Ground Zero's Vanishing Ghost

The shrouded edifice of 130 Liberty Street still looms large–both physically and psychically–over Ground Zero.
Matt Chaban

Since it claimed the lives of two firefighters a little over a year ago, the 26-story ghost at 130 Liberty Street has barely moved behind its black shroud of construction netting. Or so it would appear. And while it is true the building has yet to shed any more of the 40 floors that have been in deconstruction as a result of damage sustained on 9/11, workers for LVI Services have, since May, been quickly, if carefully, cleaning and remediating the tons of toxic material that accumulated within the troubled building.

That job is nearly finished, city and construction officials said Friday during a city council hearing on progress at the site. Facade removal, in addition to the remediation, should be complete by April, at which point the building’s structure can resume its disappearing act. Barring unforeseen setbacks, the building, long a bitter reminder of the area’s tragic past, will be gone by October.

“Halloween ’09, that’s the treat, right?” asked council member Alan Gerson, chair of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committee, which held the hearing. “It’s not a trick?”

“That’s the goal,” responded Lower Manhattan Development Corporation president Richard Emil, one of a dozen people Gerson grilled about the project over the course of six hours.

One issue Gerson was unable to discuss—to his seeming consternation—was the criminal charges recently brought against the employees of the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, as well as its main subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation. “I’ve been told by my legal counsel that we’ve been asked by the district attorney’s office not to comment publicly about anything prior to the fire,” James Abadie, head of Bovis’ New York office, said at the start of the hearing.

That did not prevent Gerson from making frequent references to a report (.PDF) prepared by the Manhattan District attorney, Robert Morgenthau, which led to the indictment of one Bovis and two Galt employees on December 22. (Morgenthau also charged another Galt employee on January 6 with stealing $1.2 million from the LMDC.)

Generally, the hearing took on a Beckett-like quality, with Gerson pressing for assurances that the site’s operational lapses had been corrected, and his interlocutors assuring him that indeed lapses had been corrected, though they could not comment on what those lapses were. Take this exchange, which has been condensed:

  • Gerson: According to the district attorney’s report, Bovis should no longer be allowed to ensure site safety. Now, how can they be trusted? What’s changed?
  • Emil: Subsequent to the fire, the LMDC has worked with the city to review all aspects of the project to determine what can be done to best protect the community. We feel that the work that has been done adds an important layer of protection.
  • Gerson: But the plan is only as good as enforcement. Pre-fire, the rules and regulations were ignored and not implemented. There was an undeniable, lackadaisical problem. What has changed to give you this new level of confidence in Bovis?
  • Emil: I can’t speak to changes, but we have observed the work of the Bovis safety team on the project, and we believe that the team so far has done a good job.
  • Gerson: In order to safeguard the future, we have to understand what went on in the past.
  • Abadie: Again, I can’t comment on anything from before the fire, but I can say that after we have worked closely with the city and the fire department to enhance safety at the site.

And so on. While there can be little question that the management of the site was insufficient prior to the fire, Bovis has clearly made an effort to ensure such problems do not resurface. Frank Boci, a senior vice president at the company, noted that special security dogs are now employed on the site to ensure that no flammables enter the building. Boci said that a security guard had apparently forgotten to remove a single cigarette from his jacket, and when the dog found it, the guard was immediately fired. “I don’t know what else is possible in enhancing the security,” he said.

Still, Gerson did begrudgingly acknowledge the advances Bovis and the LMDC had made and seemed pleased to hear that the project would be finished soon. (After the hearing, he told AN he doubted October was realistic, but did expect deconstruction to be done by the end of the year.)

When a second panel convened, this time representing the mayor’s office, a similar back-and-forth ensued, with Gerson calling for a coordinator for the entire effort (a czar, in the current parlance), and the city’s representatives insisting that, while there is no coordinator, there is plenty of coordination at the site. Both sides agreed to disagree, and thanked each other for their time.

This did not sit well with the final panel, which represented the community. Catherine McVay Hughes, the vice chair of Community Board 1, read off a litany of complaints against the LMDC, saying it had broken most every promise to keep the community abreast of developments at the site. “It is imperative that the remainder of the process be as open and transparent as possible to reduce the likelihood of any future mishaps,” she said.

Joel Kupferman, director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, went so far as to condemn Gerson for working with the city. “Their story is not the whole story,” he said. “They break their promises and ignore their job, and then they come before you and you say you feel fine on the progress. Please, do not congratulate them.”

For his part, Gerson was not fully satisfied with the hearing, and might never be, even after the former Deutsche Bank headquarters is long gone from 130 Liberty Street. “Am I happy? Not entirely—far from it,” he told AN. “We did not get to hear the acknowledgment of the gravity of the problems that existed before the fire. And you’re not going to solve it without acknowledging it.”

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