Lynne Sagalyn


On her book Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan

Cover Interview of September 24, 2017


The decision-making arena at Ground Zero was filled with many contending voices: elected officials, government decision makers, private real estate interests, the families of 9/11 victims, civic leaders, preservationists, and the editorial boards of the city’s daily newspapers. There was no powerful rebuilding czar, a modern-day Robert Moses, who could overcome the conflict’s imperatives and incessant pressures to “get things done.” The idea of a master builder was out of fashion.

The fragmented ownership of Ground Zero raised thorny issues of control. Yet, most noteworthy, there was no overriding governance structure to set priorities among competing building goals, clarify the inevitable trade-offs, and resolve the inevitable disputes in this most sensitive of public-private projects. And that repeatedly gave rise to the question, “Who’s in control?”

Any force of leadership had to fight against the politics of the complicated structure and its central stakeholders—the Port Authority, the Silverstein Investor Partnership, the 9/11 families, the State of New York, and the City of New York—all of whom by dint of their position became adversaries as they pushed their individual ambitions for rebuilding Ground Zero.

When government entities are not united, as was the case at Ground Zero, developers are able to exploit the fissures among government agencies to their advantage. This is what Silverstein was able to do in 2009-2010 when he did not have sufficient funds to fulfill his rebuilding obligations and tapped public treasuries.

Rebuilding Ground Zero lacked a protocol. It was being figured out on the fly, and that proved to be not just imperfect, but inadequate. It was the structural flaw in the elaborate rebuilding effort. Public-private real estate ventures need to incorporate a protocol for the contingency of catastrophe, for determining who will be in charge and how major decisions will be made, including exiting the partnership. They need more than ideals, more than plans, and more than deals. That is one of the lasting lessons of the landscape of power at Ground Zero.

To a considerable degree, the experience at Ground Zero presents elected officials and policymakers with a question they are likely to confront in future urban situations: What kind of governance structure is best suited for resolving conflicts across fragmented property rights and fragmented government power? Protocols are essential to fair and effective policy governance in situations of extreme civic distress, especially those that execute rebuilding through a formal public-private arrangement. Without a governance protocol, the ability to set priorities is absent. Strong positive leadership matched to a clear protocol for decision-making would have gone a long way to ironing out much angst and confusion, especially in a political context as fragmented as that at Ground Zero.