Twenty years after September 11, 2001, President Biden is seeking to end the U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan. At the World Trade Center site, our own never-ending battle over real estate is coming to a close.
In February, a complex set of public entities controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio reached a deal to make 5 World Trade Center, the last unallocated lot owned by the public, into a luxury residential skyscraper developed by a joint venture of Silverstein Properties and Brookfield Properties. Located at 130 Liberty St. south of the September 11 Memorial, Site 5 would become the first official World Trade Center building to contain residences. With the two partners controlling at least 10 buildings in the immediate vicinity, the decision would cement a mixed-use mega complex in Lower Manhattan comparable to Hudson Yards.
Although many other social and commercial possibilities for the site had been floated over the years — such as an office building, public housing, a hospital or university — the ultimate decision confirms the continued government devotion to the luxury residential skyscraper boom in Lower Manhattan, despite its questionable economics both before and after COVID-19. Consistent with de Blasio’s approach to “affordable housing” that relies on private-sector incentives, the deal calls for 25% of the 1,325 rental units in the 900-foot tower to be priced as “affordable,” with the actual meaning of that pledge to be determined.
As this is publicly-owned land, local activists and Community Board 1 plan to advocate for higher levels of affordability during a complicated approval process. The World Trade Center’s General Project Plan will have to be changed to allow residences. Additionally, because the site (a former headquarters for Deutsche Bank) was purchased with federal disaster funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the project also puts the Biden administration in the uncomfortable position of being asked to endorse a luxury residential project sponsored by taxpayer money.
This conclusion to the World Trade Center reconstruction saga occurs at a time when affordable housing has declined significantly in the surrounding area south of Chambers Street. This is not because of a lack of construction. Data published by Community Board 1 indicates that 13,862 new residential units were constructed between 2000 and 2016, although some of the brand-new buildings don’t appear to be fully occupied or even completed after years of work. For example, 125 Greenwich St., the 912-foot residential tower across the street from the Site 5 lot, briefly entered foreclosure in 2019 and is languishing in an unfinished state. Yet, because most of those new units are at the extreme high end of the market, the high vacancy rates are unlikely to result in greater affordability.
In 2011, Community Board 1 published the findings of an affordable housing task force chaired by Battery Park City resident Tom Goodkind. The report revealed how key protections that supported affordability in Lower Manhattan had been dismantled, and that the relatively modest post-September 11 disaster funds that supported housing were often not focused on the immediate area. Alarmed by the growing recognition that low and middle-income tenants could no longer afford to move to Lower Manhattan, the report advocated that 5 World Trade Center (130 Liberty St.) include affordable housing.
Goodkind later advocated that 5 World Trade Center should include over 1,000 affordable units, with some possibly set aside for artists and for catastrophically injured veterans and first responders. In 2017, he arranged meetings with the public corporation responsible, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, to present this vision. Sadly, however, he died of a chronic degenerative illness in February 2019, at age 65. That June, Gov. Cuomo announced a developer competition for Site 5 that made financial return a more important criterion than affordability.
If Goodkind’s plan had been pursued, the building conceivably would have been able to match the 800 units of affordable housing promised by the Department of City Planning’s controversial upzoning of historic districts in SoHo and NoHo. In recent months, the constant refrain from the mayor’s office and its supporters in the pro-developer group Open New York has been that we must build affordable housing in wealthy Manhattan districts that have access to transportation or are otherwise “amenity-rich.” Deputy Mayor Vicki Been, in charge of the mayor’s housing initiatives, even stated that the SoHo rezoning was prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Yet, if achieving a maximal amount of affordable housing was truly the goal, why didn’t the government pull out all the stops, especially when the site is on public land and the remaining federal disaster money could have subsidized construction?
Vicki Been hasn’t said much about 5 World Trade Center, and Open New York has now telegraphed that it won’t contest the ratio of affordability. Although Gov. Cuomo’s scandals have enabled his opponents to gain the upper hand over Empire State Development Corporation’s megaproject with Vornado around Penn Station, there hasn’t yet been any comparable reaction to the plans for 5 World Trade Center.
The idea of having affordable housing be part of the September 11 reconstruction has a long history, although it largely came to naught. In the early years after the attacks, there was strong sentiment to include housing. Dozens of organizations had partnered in the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York with a demand that, since September 11 was considered “an attack on all New Yorkers,” the reconstruction should benefit all classes of people. David W. Woods’s book Democracy Deferred: Civic Leadership after 9/11 documents how new affordable housing was often the most popular demand at the dozens of “listening sessions” organized by civic organizations and government agencies in 2002 and 2003. As a result, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was designated to spend federal disaster funds, originally listed affordable housing as one of its core objectives.
Twenty years later, despite the population south of Chambers Street almost tripling since 2001 to around 61,000 residents, many of whom live in new office-to-residential conversions, there is not much that is affordable. The reconstruction at the World Trade Center was delayed so long that most of the civic organizations wound down before key government decisions were made. Many low-rise affordable buildings have been demolished, or their tenants have been harassed into leaving. Out of the billions of dollars in federal funding, including nearly $3 billion from HUD, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s “Partial Action Plan 6” for affordable housing only subsidized the design process for a mere 33 new low-income units in a mixed-income building at 270 Greenwich St. The plan spent just $41 million in total, in comparison with the over $1 billion spent on the September 11 Memorial and cultural grants.
Now, in 2021, there is one last chance to construct something that could possibly redeem the World Trade Center and be a signature achievement for the Biden administration. Site 5 will be the last skirmish of the reconstruction fight, and the battle lines of activism remain to be formed.
Todd Fine is president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, an organization that uses creative, guerrilla advocacy tactics to promote historic preservation and historical memory in Lower Manhattan and across New York City.
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