Up From Ground Zero
September 11, 2003
In this space on this day a year ago, we wrote that the most fitting memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who perished when the World Trade Center fell would be a living one.
The best expression of the spirit of New York, and of those who died, would be to see once again thousands of people from dozens of countries working, meeting, shopping, eating -- that is, engaged in the kind of productive work and play that used to take place in and around the Twin Towers.
One year later there is progress toward that goal. A redevelopment design has been chosen that would build 10 million square feet of office space at Ground Zero. The squabbling (and suing, this being America) isn't over and a lot of details remain to be worked out, but there's a good chance ground will be broken next year on the site's signature 1,776-foot "Freedom Tower."
Meanwhile, as we look down from our offices into the six-story crater where the towers once stood, we can see the foundation for one building already being laid; developer Larry Silverstein may begin signing up tenants as early as next year. A station for the underground train from New Jersey is also under construction. It should reopen later this fall, easing the daily commute for thousands of downtown workers.
There are signs, too, that the surrounding downtown area is making a comeback. Vacancy rates are falling, shops are reopening, waterfront park benches are full at lunchtime. Burger King and Brooks Brothers are back across from Ground Zero. Morgan Stanley feels confident enough about the future that it has put an office tower a stone's throw from the site on the market for $416 a square foot -- a price that would be a downtown record.
All of this is good news. The bad news is that Ground Zero is located in New York City, where the political culture hasn't changed at all since 9/11. New York has long been one of the most heavily taxed and regulated cities in the nation, with stifling union work rules, and two years later all of that is worse.
Thanks to tax-happy Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers now shell out more for just about everything they earn or buy. Sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes are all up. The left-leaning City Council has done its share of damage too. As the Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga has chronicled, unions and anti-development activists now set the agenda, with the result that the Council is more unfriendly to entrepreneurship than ever. Commercial rent control -- along the lines of the 50-year-old residential rent control law that has devastated the city's housing stock -- is just one of its many anti-business proposals.
Meanwhile, forget about any "big vision" for rebuilding Lower Manhattan. No one is talking much anymore about the one proposal that would give the biggest boost to the neighborhood's economy -- direct rail links to Long Island and the airports. The CEOs of American Express, Merrill Lynch and Bank of New York warned in a memo this spring that the public sector is no longer "working with the sense of urgency and singularity of purpose" that marked the cleanup efforts.
The most remarkable fact about Ground Zero two years later is the degree to which it remains a tourist mecca. Hundreds -- some days, thousands -- of visitors from around the globe flock downtown to gape at the hole where the towers once stood, stare at the graffiti testimonials, and reflect on the tragedy and bravery of that day. At least those visitors can report back to their many corners of America and the world that, however slowly, Ground Zero is coming back to life.
©2003 The Wall Street Journal