Sunday, May 01, 2005

Security Issues Force a Review at Ground Zero

The New York Times
May 1, 2005
Security Issues Force a Review at Ground Zero

Security concerns outlined last month by the New York Police Department have set off a serious reassessment of plans for the World Trade Center site. People involved in the rebuilding effort say that the revisions that need to be made to the site's most prominent feature, the Freedom Tower, could delay the start of construction from several months to a year.

As a result, the lead developer at the site, Larry Silverstein, has proposed seeking public financing - possibly hundreds of millions of dollars - to pay for addressing the Police Department's security concerns. Such a development would be a significant shift for a project that has relied largely on private insurance money.

In addition, the Police Department's most recent security analysis has moved those involved in the rebuilding effort to examine yet again what might be done to safeguard the site and the people visiting it, if plans go forward to reopen the area's street grid.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency set up to direct the rebuilding, had each hired security consultants to assess the safety of the plans for the site. But it is clear that the Police Department's assessment was more disturbing.

Indeed, interviews in the past week show that David Childs, the lead designer of the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, has already begun rethinking fundamental elements of what is planned to be the successor to the twin towers: its precise location on the 16-acre site - long planned for the northwest corner - and its distance from heavily traveled West Street.

The redesigned tower is expected to look different from the current model familiar to the public, but it is too early to characterize the extent of the changes, according to a person who has been briefed on the development team's concerns.

It is clear, however, that three and a half years after the 9/11 attack, and 16 months after the tower's design was unveiled, police officials, unintentionally or not, have set off a storm of blame and accusations.

George E. Pataki, who views the Freedom Tower as his greatest legacy as governor, is said by state officials to be angry with the police, and some of those officials have accused the department of having been late in laying out the scope of its concerns. They say the effect could unduly worry New Yorkers and possible tenants of the buildings. Mr. Pataki did not reply to an interview request.

At the same time, some state and development officials are angry at the Bloomberg administration, saying it should have delivered the police concerns earlier, but may have been distracted by its proposal for a stadium for the Jets on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, dismissed that assertion as silly and said that the city and the police had devoted enormous time to assessing the site's security with the latest intelligence and counterterrorism data.

"This is a remarkably complex security question, and every time you turn one dial, you end up turning many other dials on the security issue," Mr. Doctoroff said.

Mr. Pataki said last November that major work on the foundation for the Freedom Tower would begin in February this year, with steel and concrete to arrive last month.

Neither has happened; the tower was to be completed by 2009.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly would not be interviewed about the department's security assessment, a multipage document that was given to Mr. Silverstein and the development agency on April 8. Other officials involved in the security discussions said that the department had raised concerns since at least last summer, but that the other camps involved in planning had not provided detailed information on which to make an assessment.

Paul J. Browne, the department's deputy commissioner for public information, said, "We understand that the Police Department's security concerns will be addressed in any redesign."

According to state officials who have reviewed the department's concerns, the police, most simply, do not see the tower as a normal commercial building; from the police's point of view, the officials say, the tower would replace the trade center, felled by terrorists, with a patriotic symbol that could be a new target. Heightening the concern is the fact that hundreds of uninspected 18-wheel trucks would rumble by the tower daily.

That the police concerns are only now front and center, though, has exasperated senior development officials, many of whom fear that the mere public discussion of security worries could damage what they regard as a hard-won optimism about the site's future.

"I don't want to say the police have been irresponsible, but where were they until this month?" said John C. Whitehead, a Pataki ally and chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. "I wish they had called attention to the seriousness of the problems earlier, rather than at this late stage."

All of the principals involved at ground zero, from the politicians to the builders, remain keenly determined to make the Freedom Tower as secure as possible. But the degree of concern about the site's vulnerability clearly varies, and almost everyone involved in the rebuilding effort wonders if there ever could be a perfect formula for balancing security needs with civic ambitions at a site that has been attacked twice.

The police, for their part, want the tower built to conform with security criteria based on standards used by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies, which would require the tower to be as much as 100 feet away from the street.

The site plan now calls for a minimum distance of 25 feet. The desire for greater distance is based on an analysis of the impact of a large blast.

Over the last year, according to state officials involved in the project, security specialists at the Police Department suggested some provocative but relatively impractical ideas: ideally moving the Freedom Tower some 200 feet away from the street, for example, or moving the tower to another part of the site altogether.

A government official involved in the security deliberations, echoing others, suggested that "basically nothing can satisfy" the police. But the official also acknowledged that the Freedom Tower inescapably required a security plan unlike that for almost any other building in the United States, given the site's hallowed ground and history.

"Here's the dilemma," the official said. "If you put too much security into the building, it's going to look like Fort Knox and no one will rent it. If you don't put enough, it could end up with catastrophic results."

The arguments over the months have included thinking imaginatively about security. Last summer, government officials at ground zero spoke with former security specialists from MI-5, Britain's domestic intelligence service, who advised that future attacks by terrorists would most likely come not in the form of a truck bomb, but rather with biological or chemical weapons.

"These guys were laughing at us, at the idea that Jersey barriers and bollards would protect the tower when terrorists have become more sophisticated," said one official involved in the redevelopment project.

Some have already begun to reimagine: Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the site, has drawn up new sketches on his own to show that the tower could be moved between 40 and 140 feet from West Street/Route 9A in order to solve police concerns.

Mr. Libeskind played down the significance of the redesign, which will be done by Mr. Childs.

Not surprisingly, some people involved in the rebuilding are urging calm, suggesting that security was inevitably going to cause delays for a grand civic project with so many elements, including a memorial for Sept. 11 victims, a performing arts center, and new office towers.

"It's all been very quiet, as it should be, because these are very delicate matters and you don't want to advertise them to the world," Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an influential private research group, said of the behind-the-scenes security discussions. "But it's all coming to a head around the design of the Freedom Tower."

Depending on who is talking, security concerns have loomed over the site since late 2001, and were discussed in fits and starts for years, competing for attention with other issues, like the memorial competition.

But in the last several months, as the start of construction neared, the security talks intensified.

"The police would say, 'Based on our knowledge and our intelligence, we think you can do more to make the building safer,' " said one official involved in the security discussions. "We would say, 'Tell us what.' The cops would say, 'We're not engineers.' We would say, 'O.K., tell us what we need to tell our engineers to protect against.' And it became this long, drawn-out back and forth."

The talks came to a head at a one point several weeks ago when the parties met with officials of the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs to discuss its proposed 40-story headquarters, just to the northwest of the Freedom Tower.

Stunning many in the room, Goldman representatives showed a film of a vehicle, packed with more than 10,000 pounds of explosive material, blowing up and leaving a huge crater. While some participants viewed the film as an insensitive move by Goldman, it also prompted discussion about the amount of explosives that the buildings would be protected against. At that moment, the talks moved toward clearer standards for "hardening" buildings to blasts.

One government official said that as the police concerns became more apparent, the breadth of their issues took many people aback.

In addition to the distance from the street, the official said, "there is the strength of the glass, the strength and the thickness of the concrete walls."

"The way the building is constructed will determine how many casualties there will be if a bomb of X size is blown off at Y location," the official said.

Just how radical the revisions to the tower will be is far from clear. Some officials said the altered design, in the end, might not look different to the eye.

But it is also possible that changes could be so significant that a new environmental impact statement might be needed, according to one person who has been briefed on some redesign elements.