Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

As the plans to build the so-called Freedom Tower get clearer, so does the fact that we’re repeating the terrible mistakes we made when the World Trade Center was built originally. WHen completed in the mid-seventies, the Trade Center dumped millions of square feet of unneeded office space into an already stressed downtown real estate market, depressing it for years. The buildings would have remained largely vacant if not for the state renting almost all of one tower for government offices, adding billions to the public money already wasted on the project. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the WTC was finally rented out fully to private tenants.

And this week, Pataki announced that we’re going to do it again. Nobody wants to rent the Freedom Tower; it’s not only unnecessary in the current market place, as the original WTC was, it’s a scary place to locate your company. So, government agencies will spend millions of unnecessary dollars propping it up.

On Sunday, Gov. George E. Pataki and other officials announced that federal and state agencies would be the anchor tenants in the planned Freedom Tower, occupying a million of the 2.6 million square feet, at a rate of $59 a square foot. As of last month, the average rent for office space was $35 in Lower Manhattan and $58 in Midtown, according to Newmark Knight Frank, a Manhattan real estate advisory firm. (The New York Times)

And, unsurprisingly, state employees aren’t too happy about locating there.

“It was there in 1995 and it will be there when the Freedom Tower is completed,” Pataki said of the state government, failing to mention that it was not in 1996, 1997 and through 2001, since the Trade Center had finally been rented to private tenants.

Divided We Stand: A Biography Of New York’s World Trade Center

I read this book, by Eric Darton, a while back, but thought this was an opportune time to post about it. Published in 1999, it’s an excellent overview of the planning, construction and financing of the World Trade Center. And it’s not a pretty story: as much as we mourn our loss, the fact is that the construction of the Trade Center probably damaged New York City as badly, or worse, as its destruction.

The Trade Center was dreamed up in the 1950s by the Port Authority, an organization founded with the sole purpose of rejuvenating the Port Of New York, which instead ignored its original primary mandate (building a freight rail link from NYC to the mainland) and instead proceeded to destroy NYC as a shipping center.

“He loves the public, but not as people.”
–Frances Perkins, about Robert Moses

It was conceived during an era when the Le Corbusier vision of clearing slums to build monolithic projects was considered a good idea, rather than being recognized as the nightmare it became. The flourishing businesses downtown were considered unworthy of occupying valuable downtown real estate, so over a period of years the neighborhood was demolished and 350,000 people put out of work. By the time the WTC was finally completed, nearly 20 years after its conception, the “superblock” idea had largely been discredited and urban planning had already evolved past it.

The Port Authority also changed direction; originally founded to improve NYC as a port, it became beholden to its enormous bondholders, particularly the Rockefellers, who had no interest in shipping but a lot of interest in real estate.

The initial plan was announced in 1958, for the purpose of “exhibiting and otherwise promoting the purchase and sale of products in international trade.” as a redevelopment project on the east side of downtown, moved to the west side as a way to get New Jersey (which controls half the Port Authority) to support the project by rebuilding the Hudson Terminal PATH station (see userpic). New Jersey implicitly also got all the remaining shipping business in New York, at the expense of the Manhattan piers, Red Hook and Staten Island.

“Before people can be coerced they first have to be hypnotized and then bored.”
— Charles Jencks, discussing the WTC planning process

New York City had no control over the project. It was built with no reference to zoning or building codes (as we now tragically know all too well), and planned by the state. The project was a financial disaster, depressing the downtown real estate market for years and costing the city and state billions, directly and indirectly. For lack of commercial tenants, Two World Trade Center was rented entirely by New York State, adding millions more to the subsidies of tax benefits and free real estate the public had already funneled to the project. It never had any connection to “world trade” in any respect, never made revenue that came even close to paying off the costs, and only made an operating profit in the last few years before it was destroyed.

The Port Authority also gave New York City a “gift,” a huge plot of land in the Hudson River created from the fill excavated to build the trade center. But in the fiscal crisis, the city could do nothing with it, and instead turned it over to a state agency to build Battery Park City, which started with promises of affordable housing and ending with luxury apartments and a marina.

Meanwhile, the freight rail link remains unbuilt and remains the highest priority in regional planning.

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