The World Trade Center Memorial Is Opening on Time. How Did That Happen?

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The World Trade Center site in August, 2008, left, and the site in August 2011. Photo: Courtesy Port Authority

It's exactly one month until the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the clock is ticking down to the opening of a project that has lasted almost that entire decade. On that day, in front of Presidents Obama and Bush, as well as countless other dignitaries, the world will first see the fully completed National September 11 Memorial. Remarkably, to those who followed the early years of the rebuilding of ground zero, it's taking place on time and in the glittery shadow of an ever-growing One World Trade Center. The meeting of this deadline is thanks to Port Authority boss Chris Ward and his team — including his wunderkind chief of staff Drew Warshaw, who helped write the road map that ultimately led them here. We spoke to Warshaw about all it took to get ready for next month.

Let's talk about the memorial. Is getting it open and ready most of what you're up to this month?
That is certainly our goal, our highest priority. But we’re also, as you’ve seen, trying to drive the other aspects of the site. We’ve just signed the 1-million sq ft lease with Conde Nast; we’ve just entered into an agreement with Westfield, which is the largest retail developer in the world, to develop all the world-class retail that’s gonna be throughout the site.

What is still to be done with the memorial?
The good news is that that’s fully on track. Everything that we said three years ago was going to be there is going to be there: Our focus now is fortunately on what we call Day Two, which is the public access going forward. The real focus now is how we’re going to get the public on and off that site in a safe way when you’re still in the middle of the largest construction site in all of New York.

Do you guys have estimates on the kind of foot traffic you think you’re going to be dealing with?
About 1,500 people per hour is what the target is. It’s based on the capacity of the plaza in the middle of a construction site, so it’s really based on building code and making sure we have a safe environment.

So when the public gets there, what are they going to see?
They will see everything the memorial’s supposed to be. They’ll see the two voids where the two towers once stood, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the country. They’re incredibly moving. You really have a sense of the scale of those buildings and what was there. They’ll see the names of all the victims from the attack surrounding the two waterfalls. And they’ll be surrounded by this beautiful, open, green space, which will double as a public park.


Does it feel like being in a forest?
One of the nice things about the new World Trade Center is that there will be these types of public green spaces. In addition to this, there’ll be a new park called Liberty Park. That’s going to be built a block south of the memorial.

It used to be so windy.
Exactly. It was that super-block. The other main difference there is that it’s no longer a super-block, that the plans call for a re-establishment of the street grid so that you have Greenwich Street going through the site north-south, and you’re going to have Fulton Street cutting through the site east-west.

What kind of access have the families had so far?
The Port Authority is the builder of the memorial, and the Memorial Foundation is the owner of the memorial. So they’re the ones that really interface with the families. But in the last year, because we made so much progress on the memorial plaza, the families were, at the last ceremony on 9/11, able to walk out onto the plaza. If you look at that site aerial from ‘08, when we got here, you’d see that the memorial area was really just a pit, and there’s that ramp leading down. That was sort of dubbed the family ramp, because every 9/11, the families would walk down there and they’d drop flowers in the bottom of the pit. So it was a nice moment for us, given the progress.

Ground Zero in August 2008


What’s it like up in One World Trade?
It’s extraordinary. It’s hard to believe that it’s going to go even higher. I mean, you have monopolized views of, really, all of Manhattan, and all of New Jersey. You can see Queens and Brooklyn. You’re staring right at the Statue of Liberty.

The Millennium Hilton lawsuit: Did you guys see that coming? The noise issue?
Part of the reality of rebuilding the largest project in the most congested area of the city is, inevitably, noise. Our challenge is to build this as fast as possible, and as efficiently as possible. We tried to the greatest extent possible to mitigate [the noise], but you’re still building the largest skyscraper in the United States. You’re still building three other skyscrapers, the third-largest transportation center in the city, a national memorial, a national museum. And all that’s going to make noise.

So how does it complicate your life that you’re going to have at least two living presidents down there on September 11?
I think it’s less that it’s complicating our life than it is that we’re excited. This is a chance to look back and honor the past and all those who were lost. But I think it’s also an opportunity to look forward. I think that given the presidents will be there, the world will be watching. And in addition to paying respects to all those lost that day, viewers will also see the new World Trade Center as it becomes a part of New York.

What were the actual concrete results that you saw after Condé Nast signed onto One WTC?
Condé was really the exclamation point on the turnaround downtown. We had a lot of interest before, but it’s coming in a lot hotter than it had been. Look at where this was three years ago and then look at it where it is today. Back then, One World Trade Center was called the Freedom Tower, and was regarded by most as a white elephant that would at best be filled with government tenants. And now, it’s One World Trade Center. It’s sort of stripped away the monumentalism and all that had weighed in on the site and on the building. We started treating that site as a construction project and just a construction project. I think now it’s the first address in New York.

How do you guys feel about the opening day of One World Trade?
We continue to hold to the end of 2013. We’re up to the 78th floor. We think we’re going to top out on steel on 104 in the first quarter of next year, so right now we’re on track.

So by mid-next year, you’re going to be able to look at the skyline and see how tall it’ll be?
Oh, yeah. By the end of first quarter, it’ll reach its maximum height.

But without the spire?
That’ll come on later. But right now, it recently became the tallest building in Lower Manhattan. I think a lot of people used the old World Trade Center as their compass to figure out where they were, whether it was coming up the New Jersey Turnpike or coming in from the outer boroughs, and I think you’re beginning to see that again.

What might people not know about how the Port Authority handled all of this?
Half of the memorial is built on the roof of the PATH station. So you could see the PATH train literally coming in under the southern part of the memorial pool, and then it dumps people off on the north end of the site, where the temporary PATH station is today. So the roof of the PATH station doubles as the floor of the memorial plaza. That is pick-up sticks right there. In order to deliver the memorial plaza, we had to figure out a way to ultimately build the roof first — which is the strategy the Port Authority engineers came up with during that assessment process back in summer of ‘08 — where, rather than building the transportation center from the ground up, which is traditionally how you build any structure, we had that roof built earlier so that it could work as the memorial floor. That was one of the decisions back in the summer of ‘08 that allowed the memorial plaza to be delivered on the ten-year anniversary to meet our commitment.

How’s the transit hub? Is that way far into the future?
It’s not that far. The thing is that 80 percent of it is being built underground, so you can’t see it, but much of it is being built and is built today. And then the structure that everyone sort of thinks of as the transportation hub is that going to be that Oculous; that’ll be the once piece of the structure that’s above street level, and that will be built by the end of 2014. It’ll truly be the Grand Central of downtown: It’ll connect I think 11 different subways, it’ll connect the PATH system, it’ll allow you to walk from Battery Park City and the World Financial Center all the way underground to the Trade Center site but also, if you wanted to continue going east, all the way to the MTA Fulton Transit Center on Broadway. You’ll have mass-transit connectivity like nowhere else in New York. It’s a maze today, and fortunately in a few years, it’ll be completely different.