Why New York's World Trade Center is Still Unfinished
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Video presented and narrated by Fred Mills. This video contains paid promotion for Masterworks.
OF ALL THE construction sites in the world, few have been bigger sources of contention and debate than New York’s World Trade Center.
You’ll probably recognise One World Trade Center - it's a now iconic skyscraper that rises beside the footprints of the original Twin Towers. What you may not know is that it’s actually part of a much bigger development of new skyscrapers that overlook the 9/11 Memorial site.
But something is missing. If you look at the latest rendering of the site, you’ll see another shiny new skyscraper that’s supposed to be standing.
But go to Google Maps, or walk down there, and you’ll just find some colourful murals on steel sheds next to the Oculus. This isn’t just some art exhibit. It’s actually the unfinished foundations of a new office skyscraper called 2 World Trade Center.
Above: The art murals covering the 2 WTC unfinished foundation site.
And nearby, there’s another empty site where a residential tower called 5 World Trade Center is supposed to sit.
Developers once thought these skyscrapers would be completed by 2020. Yet here we are in 2022. The remaining buildings are just renders, leaving two gaping holes in what’s arguably one of the world’s most important redevelopment projects.
And when you try to find out why that is – you come up against a bit of a brick wall.
This is the story of the battle to finish New York’s new World Trade Centre, and it reveals a lot about how money, politics, and design determine the future of this city.
How to build a skyscraper in New York City
If there’s one thing New York is known for its skyscrapers.
Every year it feels like another one is going up around the block. These awe-inspiring structures have pretty much come to define this city, their evolution now standing as an historic record of our engineering progress.
But how exactly does a skyscraper even get built?
Well as you know we’ve explained the physical process of digging foundations and lifting up steel beams a lot on The B1M, and it’s a pretty important step that we’ll get to – but right now we're talking about the bits way before that.
There’s a lot that needs to happen just to reach the point of putting that first spade in the ground, and especially in New York City.
To help you get your head around it, let’s break it down into four main stages.
Stage one: Location and acquisition. Developers first need to choose where they want to build their skyscraper.
All kinds of things like land value, sidewalk circulation, zoning laws, and the need for a skyscraper in the area all factor into where these towers get constructed.
Jason Barr, professor of economics at Rutgers University, has studied the economics of skyscrapers.
"There is a lot of desire to be in clusters where a lot of firms are in general and where your employees will want to work," Barr said.
"It tends to evolve in Manhattan, downtown was ageing and midtown was a hot district for many years. Then firms started going back down to the World Trade Center area. And now some of them are moving to Hudson Yards. So a lot of the hot pockets can evolve is simply on where new space is opening up."
Developers need to actually acquire the lots they are eyeing – which usually means buying out current owners – this stage can take years or even decades to complete.
Above: Fred Mills behind the scenes on The B1M's production set.
Once developers actually have a bit of land to build on they’re ready to move on to stage two: design.
Now most skyscrapers fall into one of two main categories – residential, filled with apartments or even a hotel, or commercial, used for offices and retail stores. Some skyscrapers have mixed uses, some have viewing platforms and sky pools.
“The next step would be to start getting plans drawn up to hire an architect," Barr said.
"The architect works with engineers to make sure that the building can be constructed within the building codes and make sure that when issues about wind and building sway take care of the geological issues, have to be considered for the foundations.”
In the third stage comes financing. Of course, there’s sometimes a bit of this upfront too before land acquisition happens – but developers usually need a good idea of where a building will be and what it might look like before they can raise finance.
Now New York is pricey. If you thought renting or buying a property here was steep, try constructing a skyscraper. It’s one of the world’s most expensive cities to build in.
Your average commercial tower in New York costs around USD $6,000 per square metre. It’s $5,000 in Chicago and a little over $3,000 in Tokyo. So developers either need a lot of their own cash or a loan to pay for construction costs.
Then of course there’s the last stage – the process of actually constructing the building. Putting this all into layman’s terms, the process all starts by digging into the earth and bedrock to create the building’s foundation.
Usually this’ll be made up of concrete pillars – called piles – that will support the skyscraper’s superstructure above, and its layout varies depending on the design and weight of the building.
Then it’s onto the superstructure, which is usually fully formed of either reinforced concrete or steel around a concrete core – or in some cases a combination of both.
Steel frames tend to be the most common approach in New York City. Normally, workers build a concrete core in the centre housing the building’s stairs, services and elevator shafts.
Steel framing is then steadily built around the core as it rises, and concrete floors are laid across the beams. Finally the building is clad in concrete, aluminium or glass and then fitted-out internally with mechanical and electrical services.
One particular quirk of New York City is that – unlike almost anywhere else on earth – the steel frame rises before the concrete core. It all goes back to those iconic black and white images and the steel workers unions – they like to have clear working areas away from other trades as far as possible.
Now that’s a very simple overview of the four step process, but not all skyscraper projects manage to clear every hurdle. Some get stuck in certain stages and never become reality.
New York has completed more of these buildings than almost any other city in the world, with the exception of Hong Kong. Today, it’s home to iconic legends like the Chrysler Building, Empire State, and One World Trade Centre – buildings we’d all instinctively think of when we hear the word “skyscraper”.
Rebuilding the World Trade Center after 9/11
Lower Manhattan is where New York City’s first skyscraper was built and over the years it transformed into a high-rise financial hub. Before One World Trade Centre stood here, the downtown area was of course home to the Twin Towers. They were the tallest buildings in the world when they first completed back in 1973 and once defined this city’s skyline. Back then, they were owned by the Port Authority of New York City and New Jersey – a quasi-independent, government agency that maintains certain infrastructure across the two states.
The agency built the towers in hope of boosting development in the neighbourhood. But it had the opposite effect: vacancy rates grew while the real-estate value sank. It wasn’t until the economic boom of the 1990s, that more people started using them. Over the years, the Port Authority came under pressure to sell the World Trade Centre; it was never supposed to be in the real estate business.
In July 2001, American businessman Larry Silverstein signed a 99-year lease on the towers and other authority owned properties for USD $3.2BN.
Above: Larry Silverstein (second from right) holds the key to the World Trade Center in 2001. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties.
Then came one of history’s darkest days.
In the wake of 9/11 the world began to debate what would become of the ground zero site and what could ever fill the painful gap now left in the city’s skyline.
Should the Twin Towers be restored? Or should a completely new structure assume their place? Should the site be a memorial site or should the city replace the significant amount of commercial office space that had been lost? Some believed there should be nothing built at all.
Just weeks after the attack, Silverstein sparked a legal battle that hindered any moves on construction for nearly the next six years. When he signed the lease for the Twin Towers in 2001, he had to take out a $3.5BN insurance policy on the buildings. But he and his lawyers argued that the September attack occurred as two separate events and that the policy should therefore pay out double the amount. Silverstein sought $7.1BN, but in the end, was awarded $4.6BN - which went towards paying rent to the Port Authority and potential future projects.
Meanwhile, the debate for how to rebuild the site rumbled on, and that second stage of building a skyscraper, designing it, was causing a bit of a hold-up.
After initially holding a contest with over 2,000 submissions in late 2002, the city chose a masterplan design by Studio Libeskind. The initial proposal included a 1,776-foot spindle-shaped structure called the Freedom Tower. The building’s height would nod to the year of American independence and stand beside four other descending skyscrapers in a semi-circle that kind of bowed to the memorial site.
Above: The early masterplan design sketches by Studio Libeskind. Image courtesy of Studio Libeskind.
At the time, developer Silverstein thought it could all be built by 2020.
Different architects were brought in to design their own skyscrapers within the framework of Libeskind’s overall masterplan – and it’s fair to say that caused just a little bit of friction, particularly with the Freedom Tower, which was being designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
Parties wrestled to balance the desire for commercial space with the very real yearning for sombre symbolism. Some wanted a strong building, where others wanted an elegant one. The result was a bit of a compromise all-round that’s ended-up going on to become iconic, though largely because of its height and site location.
Today there are now a total of four commercial skyscrapers planned for the site.
Given this was now one of the most important and iconic construction projects in American history, there were a lot of people trying to put their stamp on how the new site should look - and that design stage took a little longer than expected.
Eventually, the site slowly took shape. A new memorial and moving underground museum were constructed.
4 World Trade Center opened in 2013, followed by the Freedom Tower – then renamed One World Trade Center – in 2014 and 3 World Trade Center, the latest addition, in 2018.
Now, the money to develop the entire site came from a handful of different sources for each building – including a combination of Silverstein’s insurance proceeds, the US federal government, and Liberty Bonds – a federal tax exempt program.
But one of the four skyscrapers hasn’t really made it past the drawing board, and while there’s been plenty of disagreement and architectural debate about what it should actually look like, the bigger hold-up might actually be the money.
Money, anchor tenants and 2 WTC
So who exactly is paying for all these skyscrapers to go up? And how do projects like this really get past stage three of the process?
Well it depends. One option some might have is through government funding, but that’s not too common in New York. It is typically reserved for special projects or housing.
One World Trade Center is one of those special developments that largely relied on the US federal government’s money for its construction. The final cost of that remarkably symbolic and physically robust building was nearly USD $4BN – one of the most expensive skyscrapers ever built in the US.
Normally, developers looking to build a skyscraper either dip into their own money or more commonly put together a business case and request loans from lenders to cover construction costs. Those lenders might be entities like banks. Frankly, those lenders want to be confident they’ll get their money back – and one way that a commercial building like 2 World Trade Center can build confidence is by securing what’s known as an “anchor tenant” before construction.
“Anchor tenants are firms are large, usually large firms that rent a substantial amount of space and they'll pre-leased this space before, usually before even the shovel hits the ground," Barr said. "So if an anchor tenant, a large law firm, a large media firm signs out a large lease for, let's say, 200,000 square feet of space, which could be 20% of the building, for example, it signals to all of the players involved that there is a demand and interest in the building.”
Anchor tenants are looking at what a building has to offer – things like amenities and location. Doing a big deal early on as the “anchor” means these companies can usually expect to pay less rent. A big anchor tenant can even help transform its surrounding neighbourhood. When VICE and Etsy decided to move their offices to Brooklyn – the borough exploded in popularity.
Above: The interior office amenities of 4 World Trade Center. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties.
But finding the right company to sign a multimillion dollar lease can be a hard sell, and that’s what’s been happening down at 2 World Trade Center.
Simply put, Silverstein hasn’t been able to convince any big companies to spend the money and move their offices into this new building. It’s gone through multiple radical redesigns, and it’s still not part of the city’s skyline.
Way back in 2005, architecture firm Foster + Partners, was awarded the rights to design the upcoming project. It unveiled ideas for a 387-metre structure of four interconnecting columns that created a slanted diamond at their summit. The lower levels would be built-out as bank trading floors in an attempt to lure financial anchor tenants.
For a site right by Wall Street, that made great sense.
Now that idea for 2 World Trade Center even made it to the final stage of that skyscraper construction process. Workers broke ground and started on the foundations with the idea of completing by 2011.
The project started without a signed anchor tenant and instead used the Liberty Bonds available at the time.
But it didn’t get very far.
Rumours began circulating that Silverstein was struggling to find the necessary anchor tenants to make the structure financially viable.
After 9/11, the state of the downtown area began to change. No longer was it filled with just financial companies and Wall Street bankers. Instead, media and tech companies began moving in. Conde Nast, the company that owns Vogue and GQ, even signed a 25-year lease for a whopping 21 floors of One World Trade Center.
Meanwhile the original financial institutions were looking elsewhere and banks were no longer enticed by Foster’s design. With no anchor tenant, the developers moved on from Foster + Partners’ design.
Construction works all came to a halt here in 2012, leaving behind just the foundation which also contains mechanical systems for the Oculus, the transportation hub that’s right over there.
But instead of giving up on the building, Silverstein came up with another plan. In 2015 he reportedly turned to a foreign visa program to try and bring in financing from China. And then, he brought on a new and (sort of) younger architect to redesign the tower and it was back to stage two.
Enter Bjarke Ingels. The architect's design took things in an entirely new direction and lit up social media. Gone were the bank trading floors and in came an attempt to entice more media and tech companies with edgy work spaces and studios.
The building became a series of stacked boxes that descended in a stepped formation – each tailored to a different company’s activities. The building would have green-filled terraces and rise 408-metres above Manhattan.
Above: The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) design for 2 World Trade Center. Image courtesy of BIG.
It worked. The media executives of 21st Century Fox and New Corporation – signed an initial agreement and planned to move in during 2020 once their midtown leases had expired. They were even offered millions of dollars in subsidies and tax credits to make the move downtown easier.
Things for 2 World Trade Center were looking up.
But not long after, a few big problems began to surface. The team were trying to build off foundations for a different, earlier version, of the skyscraper. Lots would need to be reconfigured.
In 2016 the finalised deal with the media companies fell through. Suddenly developers at Silverstein were said to be no longer certain about which design to go with – moving back and forth between Bjarke Ingels and Foster. That all caused development on 2 World Trade Center to stall once again. For years the project remained in limbo and Silverstein focused on signing leases for other structures across the site.
Then in January 2020, some fresh news broke.
Silverstein was reportedly going back to the deal with Foster + Partners. Yes, after all that, the developer decided to stick with the original architect.
But given the history and the amount of time that had gone by Silverstein made it clear he wouldn’t be going back to the old design from Foster. Instead, something more contemporary would be developed.
But that was early 2020, and we all know what happened that year - the COVID-19 pandemic. So not an ideal time for convincing people to back a new office building.
Now, Silverstein had been closing in on leasing 100% of 3 World Center, but when COVID hit all deals were off the table. With an already completed tower facing tenant challenges, 2 World Trade Center went right back down those four steps.
So, that’s all brought us to today. The developers haven’t been able to decide on a design, which has made it hard to find a tenant to sign up.
But it’s not so clear what’s happening now. And as we’ve discovered throughout our investigation – it’s not exactly easy to find out what’s really going on at one of the most iconic construction sites in the world.
The B1M tried reaching out to several people either involved or with knowledge about 2 World Trade Center, but there's been a lot of dead ends. People either didn’t reply or directed us to other sources who also didn’t reach back for comment.
Silverstein Properties itself didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. However, the developer has repeatedly confirmed to the media, that it’s confident this structure will go up eventually.
But it wasn’t total silence. The B1M did hear back from a couple of real estate experts in the city who gave us more insight into what they thought might be happening and how these issues compare to the rest of the city.
Moses Gates, vice president of Housing and Community Planning at Regional Plan Association, told us "My understanding of that two World Trade Center is, you know, they want to build it when it's financially feasible. The recession threw a big delay into rebuilding the World Trade Center because at the end of the day, you have to be able to cover your expenses and cover your construction costs with whatever rent you're getting in from that."
"A lot of it is really because there's so many people invested in what gets built. And so it was a long planning process, you know, because we really wanted to engage the city, we wanted to get it right. Partly because it's so large and when something so large, you can't just throw it all up at once. You know, you don't have the finances, you don't have the workforce capacity maybe to do it. And you also don't want to saturate the market all at one time in one place so heavily."
According to Hiten Samtani, editorial director and associate publisher at The Real Deal, "The market for construction financing for ground up new development towers is very challenging if you're building office. The capital markets froze during the pandemic but are have come back now. Interest rates have gone up again. When interest rates go up, it becomes a lot more expensive to build."
"So you will see that interest rates will affect the rate of construction in New York and other places. So now interest rates are high. We're talking about an office market. Do workers need that kind of hub anymore? Do you need a million square feet? "
As of today, there’s no official word on the latest design for 2 World Trade Center. But that didn’t stop a few renderings getting leaked in early 2022, and this is what they show.
Instead of the original four diamond shaped columns, the design has vertical sections that alternate in height starting at around 411-metres. Each section is divided by metal fins and those green-filled terraces that seem to be the current trend on nearly every skyscraper render get to stay.
If this design is confirmed, then Foster + Patterns will have significantly altered its original proposal from 2006. Fair enough, 16 years have gone by.
But what happens if Silverstein still can’t land an anchor tenant with this design?
"There are other ways that maybe he could slice and dice the building," Samtani said.
"Instead of looking for one giant tenant to start things off, you get ten smaller tenants who fill the same space. Maybe this is almost like a food court type of situation where you have a tech hub or a media hub and it's branded and marketed in that way. That's a potential way to go."
In general, building at a site with such a heavy and well-known past has proven difficult. The gap in the master plan shows just how important it is to find the right tenant to fill a commercial skyscraper. The wrong design won’t bring the right tenants to work there, and that can make it impossible for anything to get off the ground.
Now that downtown Manhattan is evolving, it’s a question of who it can attract and when.
Residential skyscrapers and 5 World Trade Center
But if you can’t find a business to use a skyscraper, what about giving people a place to live?
Nowadays the office plays a very different role in our lives than it did when this building was first proposed all those years ago. One thing that is clear - housing is in constant demand. Especially in New York City.
Residential high rise construction has been the dominant form of high rise construction," Barr said. "In the last 20, 25, 30 years, office markets tend to go in these sort of longer cycles where you'll have a building boom of offices, then too much space comes out of town for a while."
One of the many new residential skyscrapers planned to go up is actually right here at the World Trade Centre complex. Alongside office space, the 274-metre 5 World Trade Center tower would contain some 1,200 new apartments and there’d be a pedestrian bridge linking it to the elevated Liberty Park.
Above: A rendering of 5 World Trade Center. Image courtesy of KPF.
At the moment about 25% of the units are set aside for affordable housing – and because housing is so badly needed in New York right now, it’s a bit further ahead in the process than 2 World Trade Center.
The plan for affordable units falls under a requirement for the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program. It says that any new development in rezoned neighbourhoods must use 20-30% of its floor area for affordable properties.
"That could mean you change manufacturing building to residential. It could mean that you were only allowed to build a four storey building here and now you can build a 40-storey building here," Gates explained.
"You have to set aside a portion for income restricted housing where it's reserved for people making less than a certain amount of money, and rents are set at a certain rate and can only increase by a certain percentage each year."
But some activists are fighting for the skyscraper to be 100% affordable – in fact, the tallest affordable housing structure in the world. They argue that it should be home to those families and survivors affected by the events of 9/11.
But Barr said, "The only way that can happen is if somebody bought him out and took ownership of the building and ran that building at a loss. If you're going to spend 2 to $3 billion on that structure, you're going to have to come up with a way to generate the revenue to pay for it."
Now, many elected officials say there is a value in adding more affordable units to an area. But they also recognise that subsidising construction costs might not be the best use of their already limited resources.
In recent months, the state government has made several moves on construction and funding for affordable housing developments throughout New York.
But these are much smaller and don’t face the same obstacles or spotlight as 5 World Trade Center.
"There's a real difference between a process for figuring out what you want to do with the World Trade Center and a process to see if you want to put up an apartment building in college point," Gates said. "One affects the neighbourhood. The other one really does affect, not just the entire city, but the region and arguably even beyond that."
This tower too has yet to be built.
The next chapter of New York City's skyline
With so much history and tragedy tied to it, the World Trade Center is one of the most unique and challenging construction sites on the planet.
Both 2 and 5 World Trade Center find themselves confronted with immense hurdles just to put a spade in the ground.
But while their issues might be particularly extreme, they aren't exclusive. Right across this city new skyscraper projects face the same challenges: finding the right businesses to buy space in a changing economy; building apartments that provide that housing people really need, and securing the money to make it all happen.
"The New York City skyline is a graveyard for broken projects, projects that never happened, projects that stalled," Samtani said.
At the end of the day, the developers of residential and commercial skyscrapers all want to turn a profit. But without consensus on a design or funding, structures will get stuck in those initial stages of development. Even skyscrapers that already exist are having to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic.
Downtown vacancies in cities aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels. With many older buildings sitting empty, cities are looking for alternatives to fill the space.
"These older buildings in downtown Manhattan are better suited to become apartments," Gates said. "So if you have an old office building and a lot of them are built in kind of what we call a wedding cake fashion, where you have a larger base and then kind of a slender tower. Those slender towers make for a perfect apartment layouts for the most part."
Though it may be at the extreme end of the scale, New York’s World Trade Center site showcases many of the challenges and sensitives facing construction projects today, and especially our skyscrapers.
These buildings define our cities and reflect the state of our societies back to us. They’re a product of the struggles that got them off the ground and the forces that shaped them. The result is a record of our history preserved in steel and concrete. Whatever structures rise from these sites will become a part of New York’s story.
Video presented and narrated by Fred Mills.
Special thanks to Moses Gates, Jason Barr, Hiten Samtani and The Dronalist. Additional footage and imagery courtesy of World Trade Center Press Library, Foster + Partners, BIG, Fox 5 New York, The Dronalist, Archive.org, CNN, CBS News, Fox 4, Silverstein Properties, Renew NYC, Marcus-Robinson-Film, CBS Evening News, ABC News, Good Morning America, Joe Woolhead, CBS New York, KPF, and Sin.Art.
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