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Who Wants to Move to Ground Zero?

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He’s been married to the same woman since 1956. Around Klara, Silverstein is less brusque and frenetic, more calm and playful. They met as counselors at a Jewish summer camp, and she was teaching him how to run a dishwasher. “She was Attila the Hun!” Silverstein says.

“Couldn’t you at least call me Attila the Honey?” she says.

He winks. “You know, one of the reasons I married her was she was very wealthy,” he says. “She was earning $3,200 a year as a schoolteacher. I bought her engagement ring for $1,000. Made a sale, sold a building, that earned $1,000. Huge amount of money.”

“But basically we lived on my salary,” Klara reminds him. “By the way, it’s still the same ring. He has offered to get me bigger stones, and I said no. It wouldn’t be my engagement ring. Buy me a ring if you want, but this stays.”

Larry and Klara settled in White Plains and had three children: Lisa and Roger work for him; the oldest, Sharon, is a Harvard M.B.A. turned homemaker in California. He and Klara moved to Park Avenue after the kids grew up, but they assemble all the kids and grandkids together for jaunts on Silverstein’s yacht. The boat is his sanctuary; he’s partial to three- or four-day weekends and, before 9/11, he and Klara had planned to take it around the world.

“Someone once thought they’d make me jealous that they called the boat his mistress,” Klara says, “and I replied, ‘Isn’t he lucky he can be in the arms of his mistress and his wife at the same time?’ ”

Silverstein built his career by becoming an expert in buying and flipping properties. He bought 11 West 42nd Street, near Bryant Park before its renaissance. He built on the far West Side, at 42nd west of Eleventh Avenue, and in lower Manhattan at 120 Broadway, a 1.8 million-square-foot giant occupying a full square block, steps from Wall Street. By the eighties, he controlled more than 10 million square feet of Manhattan residential and commercial space and was a millionaire several times over. But he lacked a centerpiece, something to define his career. He set his sights on the last undeveloped parcel of the World Trade Center, at the northern tip of the site, and in 1980 he won the bid from the Port Authority to build the original 7 World Trade. Not long after he built that 47-story behemoth, he began to wonder what it would be like to own the Twin Towers. He saw them as the ultimate fixer-upper, in the ultimate undervalued neighborhood; everyone in the real-estate world knew the buildings needed renovations to command the rents they deserved. “The materials were beautiful, but in many ways it needed to sparkle,” he says. “When you walked in, it was important to look at it and say, God, this is spectacular.”

In the highly publicized ramp-up to the final bid, Silverstein was barely noticed among competitors like Vornado and Mort Zuckerman’s Boston Properties. Then, on a weekday evening in January 2001, five days before the bid was due, Silverstein was walking home from Le Cirque when, as he was crossing 57th and Madison, a drunk driver swerved right into him.

There are those who suspect Pataki is banking on Silverstein to default on his lease—that he’s used Silverstein for his insurance money.

His pelvis was crushed—“If I wasn’t dead, I was gonna die,” he says—but once he’d been stabilized at the hospital, Silverstein told his doctors to dial down the morphine; he needed a clear head to formulate the final bid. His employees visited him at the hospital, where they worked round-the-clock to finish the bid in time. His $3.2 billion bid lost to Vornado Realty Trust by $50 million. “A rounding error, basically,” he says. But by the time he got out of the hospital, Vornado had dropped out—it had too much trouble navigating the Port Authority bureaucracy—and Silverstein was in. His experience with the Port Authority made it comparatively easy for him to close the deal.

What made the Trade Center more important than his pelvis? Silverstein had spent six months on the project; it had been so consuming that he had abandoned all of his other deals. “I remember,” Silverstein says, “I said, ‘I’m not gonna let my competitors get me this way. They’re not gonna knock me out like this.’”

Silverstein’s dream scenario is for each tower to make enough money to build the next one, and for all five office buildings to be completed by 2013. By then, the memorial and PATH terminal and retail would presumably be done, and Silverstein would be hailed as the man who helped downtown rise from the ashes.

All sorts of things, of course, could sink that dream. Libeskind’s off-center spire and television antenna atop Childs’s Freedom Tower is turning into an engineering nightmare, and it’s not clear who will pay to resolve it. The Deutsche Bank building was supposed to be knocked down in December; it’s still there, plagued by air-quality problems. Fiterman Hall, an unsightly shell steps away from 7 World Trade controlled by the City University of New York, is still standing too, and there’s no plan yet for even a cleanup. A debate is raging over a proposal to sink four lanes of West Street underground, allowing visitors to ground zero to walk freely to and from the Hudson waterfront. The costly West Street tunnel project could tie up traffic for years—and has already alienated Goldman Sachs, which had planned to build its own tower where the state wants to place the tunnel’s northern mouth. Silverstein himself is 73, and he has no clear plans for succession. “The team has expanded significantly in size and in diversity” is all he will say. “And this staff, with our family, will just continue this operation.”

The Freedom Tower, meanwhile, has already been postponed a few months. If there’s any significant delay—if Silverstein runs out of insurance money waiting for tenants—he may be found in default and lose the right to develop. There’s always been speculation that the Port Authority is waiting to scoop up the lease; right now, the agency is looking for 400,000 square feet, but it hasn’t signed with Silverstein at 7 World Trade, reviving rumors that it’s rooting for Silverstein to fail. There are those who suspect that Pataki is banking on Silverstein to default—that he’s used the developer for his insurance money all along. If Silverstein is forced out, the whole project could again be up for grabs. The next developer could ignore the Libeskind model and the Silverstein model and do anything he wants.

Silverstein won’t entertain doomsday scenarios. He’s a speculator and a salesman. The World Trade Center is the biggest long shot of his life. It’s not in him to let it go.

Circling the site in the backseat of his Mercedes, Silverstein gestures wildly out the window. He’s pitching again.

“We have major mass transit,” he tells me. “We have major residential, we’re gonna have major retail, we’re gonna have the best buildings ever built in an economic environment that favors everything we’re doing.”

We’re driving down an as-yet-unsunken West Street, rolling past a gaping construction pit. The open grave.

“How can we lose?” he says. “How can we miss?”


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