Between Tragedy and Opportunity: Lynne B. Sagalyn’s “Power at Ground Zero”

By Stephen PetrusOctober 10, 2017

Between Tragedy and Opportunity: Lynne B. Sagalyn’s “Power at Ground Zero”

Power at Ground Zero by Lynne B. Sagalyn

SHORTLY AFTER the 9/11 attacks, as the nation mourned, debates began about the redevelopment of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Groups from the public, private, and civic sectors weighed in, staking their claims to the 16 acres. The redesign process became quarrelsome, marked by political squabbling, backroom dealing, and bureaucratic infighting. This was prime New York real estate, after all. Though the subject received thorough media treatment, it was hard to grasp the nuances of an evolving plan steeped in economic complexity and cultural symbolism. In Power at Ground Zero, Lynne Sagalyn navigates through the thicket of conflicting visions, competing interests, and shifting alliances and delivers an authoritative account of the saga.

Sagalyn, professor emerita of real estate at Columbia Business School (at Columbia University), is a noted scholar of urban development finance, poised to grapple with questions about politics and money in the fiercely competitive New York milieu. The degree of difficulty for this book is high, not least because the World Trade Center complex is only partially done. Towers two and three are not yet finished; construction of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts hasn’t even started due to a funding dispute between the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority.

But Sagalyn’s chief concern is the implementation of the master plan. This is the story of cutthroat politics, of the tension between tragedy and opportunity, of the ways the urban landscape reflects power. Personalities, egos, and ambitions of the stakeholders drive change. “What was secular was now sacred,” Sagalyn observes about Ground Zero, “a graveyard for nearly three thousand souls as well as a commercial real estate opportunity.”

The principal players were New York Governor George E. Pataki, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, real estate developer Larry A. Silverstein, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Pataki had leverage to direct the rebuilding, but he was often reactive. In November 2001, he established the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) to oversee the process. But the organization clashed with Silverstein and the Port Authority due to confusion about procedure. In 2003, the LMDC chose Studio Daniel Libeskind’s Memory Foundations as the master plan. Bloomberg, by contrast, lacked influence in determining the site’s transformation but used his power as a successful businessman and his bully pulpit as mayor to play a forceful role in his second term, from 2006 to 2010. He wanted to maintain New York’s status as a global financial capital and cultural center. Just six weeks before 9/11, Silverstein, in partnership with other investors, had become holder of a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center site. After the pivotal 2006 “Global Realignment” plan, a real estate transaction that divvied up the Liberty Bonds from the $20 billion federal aid package, Silverstein retained the right to build three office towers but ceded control of the “Freedom Tower,” now called One World Trade Center, to the Port Authority. Owner of the World Trade Center site since the 1960s, the Port Authority also guided construction of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub for the PATH commuter train, commissioning Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the project.

All four principals invariably expressed sympathy with the 9/11 families and framed the redevelopment in patriotic terms, committed to the creation of a fitting memorial and museum on the site. Throughout the process other groups asserted their interests, such as the New York Police Department and Goldman Sachs, on topics ranging from security to finance. Still other professionals offered their expertise on policy decisions or technical questions, including architects, attorneys, elected officials, urban planners, and construction management specialists.

Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority dominated the discussions, and, as the rebuilding commenced, engaged in disputes. Both sides made adjustments and accommodations. The fragmented nature of property rights and government power at Ground Zero was the fundamental cause of the battle. As a consequence, Libeskind’s master plan, a compromise between memory and finance, underwent extensive revisions.

In this context, Sagalyn comments, leadership entailed the ability to build consensus among competing factions, not manipulate the levers of power and ram through a single vision in the autocratic style of “master builder” Robert Moses. This decentralized structure has pros and cons. On the one hand, it tends to limit abuses, but, on the other, it prolongs the process. The New York media constantly hammered the latter point. Coverage emphasized the seemingly interminable delays, stumbling blocks, slow progress, blown budgets, and missed deadlines.

The articles, columns, and editorials shaped the opinion of an increasingly frustrated public. Some critics accused developer Larry Silverstein of greed; others laid blame with the inefficient Port Authority. As extensive as the reporting was, it often overlooked progress on the ground. It was also difficult for journalists to untangle the complex web of relationships among the city’s real estate interests.

For all the squabbles, the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza on the 10th anniversary of the attacks represented a high point. Sagalyn describes September 11, 2011 as a “day of collective sadness and united remembrance, public observance and private reflection, national commemoration and worldwide awareness” and praises Michael Bloomberg for the completion of the memorial on schedule. Designed by Israeli-American architect Michael Arad, with landscape architect Peter Walker, Reflecting Absence encompasses eight acres, centered on two recessed pools, where the twin towers stood, buffered by 400 swamp white oak trees. Names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are inscribed on bronze panels surrounding the voids, where walls of water cascade into the pools 30 feet below street level.

By contrast, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub triggered widespread criticism. Consisting of a train station with a mezzanine underneath the memorial plaza and an aboveground structure called the Oculus — meant to evoke a bird in flight but often ridiculed as a stegosaurus — the transportation hub reflected the Port Authority’s institutional excess. The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called it “an epic boondoggle.” Planned to rival midtown’s majestic Grand Central Terminal, the transportation hub became a symbol of waste and mismanagement. An estimated 250,000 subway riders, PATH commuter train riders, and visitors use the hub on a typical day, or about one-third Grand Central’s number. Slated to cost $2.2 billion, it ended up at around $4 billion, opening on March 3, 2016, to little fanfare.

Power at Ground Zero, written in medias res, is a solid work of contemporary history. The approach has a few advantages and many disadvantages. On the one hand, Sagalyn conducted interviews with key players during the planning process, gaining insights that might have been impossible to obtain after the fact, when officials are concerned about their legacies and memory becomes selective. The prodigious research distinguishes this volume. Sagalyn is trenchant in her analysis of the unfolding events and the complicated relationships among real estate, finance, and government. The prose is consistently lucid and sharp. But on the other hand, the lack of temporal distance limits her ability to acquire a detached clarity and take a panoramic view. For example, there is surprisingly little reflection about the broader implications of the redesign in New York’s neoliberal political economy. The extraordinary level of detail occasionally overwhelms the narrative line and may cause fatigue in some readers.

This tome makes many contributions to urban studies and raises important questions about the governance of cities. New York City history is marked by reinvention, whether after economic downturn, social crisis, or natural disaster. At pivotal moments, such as the Great Depression, the city wiped its slate clean and introduced new programs with bold ideas. Sagalyn’s account provides a unique glimpse into New York’s response to the United States’s greatest tragedy of the 21st century. In this case, the redevelopment of Ground Zero resulted not in a transformation of the political economy but rather an expansion of existing policies designed to aid real estate and stimulate growth. We are left to reevaluate the benefits and drawbacks of partnerships between public entities and private interests in the remaking of cities.


Stephen Petrus is a historian at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College. He is co-author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Stephen Petrus is a historian at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College and a historical walking tour guide for Big Onion Walking Tours. He is co-author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015).


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