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The Complex

The politics at ground zero have been painfully difficult. But its construction demands may be even worse.


N ine years into the rebuilding of ground zero, and we’re just now getting unstuck. The stakeholders are wrapping up their arguments over who controls which slices of the site, having finally settled on a schematic plan, memorial design, timetable, and financing arrangement that everyone can more or less live with. The public spent a decade being worn down by politics and arguments: Larry Silverstein versus the Port Authority. Pataki versus the NYPD. Libeskind versus David Childs. Bloomberg versus Paterson. Memorial designer Michael Arad versus the victims’ families. All around those debates swirled the question of whether, economically, this project makes any sense at all, dumping as it does 12 million square feet of office space onto a now-deflated commercial market. Even if you did believe the whole thing should happen, it has been excruciating to watch the site get caught in the old New York snarl of permit agencies and sluggish bureaucracies and every possible variety of red tape.

Those issues, at least, are not physical realities; they’re obstacles based on human nature. Yet, for a long time, they obscured the perhaps even greater problem of building on what is probably the most difficult construction site in history. The architects and engineers involved have known this all along, of course, and now that construction is roaring forward, the rest of us can see what they’ve been up against. Every bit of land at ground zero is crowded with supplies, workers, and rising steel and concrete. One World Trade Center (the skyscraper formerly known as the Freedom Tower) is 26 stories high and beginning to poke its head into the downtown skyline. Even at quarter-height, its density and bulk are evident, and you can start to grasp how jammed up against the path tracks it is. Its neighbor at Four World Trade is up to about five floors, hard by the 1 train that continually rattles through the center of the site. The two memorial pools are framed out, and underground construction is moving forward on Santiago Calatrava’s swoopy transportation hub. Foundation work for Towers 2 and 3 starts next month, and the contaminated Deutsche Bank building, looming over the southern end of the site, will come down later this year to make way for Tower 5. Libeskind’s abiding idea—five towers standing guard around a sunken memorial—is inching toward reality.

Actually, “five towers” is a misnomer. It’s really all one giant sixteen-acre mega-building, with many zones held by many stakeholders, their structures intermingled “like metastasized synapses in the brain,” says T. J. Gottesdiener, the partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who’s going to end up spending at least a decade of his life directing his firm’s chunk of the job. The buildings’ foundations and underpinnings are seven levels deep, all knitted together, and in the future, as you walk around the concourse levels, you will constantly be changing jurisdictions, sometimes every few feet: in Port Authority territory here, on MTA turf there, entering privately developed space around the corner.

That’s a major reason the construction has appeared even slower than it has been: A lot of significant work has taken place out of sight. One World Trade alone has 350,000 square feet of space beneath the surface. (For comparison, that’s the entire size of its 25-story neighbor at 44 Wall Street.) Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority, puts it this way: “What people don’t realize is, setting the foundations, doing the preliminary work below grade before the tower could even be visible to the public, was three years in the making.”

Two tunnels run through the sixteen-acre World Trade Center site: the 1 subway line, north to south, and the path tubes, looping through and going directly under One World Trade. This is not an abnormal obstacle on its own; New York architects and engineers deal with subway tunnels under their buildings all the time. Consider, though, what they have to do here, since the underground memorial is bisected by the subway: prop up the “box”—the tube containing the subway tunnel, now exposed on its top and sides—and pour a new foundation under it, piecemeal. It can’t move an inch during all this, of course, lest the tracks misalign or the walls crack. The MTA has movement gauges all over the site, and the limits are given in millimeters. One staffer involved with the project said flat out, and very much not for attribution: “They should’ve shut that train down for three years, and demolished the whole thing and started over.” Why didn’t they? It’s the only train running to South Ferry and thus serving Staten Island’s ferry commuters.

You can pile up superlatives about the new towers from here to the 102nd floor. Two large cranes sit atop One World Trade right now, either of which can pick up 70,000 pounds in one yank. “Did you see the counterweight on the back of that thing?” Ward asks me. “It’s the size of a fucking house.” The immense girders at the base of the building (“Those big pieces of steel are psycho to think about,” he adds) weigh 70 tons apiece, and every one came over the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway, at dawn. Altogether, 45,000 tons of structural steel will go into the first tower and 22,000 tons into the transportation hub. Much of the plaza structure is (counterintuitively) being built from the top down instead of the bottom up, because the memorial is scheduled to open before the lower concourse does. Right now, there are about 1,400 construction workers on the site, and by next year, that number will swell to 2,100. If everyone working in One World Trade were to make his way downstairs at lunch, it would take half a day, which is why there’s a structure hanging inside called “the hotel”: a stack of shipping containers two stories high, containing bathrooms, offices, and a Subway sandwich outlet. Every time the center of construction activity shifts, the hotel is jacked up a couple of stories.

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