On July 4, New York governor George Pataki is scheduled to break ground on architect Daniel Libeskind’s “Freedom Tower,” the announced replacement for the demolished World Trade Center. Instead, Pataki should use his shovel to dig a hole and bury Libeskind’s design and the stench it has generated. As a new book explains, this would be a fitting conclusion to an urban-development scam seemingly of Pataki’s own making.
The Ground Zero Rebuilding Scandal is the work of Justin Berzon, a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Though no Pulitzer Prize winner, Berzon is a freshly minted writer with a nose for news and the single-mindedness of a police bloodhound pursuing an elusive suspect. His book is excerpted at justinberzon.com. (Full disclosure: I have befriended Berzon as a fellow advocate for restoring the Twin Towers. His volume discusses our journalistic collaboration.)
Berzon wondered “how a man like George Pataki had any idea Daniel Libeskind existed in the first place.” Libeskind was not a world-famous architect like Frank Gehry or I. M Pei. In fact, this Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors never built a skyscraper, never constructed anything other than three low-rise, European museums, and was not even a licensed U.S. architect until July 2003, ten months after he applied for the WTC assignment.
Libeskind did have a prominent booster named Ron Lauder. While the Estee Lauder cosmetics heir served as its chairman, New York’s Museum of Modern Art sponsored a 2001 exhibit of Libeskind’s theoretical sketches. That September 9, Lauder attended the VIP opening of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. He also financed numerous Jewish, Holocaust-related, and Eastern European concerns.
Lauder had Pataki’s ear. He chaired the governor’s State Commission on Privatization in 1995. Pataki’s wife, Libby, earned $40,000 in 2002 as a consultant to Lauder, or 8.88 percent of the couple’s joint taxable income of $450,447, the New York Post’s Kenneth Lovett reports. Lauder’s consulting payments to New York’s First Lady doubled to $80,000 in 2003, or 15.47 percent of the Patakis’ $517,030 combined income. According to The Village Voice, between 1994 and 1998, Lauder gave the state GOP $201,980 while the governor earned some $70,000 speaking to groups affiliated with Lauder.
Lauder was especially generous during the Ground Zero rebuilding debate. He gave the Republican National State Elections Committee $100,000 in autumn, 2002. It steered funds to such things as gubernatorial campaigns.
As New York’s State Board of Elections reports, Ron Lauder gave Friends of Pataki $30,000 on September 26, 2002. Lauder’s wife, Jo, also donated $28,000 to Pataki that day. Somehow, their daughter, Jane, contributed $10,000 to Friends of Pataki that day, too. Amazingly enough, on September 26, 2002, the Pataki-controlled Lower Manhattan Development Corporation secretly narrowed the 407 entries (due just 10 days earlier) to seven semi-finalists in its Innovative Design Study. Studio Daniel Libeskind was among them.
Neither Pataki’s nor Lauder’s offices, nor those of the Empire State GOP, had returned calls by presstime to explain how this happened.
The public widely panned what I call Switchblade Park, Libeskind’s jagged, angular building complex. Among the IDS’ nine competing plans, Libeskind’s never ranked above second with 16.7 percent support, in one on-line survey. Among 1,003 people the New York Times polled in a survey published January 17, 2003, only 17, or 1.7 percent, favored Libeskind.
As Berzon shows, and as Nicole Galinas detailed in the June 20, 2003, New York Post, Pataki’s LMDC tabulated both favorable and critical comments about the plans, but excluded reactions from citizens who disliked them all. This obscured widespread support for rejecting the IDS slate entirely and resurrecting the Twin Towers. Galinas’s analysis indicates that Libeskind was the favorite of only 11.5 percent of those who commented on these designs.
“The public process that inspired the plan reaffirmed the democratic ideals that came under attack on September 11th and demonstrated to a world audience the power of freedom,” Pataki told the Association for a Better New York on April 24, 2003. “To the more than 10 million people that took part in the process, New York thanks you.”
Berzon sums the roughly 6,500 people who participated in three public fora on Ground Zero’s future, about 12,000 who completed comment cards at the LMDC’s exhibit of the nine WTC site plans, and even the 20,892 people out of 32,360 who chose “Neither” when NY1-TV asked them to choose among a) none; b) a pair of latticework towers crafted by an ad hoc group of architects called THINK; and c) Libeskind. (Respondents ranked those options in that order.)
Even including the 3,432 in ImagineNY’s official poll for the LMDC (in which Libeskind came in second to Norman Foster’s geometrical twin skyscrapers) and adding the estimated 100,000 people who saw the plans in person, about 150,000 “participated” in this process, or approximately 9,850,000 fewer than Pataki claimed.
The competition culminated in a runoff between Libeskind’s plan and THINK. While Pataki’s handpicked selection committee of friends and allies reportedly selected THINK, Pataki overruled them.
The December 9, 2003, New York Post revealed that Team Libeskind encouraged its allies to call THINK’s plan “The Skeleton.” Pataki complied. “[W]hat happened was that the governor made the choice,” Libeskind’s then-urban planner, Gary Hack, told students at the State University of New York, Buffalo that October 8, “and the governor’s words, precisely, in making the choice were, ‘There’s no goddamn way I’m going to build those skeletons.’” After this article ignited fresh controversy, Hack resigned.
The Pataki-Libeskind Freedom Tower would be “Earth’s tallest building” only if one includes the hollow windmill farm and broadcast antenna that will top its 70 stories of occupied office space. “The Westin Hotel in Atlanta has 73″ floors, Berzon writes. “Imagine that–the World Trade Center having fewer floors than a Georgia hotel.”
In his Association for a Better New York speech, Pataki crowed that Libeskind’s so-called Wedge of Light was a “spectacular entranceway to the site, where the sun will shine without shadow the morning of every September 11th.”
The Wedge of Light is a Slice of Darkness. While Libeskind’s buildings do not block the sun, the 58-story Millenium Hilton Hotel, immediately east of Ground Zero, casts an enormous shadow across the site, precisely when it is supposed to be awash in sun rays.
Former LMDC planning director Alexander Garvin, who originally invited Libeskind into the competition, was unflapped. He said: “The Wedge of Light, in my judgment, is completely brilliant, not because of the presence or absence of shadows, but because it gives Lower Manhattan a new main square with a transit station.”
So, Pataki used his considerable authority to help a key donor’s pet artist and appear to “do something” at Ground Zero. While the Freedom Tower isn’t pretty, Pataki may not have to look at it much longer if his naked ambition takes him to Washington.
Where the Twin Towers once climbed majestically, there now festers a pattern of deception, cronyism, and inside dealing. This reeks like week-old anchovies. New York attorney general Elliott Spitzer should investigate whether George Pataki has done the unthinkable: turn a scene of mass murder into a high-rise Tammany Hall.