Some are questioning whether the exuberant lower Manhattan Transportation Hub was a good investment.
The first iteration of the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub opened in early March, 2016. The new transportation hub forms the main transit access point for the new WTC complex, which includes 1 World Trade Center, several other high-rise office buildings, and the September 11th memorial, flanked by reflecting pools representing the imprint of the original towers. In an era when public transportation works seldom reach the scale of the early 20th century, the new Transportation Hub will, according to Port Authority officials and some architectural critics, rival Grand Central Station. One Port Authority employee recently dubbed the complex the “eighth wonder of the world.”¹
However, a strange squabble occurred in early March, weeks before the scheduled opening, when the Port Authority’s Executive Director and highest ranking official, Pat Foye, cancelled the celebration planned for the opening. Citing the high costs associated with the project and the pressing need for investment in the region’s infrastructure, Foye called the Hub “a symbol of excess.”² (It’s worth noting, however, that Foye will leave the Agency later this year, as the Port Authority’s commissioners continue their search for a new CEO to replace him.³)
As Foye alluded to, much of the media coverage of the project has focused on the ballooning costs of the complex. An October 2015 report from the Rudin Center projects the amount of money placed in the complex from 2002 to 2019 at approximately $17 billion. This astronomical figure was financed by the Port Authority, Silverstein properties (a real estate development firm), and a large amount of federal money. Critics allege that these costs have greatly diminished the Port Authority’s ability to invest in many necessary transportation projects, including a new interstate bus terminal to replace the aging structure in midtown.4 However, according to others, the complex may yet succeed. The same NYU Rudin Center report notes the Port Authority seems likely to recover much of its investment in the site, and has stimulated the regional economy considerably in the process.5
Meanwhile, the cost of Transportation Hub alone totals at least $4 Billion,6 more than doubling the original estimates for the cost of the structure. Much of these increased costs arose from contracting and construction issues, as well as the unusual design of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish starchitect who designed the Oculus. The Oculus serves as the centerpiece of the new transportation hub, and is a steel structure which allows light to enter through glass windows into the central terminal. Calatrava’s design of the Oculus changed dramatically over the several years of its construction, owing to practical concerns and unforeseen costs. However, one aspect the Agency did not change was the Transportation Hub’s skylight, in which panes of glass will retract each year on September 11th, exposing the building to the elements.7
Architecture critical opinions on the new complex vary widely, with charges ranging from calling it “functionally void” to a testament to the “cost of beauty.”8 What many critics have neglected to address, however, is the unique challenge of building a major, functioning transportation hub on the site of an incredible amount of trauma. Little needs to be written about the events that unfolded in lower Manhattan almost 15 years ago. Lower Manhattan and its real estate development will forever be marked by the events that have led to its current spatial configuration.
A fair amount of institutional trauma exists, as well. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s headquarters were located in the North Tower of the World Trade Center towers and the Agency lost 84 employees in the attacks; this figure includes the Agency’s highest ranking official, its then-Executive Director.9 The original World Trade Center train station was destroyed by the collapse of the towers, and caused water to flood into the Hudson River tubes back into Jersey City in New Jersey. Because the Port Authority financed and built the original complex, and received much criticism for doing so, the Agency’s future may always remain linked with the event.
It remains difficult to assess what effects recent history has had on the success of the project. One could conclude that the Port Authority, tasked with rebuilding this critical piece of transportation infrastructure, has been enmeshed in a fugue state of trauma. Under this theory the Port Authority has been throwing money into an abyss, trying to fill an absence that can never truly be restored to its previous state.
Another popular narrative sees the development of the entire complex as the height of capitalist and patronage politics. Under this theory, the redevelopment is a consumer-oriented space showcasing a luxury mall, bringing commuters from the outer boroughs and New Jersey, as well as tourists, to the shiny, tone-deaf complex. The ballooning costs owe themselves not to unforeseen logistical complexities because of Calatrava’s design, explains this theory, but rather the awarding of favorable contracts to construction companies and consultants with ties to the Port Authority’s leadership. This theory, of course, gets a boost from recent embarrassing scandals exposing the shadowy political forces working behind the Port Authority’s scenes.10
Finally, a more optimistic view of the Transportation Hub sees this project as a deeply personal and valuable project for the Port Authority, New York City, and the region. Given the trauma associated with the destruction of the original station, the Port Authority has used its resources and political clout to revitalize and recreate the whole of lower Manhattan. Perhaps the Port Authority overspent and prioritized the project at the expense of other important infrastructure projects. But no other government body, under this theory, could fund and manage such an enormous and important project. Maybe, as the aforementioned critic stated, $4 Billion is simply “the cost of beauty.”
Ultimately, no contemporary critic alone decides the fate of the Transportation Hub. The Transportation Hub, despite its luxury mall status, will serve as a transfer point between PATH, the New York City Transit rail system,, and city buses. With or without a celebratory opening in March, the Hub exists, and will serve millions of riders every year. Only these riders can truly say if it was worth it.
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.
This article’s featured image is a rendering of the Oculus structure. Rights belong to Forgemind Archimedia and it was reproduced under Creative Commons.
- Jack Moore, “World Trade Center Re-opens as Tallest Building in America,” International Business Times, 3 Nov 2014.
- Dana Rubinstein, “Port Authority Declines to Celebrate Calatrava-designed transportation hub,” Capital New York, 22 Feb 2016.
- Patrick McGeehan, “Port Authority Leader to Quiet As C.E.O. Search Drags On,” The New York Times, 19 Nov 2015.
- Stephen Jacob Smith, “PATH/Fail: The Story of the World’s Most Expensive Train Station,” The Observer, 14 May 2013.
- NYU Rudin Center, “Surprise! The World Trade Center Rebuilding Pays Off for the Port Authority and New Jersey,” Oct 2015.
- David Dunlap, “How Cost of Train Station at World Trade Center Swelled to $4 Billion,” The New York Times, 2 Dec 2014.
- Zoe Rosenberg, “Skylight of World Trade Center Oculus Will Open Each Sept. 11,” Curbed New York, 20 Jul 2015.
- Amy Plitt, “Is Santiago Calatrava’s WTC Transportation Hub a ‘Lemon’ or a ‘Beauty’?”, Curbed New York, 22 Feb 2016.
- Paul Vitello, “Ernesto Butcher, Who Managed Port Authority After 9/11, Dies at 69,” The New York Times, 22 May 2014.
- Katie Zernicke and Jad Mouawad, “United C.E.O. is out Amid Inquiry at Port Authority,” The New York Times, 8 September 2015.