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A Freedom Tower Restarted From Scratch

New York Times | July 11, 2005
By GLENN COLLINS

The redesign of the Freedom Tower at ground zero was announced publicly last month amid fanfare and festivity. But its presentation was the consequence of a devastating, and expensive, private decision made in the 18th-floor conference room of Silverstein Properties at 530 Madison Avenue on an afternoon in mid-April.

"We were looking at each other and saying, my God, this is not going to work with this building," said the tower's developer, Larry A. Silverstein, recalling the moment when he sat at a mammoth conference table with the dispirited team of architects and engineers commanding the effort to hurl a 1,776-foot-tall, $1.5 billion pylon into the sky where the World Trade Center once stood.

Mr. Silverstein found himself saying: "We have to start from scratch."

There was no way that the 2003 design of the Freedom Tower - a torqued and tapered patriotic statement with crystalline lobbies below a column of shimmering glass - could be tweaked, revised or otherwise modified to assuage terrorism fears.

The New York Police Department had issued a confidential report on April 8 about the danger posed by vehicular bombs. The department's counterterrorism experts had insisted for months that the building's base was insufficiently fortified and that its 25-foot setback from heavily traveled West Street-Route 9A was too risky.

Mr. Silverstein, 74, remembers it as "a gut-wrenching moment." Foundation steel was about to be ordered and the developer was losing $10 million a month in rent. To the building's architect, David M. Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, "It was as if - now that you've finished the marathon - go again," he recalled.

Janno Lieber, the director of the trade center project at Silverstein Properties, said: "It was hard to break the news to the young architects who had been working their tails off day and night."

Thus began a marathon effort by dozens of people to assess whether, how and when a safer tower could rise above the emotionally charged land at ground zero. Ultimately, a new Freedom Tower was presented eight weeks after the embarrassing announcement that the original, supposedly definitive skyscraper would be scrapped.

Though Skidmore had designed many blast-resistant structures, "no one had ever built such a secure building that tall before," said T. J. Gottesdiener, the company's managing partner for the project.

Kenneth J. Ringler, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site, said: "We were back to Square 1. But the discouragement led to a new resolve."

First, the key designers - including the Skidmore team; Mr. Silverstein's staff; Cantor Seinuk, a structural engineering firm; and Weidlinger Associates, a security consultant - had to determine whether a wall could even be created to protect a skyscraper from a large explosion.

Then there was the question of whether the multilayered laminated glass surrounding the tower could be manufactured in quantity, "and whether it would be available in the marketplace," Mr. Lieber said.

More than 40 people at Skidmore began a desperate seven-day-a-week effort to assess concrete strengths, steel weights, window materials and glass technology. A short workday was 12 hours. A long one, 18.

To Mr. Gottesdiener, the challenge was "to build a great urban building that did not look like a concrete bunker," he said. The design's evolution was annoyingly slow. "There was never a eureka moment, just a series of confidence builders - ideas we knew would work."

Reconfiguring the building "was a three-dimensional problem," Mr. Gottesdiener said, "like an architectural Rubik's Cube." But the team realized that many of the north and south columns of the original tower, already laboriously configured to thread through the PATH tracks that ran underneath, could be retained.

And when the large parallelogram base was pared to a smaller square, the tower's distance from West Street could increase from 25 feet to anywhere from 65 to 125 feet.

It took "four weeks of furiously intensive work," Mr. Silverstein recalled, to address basic foundation and other matters. Then, on May 4, Mr. Silverstein and his team gathered in a conference room next to Gov. George E. Pataki's office in Midtown.

With the governor at one end of the table and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at the other, Mr. Silverstein made this pitch: The building could be reborn.

Mr. Childs, the architect, had armed Mr. Silverstein with drawings illustrating how squaring the original tower's base could satisfy some security requirements. But there were no renderings of the tower's fortifications; the actual building had not been designed. Afterward, the governor announced that a new Freedom Tower was needed to meet "security standards," adding: "I have no doubt that David Childs will come up with yet another magnificent design that will once again inspire the nation."

Mr. Silverstein told the governor that "we could do it by the July Fourth weekend," he said, "but finishing it even that quickly would be excruciatingly difficult."

However, Governor Pataki insisted that the design be completed and announced by the end of June, asking that the team accomplish something in weeks "that usually takes four to five months," Mr. Gottesdiener said.

Mr. Silverstein initially rejected the earlier deadline, but relented, he said, when "I realized that if we could get it done before July Fourth, then everyone could enjoy the weekend with their families."

Two of those attending the May 4 meeting would soon be even more closely involved in the redesign. John P. Cahill, the governor's right-hand man, would be sent from Albany to take control of the redevelopment effort. Stefan Pryor, chief aide at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, became president after its leader, Kevin M. Rampe, resigned.

But the nearly round-the-clock efforts by the architects and engineers lacked coordination with the work of the oft-fractious coterie of ground-zero stakeholders. So Mr. Cahill, a 46-year-old who has survived the Ironman Triathlon, began presiding over a weekly Tuesday meeting in the 20th-floor conference room of the development corporation overlooking ground zero.

The participants were Mr. Silverstein, Mr. Pryor, Mr. Lieber, Mr. Bloomberg's representatives, the Port Authority, the Police Department, the Fire Department, the state and city transportation departments, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other managers. "Many people were in their own stovepipes," recalled Mr. Ringler, the Port Authority's executive director, "but John brought them all together."

Mr. Cahill said that "I didn't much need to crack the whip," adding, "But people's egos had to get out of the way for the greater public good here."

As the deadline approached, the new design took shape. Gone were the vulnerable lobby of glass with its exposed columns, the building's twisting form, and, at the summit, an elaborate cable structure and energy-generating wind farm.

In their place was a 77-story skyscraper atop an almost impermeable 200-foot concrete and steel pedestal, draped in ornamental metalwork. Many windows would be designed to withstand bomb blasts. Above the roof would be an antenna and an illuminated spire beaming light skyward. Elevators and utilities would be protected by a three-foot-thick core built from the densest concrete that could be poured.

Even then, "Tishman had to analyze very swiftly whether this was buildable," Mr. Silverstein said, referring to the construction manager, Tishman Construction Corporation.

Still, "I don't remember a moment of crisis," said Mr. Pryor, of the development corporation, "though we had some intense meetings, and there were plenty of times when people would say, 'We don't have enough time.' "

"But the team remained very focused on meeting the governor's deadline."

Mr. Childs and the architect Daniel Libeskind, who created the site's master plan, said that they never approached the level of contention they had reached while working on the original tower. As Mr. Childs and his team slaved away, Mr. Cahill and Mr. Pryor made it their mission to keep Mr. Libeskind in the loop, and ultimately he called the design "even better than the tower we had before."

To Mr. Cahill, "the redesign would not have been a success without Daniel's involvement."

During the last frenzied weeks, a 25-member Skidmore team worked into the night and ordered pizza 10 times from Lombardi's in Little Italy - once, "three meals in a row, straight - 8 to 10 pies," said Ken Lewis, their project manager.

A week before the June 29 announcement, Mr. Childs made his presentation to Governor Pataki. "He thought it was inspiring," Mr. Cahill recalled.

In brainstorming sessions, the decision was made not to term the announcement an "unveiling," because, as one participant noted, a "re-unveiling" might draw undue attention to the junked original design.

It became public in the vast Cipriani catering palace on Wall Street, where on May 12 Governor Pataki had promised a new design by the end of June. "It was important that we had the start point and the finish point in the same location," Mr. Pryor said. "It was a fulfillment of the pledge, in the place where the pledge was made."

After "the night that nobody slept," as the project manager Mr. Lewis put it, a tower model was set up for the presentation - and the spire promptly broke. Bill Wunder, the team's master model maker, fixed it.

The governor hailed the new tower with its "replica of the torch of freedom," and the mayor called it "a powerful beacon of freedom."

Then it was time for the architect's close-up. Mr. Childs stood before an artist's aerial view of the tower. A trick of perspective gave him the aspect of a colossus astride Governors Island as he spun an urbane narrative about his newest skyscraper.

Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner, issued a statement that the new tower's blast protection was "consistent with the N.Y.P.D.'s report on the Freedom Tower." As a featured speaker that morning at the annual brunch of the Lieutenants Benevolent Association, an honor not lightly dismissed by a police chief, Mr. Kelly - whose department had prompted the redesign at a cost that has not been calculated - was unable to appear in person.

Though the redesign effort "was nothing short of remarkable," Mr. Silverstein said, architectural reviews were mixed. Design mavens began seeing correspondences between the new tower's features and previous projects. But Mr. Gottesdiener said "this was David's and S.O.M.'s effort," adding: "The design grew from the specific constraints of the site, out of a multitude of criteria, both aesthetic and functional."

These days the designers are still ordering pizzas, even as the finish line has been pushed back to 2010. It will take nine months to return to where the team was in April.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cahill is still convening his Tuesday meetings. "We have a lot of work down here," he said. "And the governor asks about it several times a day."

 

 

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