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The New York Sun

 

Endless Land Debacle

August 16, 2006

By Edward L. Glaeser

In the five years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, America has built more than 6 million homes. Yet the main World Trade Center site remains empty. The memorial is projected to be completed in 2009 and the Freedom Tower is projected to be completed in 2011.

Why does it take a decade to rebuild? The Empire State Building was, after all, built in 419 days. The Manhattan construction industry hasn’t evaporated since then. Since 9/11, 30,000 new units have been permitted in Manhattan. Silverstein Properties has rebuilt the 52-story 7 World Trade Center tower, which escaped the World Trade Center master plan.

The years of delay do not reflect standard issue governmental incompetence. The finest architectural minds and the best civic leaders in the world have worked on this project. The project doesn’t lack funding. The empty lot certainly doesn’t reflect lack of passion for rebuilding lower Manhattan.

The empty lot stands instead as an indictment of the consensus decision-making that has become far too common in projects throughout the country. When the Empire State Building was built, decisions were made by General Motors tycoon, John Raskob, who may have also asked the opinion of Governor Al Smith, the titular leader of the project. With the World Trade Center, thousands of people think they have a right to control the project, and insert their own aesthetic vision or pet project. The Empire State Building was built quickly because it had a determined developer operating within a clear set of rules. The World Trade Center rebuilding has been slow because no one is really in control.

A core insight of economics is that poorly defined property rights — situations where no one has clear control — can be wildly inefficient. Well-defined property rights allow owners to go ahead and make what they think is the best use of their property. Poorly defined property rights, when nobody knows who is in control, leads to years of fighting — in and out of the courts — about what should happen. The World Trade Center is a case study of ill-defined property rights. Silverstein properties may own the land, but they’ve been fighting their insurers. The governor, the mayor, the master planner, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and activists of all stripes all have some ill-defined ability to control the tower. The result has been years and years of delay.

The World Trade Center delays are the culmination of a 40 year process where we have replaced traditional property rights with a murky consensual system where everyone gets to speak their piece on every public and private project. Over the last 40 years, community activists, starting with Jane Jacobs’s opposition to Robert Moses, have learned how to halt both private and public projects. A particularly graphic example is the Battle of Carnegie Hill, where Woody Allen and Kevin Kline led a fight to eliminate a developers’ right to build a 17-story building in their neighborhood. The increasing ability of community activists to stop projects has led to a dramatic reduction in the supply of new units and a decline in the height of new residential buildings in Manhattan. Less supply has meant higher and higher prices. Woody Allen and Kevin Kline may have thought that they were fighting for proportion in their neighborhood, but they were also doing their own little bit to make Manhattan less affordable to middle class residents.

What does this mean for the World Trade Center site? My view of Ground Zero is the same as Abraham Lincoln’s view of Gettysburg. The firefighters and policemen who died to save others “consecrated it, far above our poor powers to add or detract.” There is a home-made memorial in a firehouse window on East 67th street, and I don’t believe that anything that will be built can have the same impact on me as those few pictures, drawings, and candles. Endless debate over design just elevates aesthetics at the expense of the real heroes of September 11.

The best response that New York can make to the attack is for new workers to come to lower Manhattan, to replace some of the energy and brilliance that was lost. Silverstein Properties has every incentive to ensure — without the slightest government intervention — that the new buildings are as economically vibrant as possible. Private development, not planning by consensus, is a better path to a vibrant downtown. New York certainly has the courage to respond to terrorism, but our response seems to have gotten bogged down in an endless land use debate.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/endless-land-debacle/38003/

 

 
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