About That 'Hole In The Ground'

Ground zero is seen after a ceremony in which President Bush and Laura Bush placed wreaths at the footprints of the World Trade Center buildings, Sunday, Sept 10, 2006. This view shows the slurry wall from above, looking down at construction in the pit.
By CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has apologized for calling the site of the World Trade Center collapse a "hole in the ground." However insensitive Nagin's remark may have been, it also contained an uncomfortably large dose of reality.

"You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed and its five years later," Nagin told CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts on 60 Minutes. Nagin later backpedaled with an act of contrition that failed to take the sting of truth from his original comment. This time, Nagin described Ground Zero as "a sacred site that's currently in an undeveloped state."

And so it is.

After five years of insurance litigation, political jockeying and widespread debate over memorial and tower design, the 16-acre World Trade Center site is still a sunken field of concrete, dirt and scaffolding crisscrossed by ramps and bordered by metal fences.

That's a far cry from New York Gov. George Pataki's prediction at an April 2003 business association lunch.

"Just five years after the worst attack on U.S. soil, lower Manhattan will have been transformed. The permanent PATH terminal will open, along with the Fulton Transit Center to the east," Pataki said. "By the fifth anniversary of the attack, September 11, 2006, we will top off a new icon — the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower."

Reasons for the failure include:

Divided authority: The lease on the World Trade Center site is held by Larry Silverstein, a private real estate developer who obtained the lease six weeks before the twin towers were destroyed. The site itself, however, is owned by the Port Authority, a public agency. Control of the Port Authority, in turn, is shared by the states of New York and New Jersey. This arrangement has proved to be a prescription for seemingly endless haggling and often-fruitless negotiation.

For example, widespread public involvement in the planning of a memorial to the victims was encouraged, but this approach produced intense in-fighting. Even the way the names of the dead would be displayed became a bone of contention.

Moreover, New York City — the player with the most incentive to move quickly and decisively on the project — has had limited power to influence events because the site is controlled by a private developer and a public agency that answered to the governors of two different states.

Security concerns: The World Trade Center has already been the target of two major terrorist attacks, but officials decided that the original designs for the Freedom Tower did not sufficiently take security concerns into account. As a result, Pataki ordered the original 2003 design changed. The tower also was to be set further back from the street in order to be less vunlerable to vehicular bombs.

"This is a building, particularly the Freedom Tower, that is built to be a symbol, and symbols are great if you are encouraged by the cause, and they are potentially a target by people that hate the cause," Bloomberg said at the time.

Economics: The Port Authority recently wrested control of the $2 billion Freedom Tower from developer Silverstein this year, but there are deep doubts about the building's financial viability. Many question whether businesses will rent space in a skyscraper located on a site that has already attracted two deadly terrorist attacks. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democratic candidate for governor, has called the structure an economic "white elephant." Spitzer is a heavy favorite to succeed Pataki as governor in January, and many insiders believe Spitzer will scrap or modify Pataki's Freedom Tower if he can.

Ballooning costs have also slowed construction of the 9/11 memorial. When the expected pricetag reached nearly $1 billion, Pataki called the plan unfeasible. A slimmer $510 million proposal is now on the drawing boards.