When workers hoist a 20-ton slab of Adirondack granite across Ground Zero today to lay the Freedom Tower's cornerstone, they will officially usher in the rebirth of Lower Manhattan.
The ceremony will raise the curtain on some of the most ambitious building in the city's history, structures that will transform the 16-acre site into a design postcard with the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower as its focal point. "It represents the beginning of the first commercial redevelopment of the World Trade Center," said Carl Weisbrod, president of the Downtown Alliance, a business group. "But it is also the beginning of a healing of the city's skyline."
But even as the stone is set in front of an expected 500 spectators and dignitaries, the tug of war between symbolism and commercialism is still going on.
The $1.5 billion project - set to open in 2009 - will have to be more than a tourist attraction, an elevator ride to the newest of observation decks. It must also serve as an office building. Corporations must lease space and pay rent. And employees and the 10 million visitors expected to pass through it annually must feel safe, even as they are reminded of the tragedy that occurred there.
Gov. George E. Pataki's aggressive push to start rebuilding the World Trade Center before the third anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is driven by a belief that Lower Manhattan needs to replace the towers that made the financial district a premier address.
Critics, however, say those business interests and the speed of the rebuilding have overshadowed other important issues, including historical preservation and building safety. Others say there should be more housing and open space, not the 10 million square feet of office space planned for five buildings.
On Friday, several organizations, including victims' family groups, said officials should postpone the laying of the cornerstone and take more time to explore their complaints.
"We've always had concerns that the [project] honors buildings instead of individuals," said Patricia Reilly, 42, a board member of the Coalition of 9/11 Families, who lost her sister, Lorraine, in the south tower.
The group has fought the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency overseeing the rebuilding, to ensure that the footprints of the original Twin Towers are preserved. Reilly and another member, Anthony Gardner, said Friday they saw trucks driving over the footprints - they consider them the only sacred remnants of the towers - as workers prepared for today's cornerstone-laying.
"We don't want this ceremony sending a message to our nation that everything is all right," said Gardner, 28, who lost his brother, Harvey, in the north tower.
Another group, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, said Freedom Tower and other buildings at the site should be required to adhere to city building and fire codes. The proposed structures are exempt from those rules because they are on state property.
Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is the group's lawyer, said, "We raise the serious question. ... Will history repeat itself?"
In response to the various groups' qualms, Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, which owns the site, issued a statement that said his agency and the LMDC "are conducting a comprehensive process to deal with the historic preservation of the World Trade Center footprints and other artifacts from the site."
Coleman also said the Port Authority had reached an agreement with the city to ensure that the site meets or exceeds the city's building codes.
Experts who follow the site and the developer, Silverstein Properties, acknowledge that security still defines the former World Trade Center site and could hinder its commercial success, especially if would-be tenants worry that the new building will be a tempting bull's-eye for terrorists.
Even without security concerns, the original World Trade Center was known for its vacancies, and so far Silverstein has not secured any tenants in advance of today's ceremony. Making tenants and visitors feel safe in the new tower - a superstructure of 70 stories topped by a torqued spire meant to mimic the Statue of Liberty's raised arm - will be key to Freedom Tower's success.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.