Take Back the Towers
by DENNIS SMITH Op-Ed Contributor
NYTimes — April 5, 2006

THE effort to rebuild the World Trade Center site continues to go nowhere. The planned memorial lacks start-up money and faces public indifference. Those behind the proposed museum have not shown that they have any clear idea how to represent the memory of a day of murder, pain and loss. And most important, there is no real government-business-real estate coalition supporting the commercial plans of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the developer Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease.

We've reached a stage where the state and local government, so often the causes of delay, are the only players with the ability to move things forward. It is time for them to invoke their trump card: the takings clause of the United States Constitution.

To understand why, consider how all facets of the project have reached the point of inertia. Those behind the memorial, centered on its two reflecting pools, have still not satisfied the public or the politicians on several aesthetic questions.

For example, the memorial must display the names of those who died at ground zero, the Pentagon andShanksville, Pa., as well as those killed in the 1993 attack on the twin towers. But to the consternation of many (perhaps most) of the 9/11 families, the designers seem determined to place the names haphazardly, and without reference to time or place of death.

The debate over the names points to a larger problem: many in the artistic community seem unable to accept the influence that the families of the victims have among the public. Until the designers understand the role of the families and that they are building over a tomb — bodies of hundreds of the 2,749 who died there were never recovered — the project will languish. As for the museum, the most obvious setback was the disastrous decision to have it house the controversial International Freedom Center, which was eventually reversed by Gov. George Pataki. But since then, another series of seemingly intractable issues has arisen: the footprint space and exhibition areas have been reduced, there are problems with handicapped access, there have been warnings that crowd movement could be dangerous in an emergency and, most important, Alice Greenwald, the director, has yet to say what specifically the museum will contain.

Finally, of course, there is the problem of financing. It is too late to say that the money should have been raised before the design of the memorial and associated projects was accepted. But it seems clear that corporations and individual benefactors are reluctant to pony up the half-billion dollars needed for an effort with so many unanswered questions attached to it.

There is only one way to move forward: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council should send a home-rule message to Albany and demand the confiscation of the World Trade Center site under the eminent domain clause. At a time when counties and municipalities across America are seizing houses and small businesses to build shopping malls just to increase their tax bases, there are plenty of justifiable reasons — included lost tax revenues — to demand the return of ground zero.

Is taking the site legally practicable? "As long as the land were used for public purposes such as monuments, museums, or other public buildings, it can certainly be condemned under the U.S. Constitution," says Vicki Been, a professor of real-estate law at New York University Law School. "Even if some (or most) of the land were transferred to private parties to build commercial or residential space, the Supreme Court has held that such economic development is a public purpose."

The alternative — waiting for the current players to get their act together — makes no sense. Even if the project were to regain momentum, the plan is to build 10 million square feet of commercial space that is not only unneeded but will also mostly fail to rent. The Freedom Tower will be an eyesore as well as a terrorist target, and few will want to work there.

Mayor Bloomberg has recognized the financial folly of such large-scale building in an area that needs careful neighborhood development. With his business skills and political savvy, he is the natural choice to become chief engineer and contractor of a smaller, smarter, more appropriate ground zero.

Four decades ago, the 12 blocks that form the trade center site were taken through eminent domain from a group of electronics merchants and other small-business owners. That was David Rockefeller's idea, and his brother Gov. Nelson Rockefeller made it happen. Now it is up to Governor Pataki to give Mr. Bloomberg a similar opportunity. Ground zero does not belong to the Port Authority or the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation or Larry Silverstein. It is our property. We should get it back.

Dennis Smith, a retired New York City firefighter, is the chairman of a financial services company for first responders.

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