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Who Wants to Move to Ground Zero?


Still, Silverstein can seem almost willfully naïve about how sensitive people can be. We’re in a boardroom at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Silverstein’s architects, where he’s agreed to take me through a sample pitch for 7 World Trade Center, punctuated freely with the words massive and spectacular. Red laser pointer in hand, Silverstein motions at a slide depicting a woman in the building’s lobby, heading toward an unusually high-tech elevator—another fabulous amenity. Visitors and workers, Silverstein says, will have a computer chip granting them access to the upper floors.

“The door closes behind her, and she doesn’t have to press a button,” he tells me. “There are no buttons to press! It’s a buttonless elevator system, right? It’s all automatic! Now! If she wants to visit a girlfriend on another floor, she can’t do that; she’s in deep trouble, right? There are no buttons in the elevator! So what she has to do . . .”

“She has to reason with the elevator?” I ask.

He smiles impatiently. “No, she can’t even reason. But! There’s a special button pad in the lobby in each elevator bank. There’s a button pad on each of the floors as well. But once you’re on the elevator, forget it! There will be no buttons!”

There’s a tightness in my chest.

“May I ask a safety question?”

“Sure!” he says.

“If you’re trapped in the elevator, do you have any control at all?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “You have the same controls you have today. It’s no different.”

“But you have no button pad.”

“You don’t need it,” Silverstein says, exasperated. “People will be helping—communicating with you—from outside. The result is, you get about a 10 percent increase in elevator efficiency. It’s truly extraordinary! New Yorkers are always in such a goddamn rush, this’ll be fantastic!”

He throws up his hands, triumphant.

“Buttons are a thing of the past!”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Silverstein was in his Park Avenue apartment, squabbling with his wife, Klara, about how he had to get to work on the 88th floor of the north tower, where he was moving his company’s offices.

Klara gave him an icy stare. Silverstein had a dermatologist’s appointment—after a lifetime of boating, he has a history of facial carcinomas—and there was no way he was missing the appointment. “So you’ll be there early tomorrow,” she told him.

Before he left, the phone rang. It was the captain of the Silversteins’ 130-foot yacht, which was docked at the piers in Chelsea with a clear view of downtown.

“Turn on your TV,” the captain said.

As surreal as it was for most of us to witness, one after the other, the explosion and collapse of the tallest buildings in New York, it was stranger still for the man who had just bought them. First he thought of his children. Silverstein’s son, Roger, was in the parking garage of the original 7 World Trade when the first plane hit, and his daughter Lisa was turned away by police farther uptown; they both work for their father. Others in Silverstein’s employ weren’t as fortunate. “We lost four people,” he says, “and they had six kids among them.” Lisa Silverstein saw some of the light in her father’s eyes dim after that day. “There was something that was sucked out of him—a spontaneity and almost a kidlike spirit,” she says. “Time and efficiency became the most important thing in his life. He started to say, ‘I have no time for green bananas anymore.’”

Another developer might have used the enormity of the moment to get the property seized by the state—to cut loose control of the site and the financial risk that came with it. Silverstein used what insurance proceeds he had to keep paying the rent to the Port Authority—$120 million a year, escalating over the next fifteen years to over $200 million—and start planning new towers. Ignoring survivors who said he was moving too quickly to build offices on hallowed ground, he spent six weeks patrolling the halls of Congress to win the same protection from lawsuits that the airlines had. Then there was a mounting battle with the towers’ insurers, which had ensnared him in a Catch-22: The $3.6 billion he was entitled to wasn’t nearly enough to replace all 10 million square feet—but if he didn’t rebuild all 10 million square feet the way the lease specified, he wouldn’t be entitled to all the $3.6 billion. “Any less than 10 million feet, we give the insurance companies a gift,” he says.

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