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Who Wants to Move to Ground Zero?


He fumed as his authority over the site was questioned: by the victims’ families, by city planners, even by Giuliani, now an American hero, who in his final speech as mayor called for Silverstein’s new buildings to be built someplace else. When the Times editorial page suggested the creation of a new governmental entity to rebuild the site quickly, Silverstein’s name was not mentioned. He ignored the media and focused on wooing the man who held most of the power downtown: George Pataki.

The governor had his own considerations—should he sanctify the site as a park or memorial, or back Silverstein? It was, after all, an election year, so he took political cover: In November 2001, Pataki announced the creation of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the state agency that would devise a master plan for the sixteen-acre site. There was no assurance that all 10 million feet of Silverstein’s office space would be part of the final master plan; Silverstein had no vote in the LMDC. “It’s fair to say he was a nonentity,” says LMDC member Roland Betts. “Larry did not have a seat at the table.”

There was another reason to marginalize Silverstein—he and Pataki weren’t exactly friends. It didn’t help that he supported Mario Cuomo in the 1994 election that had brought Pataki into office. It also didn’t help that Silverstein was pushy. “Generally speaking, everybody found him impossible and full of shit,” says one lawyer close to the interaction between the governor and Silverstein, adding that LMDC president Kevin Rampe, then–Port Authority chief Joe Seymour, and Pataki chief of staff John Cahill “all hated him.” Rampe denies this, Seymour declined to comment, and Cahill, with a noticeable lack of warmth, says, “Larry’s a very ambitious, aggressive developer. And that’s why he’s been successful.”

In January 2003, days before the commission was to choose a master planner for the site, Silverstein fired off a letter to LMDC chairman John Whitehead asserting his right to rebuild all 10 million square feet. The letter was a gauntlet: Leaked to local politicians and the media, its most blistering feature was the declaration that whichever master planner the LMDC chose would have to work with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whom Silverstein had already hired to devise a site plan and design for the main tower. Silverstein’s message was clear. The power of his lease could not be ignored, and attempts to push him aside would cost serious time and money. What’s more, without Silverstein’s rent payments, the Port Authority might have to consider raising tolls on bridges and tunnels, and Pataki would have another political headache.

Silverstein’s most public clash with the governor came over the design of the Freedom Tower. Pataki had picked Libeskind as the master planner for the sixteen-acre site, but Silverstein wanted Childs, his architect from Skidmore, to design the first and tallest tower. It was a forced marriage. “I don’t want you touching my building,” Silverstein is said to have told Libeskind, adding, “Danny, you’ve never designed a skyscraper. If I’m going to have heart surgery, I don’t want a surgeon who’s never done heart surgery before.”

Libeskind’s Freedom Tower may have had poetry on its side, but to Silverstein it had a small floor plate and columns that are inconvenient for tenants. Silverstein also thought it was too short and that the off-center spire was needlessly expensive. Childs, meanwhile, designed a 2,000-foot tower that twisted around a concrete core, providing the column-free interior spaces that office tenants adore. The governor tried to force the two architects into collaborating, triggering a boardroom farce that unfolded publicly—almost like a serial in the media, complete with leaked accusations of sabotage and the enlistment of lawyers.

In December 2003, Silverstein cornered Pataki at a black-tie event at the Waldorf to plead Childs’s case against Libeskind’s off-center spire. Pataki’s patience had run out. “Larry was trying to make the pitch again that ‘we can’t do the replica of the Statue of Liberty,’ ” remembers John Cahill. “And the governor goes, ‘Larry. Look at the Statue of Liberty. The torch does not come out of her head, okay?’” Silverstein capitulated, and the spire was moved to the side. Even Libeskind—who had sued Silverstein for back pay and bitterly described him as “not a man who cares much about how things look”—now admits, “I have an appreciation for the soft side of Larry. He didn’t get to be where he was by being a stupid man.” But if Silverstein lost the battle over the spire, he won the war. “It’s clear that Childs had a design in mind for the site, and essentially that’s what’s going up, plus a television tower,” says Alexander Garvin, the urban planner and former vice-president of the LMDC.

Silverstein lacks the shameless-showboat gene of a Donald Trump, and he doesn’t pack the sheer financial muscle of city real-estate heavyweights like Jerry Speyer or the Dursts. Nor is it Silverstein’s constitutional optimism that makes him stand out—that’s standard-issue for a developer. What’s unique about Silverstein, colleagues say, is his passionate salesmanship and his knack for betting on long shots—quite often, wisely.

Silverstein was born during the Depression in Bedford-Stuyvesant and raised within smelling distance of the Gowanus. His father, Harry, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, was a classical pianist who taught himself to be a broker of two-bit loft spaces in the rag district. Larry went to work for his father to put himself through NYU and returned full-time after graduation. Frustrated with the penny wages of a real-estate broker, he started buying cheap buildings in the late fifties with investors, fixing them up and flipping them like his idol, Harry Helmsley. These weren’t just any buildings. They were dumps in lousy neighborhoods that, as a broker, Larry sensed were undervalued. He lacked the financing and flash of other developers, but he had a marketing sensibility and an almost religious zeal in renting new property. “You’ve got to believe it to sell,” he says, remembering the days he persuaded friends and strangers to invest $5,000 or $10,000 in his buildings. “You’ve got to sell with a passion.”

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