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Who Wants to Move to Ground Zero?

Larry Silverstein’s 52-story vacancy problem.


Seven World Trade Center should be ready for tenants by the beginning of next year.   

There’s a compulsive quickness to Larry Silverstein’s step. It’s the walk of a man paying $228 a minute in rent on buildings that don’t yet exist. We’re crossing a muddy expanse on the way to the workers’ elevator of 7 World Trade Center, Silverstein’s new skyscraper at the northern tip of ground zero. The stout, 52-story glass tower that has conspicuously sprouted at the barren corner of Greenwich and Barclay streets should be completed by the beginning of next year. Silverstein—who signed his 99-year lease on the Twin Towers just six weeks before they were destroyed—now has 1.7 million square feet of brand-new office space to lease.

We arrive on the 34th floor and walk out of the elevator onto cold concrete. The 73-year-old real-estate developer, short and square and tan as a yachtsman, is wearing a gray suit with padded shoulders to counteract his natural schlumpiness. On top of his improbably reddish hair is a hard hat with a flag and the slogan THE REBUILDING CONTINUES. He paces around, jabbing a finger toward the skyscraper’s floors, girders, and walls. “The massiveness is the key!” he says. “See the steel beams going across? Look at the heftiness of it. The sheer strength of it. The massiveness of it!” He launches into a litany of his new skyscraper’s every safety feature. “We learned on 9/11 that you don’t build a core out of plasterboard,” he says. “Plasterboard doesn’t burn—terrific—but you can take a penknife and carve through it. It’s permitted by code, but it has no strength. It has no substance. Our core has concrete shear wall two feet in thickness—consisting of 12,000-pound concrete, the most dense form of concrete you can pour. It will sustain 12,000 pounds of pressure per square inch—without deflection. On every floor, that two-foot-thick shear wall is impregnated with 70 tons of steel reinforcing bars. Every floor!” He shakes his head, as if even he can’t believe it. “You’ve got a TRAILER-TRUCKLOAD of steel reinforcing bars on every floor of 7 World Trade Center!” Then he whispers, "Nothing is going to destroy that core."

Now Silverstein is selling the neighborhood to come—the 9/11 memorial, the new PATH station, the performing-arts center, and the 600,000 square feet of shopping (or “destination retail,” as he puts it) that will line the underground concourse that connects fourteen subway lines to a new glass Fulton Street subway station. He plays up the world-class architects being brought in to design the various buildings: David Childs, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Santiago Calatrava, the man who came up with the idea to turn the PATH terminal into a majestic, almost ethereal complex with a sexy shape and retractable roof. “My wife and I and Santiago and his wife had dinner together,” he says. “He’s an extraordinary guy. She is a dee-light-ful woman.”

While he paints a perfectly captivating picture of a shining downtown rebuilt from tragedy, that image doesn’t quite square with the immediate view. To the south, through nonreflective, non-tinted glass (“The most expensive glass you can buy!”), is the disaster area turned construction site of ground zero, where construction on the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower isn’t scheduled to start for several more months. To the north, there’s a straight shot of midtown—a pristine, symmetrical skyline view, sliced clean down the middle by the Empire State Building. This perspective is unique, but it wasn’t always. I haven’t seen a view like this—no one has—since the last time I was at the top of the World Trade Center.

“Look,” Silverstein says, pitching again. “Spectacular. Unobstructed, no matter where you work. Everything is column-free. And the curtain wall goes from the floor to the base!”

This is Silverstein’s standard sales presentation. He’s uttered it dozens of times to potential tenants, a cross section of Fortune 500 America, and they’ve all taken the same tour of the building and seen the same view. But so far, Silverstein has not been able to seduce one of them. As of now, in fact, he has secured a single tenant: Silverstein Properties.

Larry Silverstein has spent nearly four years as the odd man out at ground zero, written off by victims’ families, urban planners, and the media as the guy who was too broke to rebuild. He’s been continually upstaged by a series of louder, more mediagenic characters: George Pataki, celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, and Rudy Giuliani, who sided with calls by the families of victims for a sixteen-acre memorial. Today, Silverstein has emerged as the most important player in lower Manhattan. He has the cash and the legal right to rebuild—and with 7 World Trade Center nearly ready to rent and construction of the Freedom Tower ramping up, he’s on his way to doing exactly that. “My world has been filled with people telling me what I can’t do, what I’ll never accomplish,” Silverstein says in his halting Brooklyn baritone. That he’s made it this far can’t help but make him crow a little. It’s almost enough to make him forget that what lies ahead may be the world’s most sensitive marketing challenge: asking tenants to move to the scene of the worst terrorist attacks in history.

Silverstein has always been at the center of the unprecedented peculiarities of ground zero. Pataki and the state technically control the site—the Port Authority, which the governor effectively runs, owns the land—but Silverstein’s 99-year lease on the World Trade Center is also tantamount to ownership. Although Silverstein originally had only $14 million of his own money in equity in the place (a consortium of partners put up more than $100 million), the lease gave him the right to rebuild all 10 million lost square feet of office space, regardless of the wishes of victims’ families, neighbors, or the governor. It also gave him the authority to force through much of his own architect’s design for the Freedom Tower. An initial $3.6 billion insurance payment allowed Silverstein to keep paying the $120 million annual rent after 9/11 while bankrolling the construction of the new 7 World Trade building and the Freedom Tower, but his detractors said he still lacked sufficient funds to properly develop the site. That all changed this past December, when Silverstein won a court victory forcing some insurers to pay him for two separate attacks. Before the $1.1 billion decision, reporters had been calling regularly to seek comment on confidential whispers that Larry was running out of money and that he couldn’t develop the site. After the verdict, the calls stopped.

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