Monday, May 08, 2006

Ground Zero Memorial in Jeopardy; Critics Assail Cost, Design and Symbolism of 'Reflecting Absence'
Ground Zero Memorial in Jeopardy
Critics Assail Cost, Design and Symbolism of 'Reflecting Absence'
By Amy Westfeldt
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Twenty stories above Ground Zero, a Web camera pointed at the foundations of the destroyed World Trade Center takes pictures on the hour, recording the first signs of construction of the memorial to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Workers began painstakingly clearing off the tower footprints in March, hoping to pour concrete this month for the two reflecting pools planned for the center of the design.

But progress on the tribute is being threatened by controversies over the planned memorial's safety, cost, layout and symbolism.

Last week, as the memorial's cost spiraled toward $1 billion, the mayor and the governors of New York and New Jersey, who control the interstate Port Authority that owns the site, said the price would have to be halved.

Opponents of the "Reflecting Absence" design, led by some of the Sept. 11, 2001, victims' families, say the proposed layout will be unsafe, obliterate the last vestiges of the destroyed Trade Center towers and send the wrong symbolic message by directing mourners to an underground memorial.

"This does total dishonor to the lives and deaths of these people by burying this under the ground," said Sally Regenhard, mother of a firefighter killed in the attacks. "It's so insulting."

"Reflecting Absence," chosen by a jury from thousands of submissions in 2004, would fill eight of Ground Zero's 16 acres with two reflecting pools marking the spots where the towers stood. Water would cascade from the pools, in a plaza dotted with oak trees, to a level about 30 feet below the surface, where the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11 and in the 1993 truck bombing at the trade center would be inscribed.

Lower still, parts of the original tower foundations would be preserved, and unidentified victims' remains would be stored in a special chamber accessible to families only.

Also below street level would be a Sept. 11 museum, which officials expect will draw more than 5 million visitors a year.

Families are circulating a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to members of Congress and other politicians seeking a change to an above-ground memorial.

Security experts and Sept. 11 family members say the number of ramps leading to the lower levels -- two instead of the four in the original design -- would make it hard to evacuate.

"It cuts the possibility of escape by a half, or it could double the evacuation time," said Jake Pauls, a security consultant who is participating in Sept. 11-related studies about evacuation.

John Gallagher, a spokesman for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency managing the memorial design, said the agency's security experts are confident the ramps and more than eight stairwell exits "will allow for safe and speedy evacuation."

James K. Kallstrom, a former FBI assistant director who leads a task force developing security plans for Ground Zero, said the entire 16-acre site is vulnerable to terrorism. He has asked for modifications to enhance security.

"The whole site, particularly the memorial, particularly the sacred footprints and anything to do with the old-world World Trade Center and the tragedy has a lot of symbolism," Kallstrom said. "Whether or not terrorists decide that that's their target, . . . I think it would be less than professional not to recognize the symbolism here."

Gallagher said the agency would work to follow Kallstrom's recommendations.

The memorial and museum had been budgeted at $490 million, but a contractor has estimated the cost at $972 million. Maintenance would be an additional $50 million to $60 million a year.

However, the nonprofit World Trade Center Memorial Foundation has raised $130 million from private donors, even though its board includes some of the biggest corporate executives and philanthropists. The federal government has promised about $300 million.

The memorial to the 168 people killed in Oklahoma City when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown apart in 1995 cost $29.1 million.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) said the trade center memorial can cost no more than $500 million.

Gallagher said the LMDC has followed a goal of provide "meaningful access" to the site. Designers put parts of the memorial below street level after families said they wanted access to the bedrock at the bottom of the towers, where a majority of the victims' remains were found.

But Anthony Gardner, whose family group filed the lawsuit, said the families only wanted to visit the footprints underground, not the whole memorial.

"Don't blame us for a below-ground memorial," Gardner said. "We didn't want a below-ground memorial."