What Took So Long? Why the World Trade Center Still Isn't Finished

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Mark Lennihan / AP

A view of the construction of the World Trade Center complex on Aug. 25, 2011

It's an afternoon in September, a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and a young woman is standing outside the fence that surrounds the World Trade Center site, posing for a photograph in front of a construction crane. A few yards away, a father draws the outline of the Twin Towers in the air for his son. The boy can't be more than 8 or 9 years old. He watches his father then peers through the chain-link fence at the half-finished buildings surrounded by truckloads of cement and steel. He asks again what happened.

The father answers quietly — his voice too low for passersby to hear — but we know what he's saying. Ten years ago, not more than a few dozen yards from where he and his son are now standing, two hijacked airplanes plowed into the Twin Towers, killing an estimated 2,752 people. A third airplane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth, Flight 93, went down in a Pennsylvania field — killing a combined 224 more.

Ten years is not a very long time. Most people who are alive today were also alive back then. We can remember where we were on 9/11 and what it was like to watch an airplane strike the second tower on live TV. Victims' family members are still hurting. There are people in New York City who have gotten sick from the ash and debris that blanketed part of the city that day. And in the lower part of Manhattan, the World Trade Center — 16 acres of planned office buildings, subway stations, commuter-railway lines and a memorial museum and plaza — still hasn't been rebuilt. Nobody expects a wound this deep to heal swiftly, but after 10 years of fist-pumping speeches and patriotic promises, we are just now putting in the stitches.

But there is one thing we have done. On Sept. 11, 2011, New York City will officially unveil 9/11 Memorial to victims' families and invited guests. (It will open up to the public the following day.) It is a stone plaza peppered with 400 swamp white oak trees that surround two square reflecting pools and waterfalls, which are located where the original towers once stood. The names of the 9/11 victims, as well as the six people killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, are inscribed on parapets that run along the waterfalls' perimeters. Of the seven major construction projects currently going on at Ground Zero, it is the only one that's finished.

Even given its size and complexity, the World Trade Center has taken an unusually long time to rebuild. If everything goes according to plan, the site won't be finished until 2016. That's nearly 8 years longer than the initial projections offered by New York's then governor George Pataki in 2003. To give you an idea of how long that is, the original towers were completed in just five and a half years.

"It's easy to ask, 'What's taking so long?'" says Chris Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, "but it's harder to say, 'O.K., this is how we build it.'" The World Trade Center construction site is a $20 billion venture — according to Ward, it is the biggest public-construction project that has ever been undertaken in the U.S. It is a vastly complex partnership between the Port Authority, a bistate government organization that oversees the regional transportation between New York and New Jersey; a private real estate developer named Larry Silverstein; and dozens of smaller companies and organizations that have been brought on to help design, build, fund and oversee everything from the subway and commuter-train center to a performing-arts venue. The site has suffered repeated delays, budget overruns, design changes and several serious lawsuits. After 9/11, it took nearly a year and a half for the city to even decide upon a rebuilding plan.

In fact, the first attempt at such a plan had to be completely scrapped. In July 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC) — the agency that oversees the World Trade Center's redevelopment — released six proposals for how to rebuild the site. They were bland, largely uniform structures that maximized office space to generate as much revenue as possible (estimated at the time to be $120 million a year). For the most famous construction site in the U.S., the plans showed surprisingly little creativity or forethought. And so, the LMDC tried again. An international competition was held, and in February 2003, a Polish-American architect named Daniel Libeskind was awarded the project for designing a very tall, asymmetrical skyscraper that would come to be known as the Freedom Tower.

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