Green Acres

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:06

    There's a moment in Philip Nobel's new book, Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero, when a participant at one of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's "Listening to the City" forums back in 2002 vents his frustration."This is the story of a thousand people drinking Shirley Temples and smoking candy cigarettes, and they all think they're in the back room with their scotch and cigars," the participant says.

    It was true-the public never got anywhere near the cigar smoke in the back room. Though for many the Ground Zero rebuilding effort exuded the quaint impression of a grassroots, democratic process in the heart of a grief-stricken Big Apple, Nobel's book, together with other recent examinations, reveals the degree to which the process was manipulated by big money interests and a powerful governor on an election-year time table who dealt from a stacked deck.

    "Being in New York City, it is sometime hard to remember that great swath of land that shares its name," writes Nobel, a Brooklyn-based architectural critic and Metropolis magazine columnist. "But there was a third flag in the TV camera's frame as (then Mayor) Giuliani spoke to the world in those first days [after 9/11]: the flag of New York State. Usually too, there was Pataki himself standing behind the mayor, saying nothing more often than not, but towering over him with his broad, made-for-politics build: the man behind the man, and the one who in this game would hold all the cards."

    Throughout Nobel's vivid architectural extrapolation, Pataki and his battlebot, the Empire State Development Corporation, reappear as main players in transparent bureaucratic efforts to create illusions of inclusiveness in the rebuilding process: Illusions for the grieving public, the state's Democrats and the New York City mayor's office. Efforts by Pataki and the ESDC effectively superceded architecture's own natural selection process, also known as city planning.

    "New York's governors have often played a role in the city's largest real estate projects-Nelson Rockefeller's backing was essential to realizing the World Trade Center-but the extent to which George Pataki took control of the redevelopment went well beyond the norm," writes Nobel.

    Nobel cues the rapid creation of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to exemplify Pataki's early maneuvering to take and maintain control of Ground Zero's destiny. The LMDC would act as a conduit for millions of dollars in federal aid while wielding power over the "mission area" everything south of Houston Street. Pataki designed the LMDC as a subsidiary of his own ESDC, an agency overseen by Pataki loyalist and Port Authority vice-chairman Charles Gargano, and vested with the land-snatching authority of eminent domain.

    Crucially, Nobel questions how it was that Daniel Libeskind, a star-crossed celebrity architect whose "first and only important realized building" was the low-altitude Jewish Museum, got the nod to create the most important skyscraper in history.

    Libeskind entered the competition after the now-infamous six initial design proposals for rebuilding at Ground Zero were roundly panned by the public in July 2002. Those six plans, Nobel writes, "marked the death of reasoned planning at ground zero; from this point forward, the port-protected leases and the LMDC-promoted 'public' assumptions would be the primary forces shaping the plan."

    As Nobel explains in Sixteen Acres: "Only ten months after the attack all the limits that would define the plans were in place. The only politically acceptable solution was already apparent in the summer of 2002. The site would be rebuilt as a crowded, mixed-use, shopping intensive corporate development surrounding a large but compromised memorial."

    With this commerce-friendly design mandate in hand, the LMDC fielded an "Innovative Design Study" that drew over 400 entries from architects worldwide. Just 10 days after the deadline for entry in the Design Study expired, Daniel Libeskind's design shot to the front to become one of only seven semi-finalists.


    The buzz in the press pool that covered the daily events of Ground Zero rebuilding was that "Daniel Libeskind's presence in the process was made easier by some kind of pay-to-play relationship between Ron Lauder and Pataki," says Nobel.

    Ronald Lauder is, of course, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, chairman of the New York Museum of Modern Art, one time deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, former ambassador to Austria, failed New York mayoral candidate in 1988, and a major contributor to the Republican party and Pataki's own donation well, Friends of Pataki.

    Less known, Lauder also headed the two Pataki-created commissions that pushed for the privatization of the World Trade Center: the New York State Commission of Privatization and the New York State Research Council on Privatization. Even further below the public radar, Nobel has uncovered that Lauder has family connections to Libeskind dating back to their student days at Bronx Science High School, where the two graduated four years apart in the 1960s. The two had more recent contact through the Jewish Museum, which Libeskind designed and Lauder helped fund.

    Sixteen Acres floats the Libeskind-Lauder conspiracy, but lets it drop.

    "Only one donation recording in the public campaign finance records raised any eyebrows. On September 26, 2002-the day Daniel Libeskind was announced as a participant in the Innovative Design Study-Ron Lauder and his wife gave $58,000 to the Friends of Pataki," writes Nobel. Beyond numerous other personal connections between Lauder and Pataki, "that was the closest thing to a smoking checkbook."

    But where Nobel leaves the Laudergate conspiracy, investigative journalist Justin Berzon and National Review Online contributing editor Deroy Murdock have picked up the ball and ran with it. The two are in the process of finishing a larger exposé of Laudergate based on Berzon's self-published book, The Ground Zero Rebuilding Scandal.

    Murdock shed some light on where he and Berzon are going with the new book in a June 2004 story in the National Review Online, in which he credits Berzon with wondering "how a man like George Pataki had any idea Daniel Libeskind existed" to begin with.

    Writes Murdock: "Libeskind was not a world-famous architect like Frank Gehry or I. M. Pei. In fact, this Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors never built a skyscraper, never constructed anything other than three low-rise, European museums, and was not even a licensed U.S. architect until July 2003, ten months after he applied for the WTC assignment."

    Murdock also cites numerous donations from the House of Lauder to the House of Pataki, including a $40,000 commission paid to Pataki's wife, Libby, who consulted for Lauder in 2002. The following year, Lauder's consulting payments to New York's First Lady doubled to $80,000-15.47 percent of the Patakis' combined income.

    Murdock notes that Lauder became increasingly generous toward Pataki as the Ground Zero rebuilding debate got underway.

    "[Lauder] gave the Republican National State Elections Committee $100,000 in autumn, 2002. It steered funds to such things as gubernatorial campaigns. As New York's State Board of Elections reports, Ron Lauder gave Friends of Pataki $30,000 on September 26, 2002. Lauder's wife, Jo, also donated $28,000 to Pataki that day. Somehow, their daughter, Jane, contributed $10,000 to Friends of Pataki that day, too. Amazingly enough, on September 26, 2002, the Pataki-controlled Lower Manhattan Development Corporation secretly narrowed the 407 entries (due just 10 days earlier) to seven semi-finalists in its Innovative Design Study. Studio Daniel Libeskind was among them."

    Murdock's co-author Justin Berzon puts it bluntly: "Lauder is Pataki's biggest patron. On a regular basis, Lauder finds ways to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in to the governor."

    In a Jan. 13 article in The Nation, Andrew Rice picked up on the Laudergate conspiracy and called out a remarkably frank section from Libeskind's own book, Breaking Ground, as self-incriminating evidence that Libeskind was helped to beat front-runners Think Design by using powerful New York lawyer Eddie Hayes to work his old law school roommate, George Pataki.

    According to Rice: "Libeskind writes that when the committee was about to go [Think's] way, Eddie Hayes called Pataki. (Hayes had been advising Libeskind since early in the competition, proving that, goofy glasses notwithstanding, the architect knew how to navigate New York.) Hayes, who roomed with Pataki in law school, simply referred to the governor as 'The Guy.' Libeskind quotes his lawyer's description of what happened: 'And so I'm sitting there...looking at the paper, and I'm thinking, Holy whatever! They lost! And I think to myself, You know it's ridiculous that [I'm] going to have to push The Guy on something like this, but it's me or nobody. I've seen the model. I know the plans. I know the man. I know Libeskind's the right guy for this. So I call The Guy, and within a couple of minutes The Guy calls me back."

    The string was tugged, and The Guy picked Libeskind's design.

    Pataki officials would not comment on this story. And those still looking for "a smoking checkbook" that irrefutably links the Libeskind decision to Lauder may never find it.

    The key to understanding why big money players like Lauder would want final sign-off on the new building design lies in the fact that the World Trade Center was on the verge of a major comeback when it was destroyed.

    As Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explained: "The Port Authority put up the two towers and ruined the lower Manhattan office market. In the 1980s, in order to recover some of the money being lost, the Port Authority talked the state of New York into moving their offices into this thing. Here you have this badly managed, expensive property. It's ludicrously overvalued. Then 25 years later the New York market finally catches up and suddenly its valuable again."

    Before 9/11, the lower Manhattan business district was rebounding economically, and the Trade Center site had recently been privatized, a decision that gave its first lease owner, Larry Silverstein, a whole six weeks to enjoy his "bomb-proof" 99-year lease before the towers fell.

    With the attacks on the Twin Towers, the profit that was about to be made on the freshly privatized site was put on hold. In this light, allowing a replacement design to be chosen that would in some shape or measure reduce future revenue looks a little naïve.

    Philp Nobel agrees that given the stakes, the winning design would have to fit the bill of "the only politically acceptable solution" that became the mandate for rebuilding in 2002: "The site would be rebuilt as a crowded, mixed-use, shopping intensive corporate development surrounding a large but compromised memorial."

    Since Libeskind was the man who drew it, the smart money had to be on him.