniel Libeskind, an eccentric, avant-garde designer, to envision the Freedom Tower. His blueprints were scotched in April 2005, thanks to NYPD security concerns. The fact that Pataki’s pet never produced anything taller than a six-story war museum in Manchester, England, hardly accelerated things.
Silverstein’s new building “is an instance where the private sector was left free to do what it does best,” the executive adds. “They started designing 7 WTC on October 16, 2001, within five weeks of the attack. Its groundbreaking occurred in May 2002. The Freedom Tower’s groundbreaking happened in April 2006, 47 months later.”
As Silverstein said March 15: “I am a builder. That is all I want to do. And when the Port Authority has not stood in the way, that is exactly what I have done — without any delay.”
Sometimes government gets it right, and sometimes business gets it wrong. But for those who doubt capitalism’s potential and socialism’s paralysis, let them come to Vesey Street.
–Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.