Blast of Personal Truth from Port Authority’s Chris Ward

East, Newsletter
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
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From the roof of the Memorial Pavilion on August 29. (Courtesy Tami Hausman)

The memorial as we looked down from the roof of the Memorial Pavilion on August 29. (Tami Hausman)

Far from the expected pablum that these events usually generate, Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority, gave a speech opening the New York Building Congress yesterday loaded to bear with fight, a lot of Good Fight, demanding continued federal funding for infrastructure. Along the way, he recalls his own version of the tortured path from Ground Zero grind to the Memorial Moment of meditation to come.

It’s quite a version and well worth a close read as he “recalls” Libeskind’s master plan as “gardens in the sky” and how that was “replaced with another vision, as realities of the site, the market” set in. Then he talks about “Breaking Away from Monumentalism” and “The Assessment” thanks to the Port Authority, which may or may not be the stinking months of pissing match between PA and Silverstein as they wrangled about responsibility for building the first then the other towers.

Sit back—but fasten your seat belt—You’ll be amazed to read what you went through:

Welcome

I want to start by thanking Dick Anderson and the New York Building Congress for the invitation to speak here today.

For over 90 years, the New York Building Congress has championed infrastructure investments and supported the Port Authority in its mission. Their most recent report “Building Infrastructure Pays Dividends” quantifies just how important this type of investment is.

Introduction

In twelve days, the world will gather Downtown to remember and commemorate the nearly 3,000 people who were lost on September 11th, 2001. It will be ten years.

When the family members gather alongside President Obama, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie and Mayor Bloomberg on that day, they will place their hands on the bronze parapets etched with the names of those we lost. They will see the fountains flowing into the voids of the original World Trade Center. They will walk among the hundreds of Swamp Oak trees planted on the plaza.

This, frankly, is a remarkable achievement. It is a testament to the discipline and hard work of Port Authority engineers, our partners and the construction workers toiling on site.

For many who lost their loved ones, this event may not bring closure. The attacks of September 11th were so devastating that closure may never be the appropriate word to describe how we come to terms with that terrible day.

But I believe that the tenth anniversary does represent a significant inflection point. Dates are important. And on this anniversary, I believe the opening of the Memorial Plaza represents the end of the World Trade Center site’s past and the beginning of its future.

For the first time, the public will be able to walk among the trees and fountains and in so doing, begin the important process of weaving this Memorial at the heart of the site into the fabric of New York City.

Today, I want to talk about how the Port Authority stepped back from a difficult conversation about what the World Trade Center should be, stripped the site of what I call monumentalism, and focused on construction, of what it could be.

I will then talk about how the challenges that we have faced at the site are unfortunately part of what I would call the deterioration of the social contract. And I will argue that in order to build the next generation of critical infrastructure projects, we need to restore a critical constituency – the pragmatic center.

If we are again to become a nation, a City, of builders, current politics cannot endure; we will not only lose the public works that made us great, we will lose our democratic center that has bound us as a nation.

A New Downtown

On the 10th anniversary, the public will get its first real look at the New Downtown. They will see the Memorial Plaza, a place of profound tranquility for those who lost a loved one and wish to honor their memory. To read a name.

But the Memorial Plaza, with 8 acres of unique green space, four times the size of Bryant Park, will also be the heart of a New Downtown. It will be a shaded park for office workers to grab a sandwich; a place for a couple to meet in the early evening before a date; or, a shortcut on a rainy day. It will be New York.

The Port Authority’s investments will yield the magnificent Calatrava Transportation Hub, which will redefine the commuter experience, connecting 13 subway lines, 33 bus routes, the PATH system and our Ferry Terminal – the most mass transit connections anywhere in New York City.

With our new partners from Westfield, this new site will house world-class retail and restaurants throughout nearly 500,000 square feet in total. With more retail space than the Time Warner Center, this – together with a collection of new public parks – will make Downtown the 24/7 community that Mayor Bloomberg, Shelly Silver and the community have long envisioned.

And finally, with One World Trade Center, New York will have a new exclamation point in the sky. One World Trade Center will be Downtown’s counterpoint to the Empire State Building in Midtown, restoring that balance to the skyline. New Yorkers take pride in their skyscrapers, and as the building reaches its towering apex, it will become a vital part of daily life in this City.

The site will be open, it will be democratic, it will be a clear demonstration of the City’s energy and vitality. It will be the New Downtown.

Monumentalism at the World Trade Center

But this reality was not always a foregone conclusion. For many years after the attacks, the World Trade Center site was bogged down by what I call “monumentalism.”

The tension between the visions of monumentalism and the recurring reality of failure, of visions and plans unrealized, is not unique to the World Trade Center. It has been present throughout the City’s history.

Think of the colossal vision for a huge East Side development for the United Nations – what was then dubbed “X-City” – a plan to build six skyscrapers, three housing complexes, one hotel, an opera hall, a yacht landing and a heliport. That monumental vision was ultimately reduced to the more practical size we see today.

Even the original plan for the World Trade Center was not the 16-acre site on the west side, but a huge low-slung complex taking up most of the East Side highway.

But think also of those visions that were realized. That today define New York.

I think it is fair to say that Olmstead’s monumental vision for Central Park defines New York perhaps more than any other project. But what would New York City’s urbanism be without Rockefeller Center? Think about the transformation still underway at Battery Park City.

So we have seen monumentalism succeed triumphantly and we have seen it fail spectacularly.

Through the early years, the World Trade Center straddled this divide between success and failure. Think of the early days after the attack, the City itself launched into a collective exercise to fill the void. Seeking the visions of world-class architects, eight plans were put forth. Some so out of context, in terms of shape or form, they went well beyond reimagining the City.

Think about how Downtown was described at the time, the very language that was used to describe the vision. There was the rhetoric of patriotism, of national pride, of sending a message – that New York must be number one again. Leaders and elected officials spoke time and again of the monumental need to build a new downtown.

And so, in 2003, the Libeskind Master Plan was adopted. Soaring glass towers, glinting sunlight, gardens in the sky, sunken highways, and a vast memorial space.

But soon that plan was replaced with another vision, as the realities of the site, the market, and what it might actually look like began to set in.

I would argue that what filled out that Master Plan became even more monumental, as the City poured its whole civic heart into the site. And so came the tallest skyscraper in America, 10 million square feet of office space, a museum and memorial of such breadth and power, a new street grid, the third-largest transportation hub in the city, and a performing arts center. It was all to be there, on sixteen acres, linked together in one monumental project. And it was all to rise at once.

Breaking Away From Monumentalism [PS! You know who you are!]

By time I became Executive Director, the monumentalism of the World Trade Center Site Plan – the tension between its soaring vision and the realities of construction – had reached a breaking point. At that point, what we had was a beautiful set of renderings, but very few blueprints.

So the Port Authority undertook a comprehensive assessment of the World Trade Center project. [PS! Some might say The Assessment was May 2006 when Guv Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg brought in Frank Sciame to figure out how to keep Memorial in line with promised $500 million budget.]

As we undertook the Assessment, there was a desire in some corners to reverse the trajectory of the seven years since 9/11, to wipe the slate clean and start again. But, as we quickly realized, there was no rewind button to undo the billions of dollars already committed.

What we could do, however, was level with the public about the circumstances on the ground and be forthright about cost, schedule and risks. We were candid about the difficult challenges facing the site. Then we went out began attacking each one.

Before the Assessment, the 9/11 Memorial was not scheduled to open until 2013. This was simply unacceptable.

But by setting a clear priority – to actually open on the ten year anniversary – the Port Authority engineers did what engineers do best. They solved the problem, seeing a whole new way to approach the job.

Instead of building the Transportation Hub from the bottom up, we switched the design to build it from the top down. This way, the Hub’s roof, which doubles as the Memorial Plaza’s floor, would be finished in time for the ten-year anniversary.

From there, we re-engineered the Transportation Hub itself, simplifying the beautiful, yet extraordinarily complex Calatrava design [P.S.! Still costs over $3.2 billion dollars].

And we completely restructured our procurement process – the way we buy and implement the billions of dollars of construction contracts – going from a huge single package of work with no real milestones and little accountability to multiple smaller packages that we competitively bid to a hungry market. It is amazing what a little competition can do.

I often compare the site to an enormous game of pickup sticks, where you can’t change anything without affecting the entire site. Over the past years, the Port Authority and our partners – the 9/11 Memorial Foundation, Silverstein Properties and the hundreds of contractors on site – have gotten very good at playing pickup sticks. I want to personally thank Joe Daniels and Larry Silverstein for their partnership in getting us to this point. It has truly been a team effort.

Aside from the creative engineering solutions we implemented, we also made other, more symbolic decisions to reposition the site. Perhaps no other action speaks to this more than our renaming the Freedom Tower to One World Trade Center.

The name Freedom Tower loomed over the site, carrying all the symbolism and monumentalism of those early years after the attack. From a real estate perspective, it loaded the site with a difficult image that experts said would make it hard to lease.

So we replaced the name “Freedom Tower” and the building’s address, “One World Trade Center.” We were free before 9/11, and we are free today.

Just like we had to start treating the World Trade Center site like a construction project, we had to start treating this building like a commercial office building.

Making Progress at the World Trade Center Site

On the heels of these important decisions, the Port Authority began to make striking progress at the World Trade Center.

In 2008, the site was still defined by the family ramp down to the pit.

Today, progress at the World Trade Center is advancing on every inch of the site, and you can see and feel the difference.

At the Memorial, workers are putting the final touches on the plaza. 225 trees are planted. Grass has gone in and we are getting ready to welcome the world on September 11th.

When we published the Assessment in October 2008, our schedule anticipated the completion of the Memorial’s Visitors Center by the second quarter of 2013. As you can see, we are well ahead of schedule. The Visitors Center, which will serve as the entrance to the 9/11 Museum, is nearly complete.

At One World Trade Center, we are now at the 80th floor. One World Trade Center is now the tallest building in Lower Manhattan at more than 960 feet above street level, surpassing 40 Wall Street.

Floor slabs for One World Trade Center are at the 71st floor and the glass curtain wall is up to the 52nd floor.

We are accelerating work on the World Trade Center Transportation Hub’s concourse area in the East Bathtub and have made tremendous progress in the Main Hall.

Larry Silverstein’s Tower 4 is rising rapidly in the southeast corner of the site, and the curtain wall provides a beautiful reflection of the Memorial’s South Fountain.

And all this work is being performed by 3,500 construction workers. At a time when unemployment in this country is at unacceptable levels, the World Trade Center is truly a job creation engine in the region.

So we are finally seeing tangible progress. This progress is happening in part because we learned the lessons from the difficulties of the early years – that it is better to focus less on the monumentalism of a project and more on hard and fast decisions like pragmatic design, construction milestones and budgets.

The Evolution and Deterioration of the Social Contract

But having spoken of this bright future for Downtown, I must share that I do not have the same optimism for both the City and the Country going forward.

Like the World Trade Center, we can reverse course, but it will require a major correction in how we talk about infrastructure and how people come to understand their role in shaping this new agenda. Change we must.

At times, I worry that America’s dewy eyed nostalgia can blur our real history, but think back to that incredible time of building in America – the Progressive Era.

Emerging out of the good government movement – which swept out corruption and the power of political machines – we launched a revolution in infrastructure. It is no coincidence that the New York Subway System, Water Tunnel Number One and Grand Central, the hallmarks of a modern New York, were all opened at that time.

It was the Progressive Era because we wanted change; the Nation and City understood its future lay ahead, not in some fixed idealized political past.

And, out of this Era, a social contract was formed, establishing an American pragmatism – a center – that said we will endorse a government that, in fact, builds that better world.

For the decades that followed, this country continued to build great works of public infrastructure.

But that center is quickly vanishing.
Across the country and in this region, we have seen both leaders and voters reject that vision.

For all his vaunted optimism after the Carter years, Reagan also launched a darker strain in American politics, that somehow government itself is the problem, and that you can always do more with less.

No doubt, that strain ran through Gingrich’s Contract With America, Grover Norquist’s No Tax Pledge, and to the Tea Party of today. But the left is not without its responsibility; too often, we have seen rigid opposition to social and private sector market innovation.

Today, we are truly seeing the consequences of that slow deterioration of that social contract. The recent debt ceiling debate in Washington is the most depressing reminder.

Without action, 90 years of infrastructure investment will be left without a future. But I believe, in a small way, The World Trade Center Project provides somewhat of a model for how we might restore that pragmatic center.

In turning the site from a monument into a construction project, setting realistic budgets and deadlines, we were candid and transparent about how much it would cost and when it would be completed. For the public’s support and endorsement, that must be the foundation of all large-scale projects moving forward.

Whether it was the early years of the Trade Center, or more dramatically, the Big Dig in Boston, the public has grown increasingly cynical of what we do.

But shaped by a different narrative, not one simply characterized by boondoggles for what was obvious cost underestimating, the Big Dig was a huge success for Boston. Think of it: Two Major Tunnels, a brand new bridge, a beautiful park built over the highway, all of it linking Boston back to its historic waterfront. I would say they got their monies worth; what they did not get was realistic schedules and budgets. That is government’s responsibility.

Restoring the Pragmatic Center

But the public and each one of you have a responsibility as well. We all need to be a part of restoring that pragmatic center and changing the political conversation.

The Port Authority recently sought to significantly raise its tolls and fares, and inserted itself into that conversation. In an instant, we became subsumed in the political environment I have been describing – one with little capacity to support the investment our region’s economic backbone so desperately needs.

By the end of it, we emerged with a ten-year capital plan that in some ways is all too modest – one that keeps our transportation network in a state of good repair to be sure, but not one that expands it in any transformative way. That agenda was unthinkable in this environment.

But what have we lost when the standard is not whether you can get to your job efficiently, fly around the world, ship billions of tons of cargo, or even build a brand new City downtown? No, it has become the price of a pair of blue jeans, the cost of a new TV.

Surely, this cannot be the standard by which we judge or govern a great City.

Unfortunately, you cannot always do more with less. Sometimes you must simply do more. And until that reality becomes part of our political conversation, we will be playing catch up with the rest of the world.

Change we can. But change has to come from both government and its people. I have known many of you for years. I know what you stand for. What is important to you. You are the pragmatic center. I believe we can build the next generation of critical infrastructure projects, and I believe we can restore that social contract. But we need your help to get there.

Conclusion

At the World Trade Center today, we have proven that by restoring the public’s confidence, we can build big. By focusing on the decisions that really count, by putting aside monumentalism, we are ready to open the Memorial in 12 days, a goal that seemed unthinkable three years ago.

But we are not just building a Memorial, we are delivering a vibrant city within a city – a sprawling Transportation Hub, the tallest skyscraper in North America, and the critical infrastructure to support it all.

And while it is the Port Authority’s job to translate the site’s monumental vision into concrete, steel and glass, the World Trade Center will not be what a politician or a cultural leader tells you it should be. It will be what you make it. It will be your Downtown.

Thank you.

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