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At Ground Zero, A Tall Order for The Developer
Larry Silverstein, Determined To Fill a Very Empty Space

"Those who've lost loved ones -- oh, what they've suffered through," says Larry Silverstein. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 20, 2002; Page C01

NEW YORK -- Larry A. Silverstein is talking pure lust. He ramps up the comic in his gravelly voice. "Absolute lust," the 71-year-old real estate tycoon says. "Unadulterated lust!"

Inside his posh Fifth Avenue office, he's wistfully remembering those days when he virtually salivated over the biggest prize a real estate developer could win. It was 1987. He'd just dedicated the newly built addition to his growing commercial empire, a 47-story office block called World Trade Center 7, with 2 million square feet of space.

But it felt so small, so "finite," Silverstein says, compared with what towered above: the iconic twin towers, 110 stories high, called World Trade Center 1 and 2. He remembers looking up at those stunning towers and thinking, "My God! This is huge! . . . Ah, someday wouldn't it be incredible to own those as well?"

"They were there, and they were irresistible," he says lustily. And they would become his.

At last, in 2001, Silverstein won the bid to become the leaseholder on the twin towers' 10 million square feet of office space. "Silverstein on Top of the World With the WTC," the New York Daily News blared that July 25. His company began constructing its offices on the 101st floor of WTC 1. It opened temporary offices on the 88th floor. Silverstein spent his days at the towers, meeting and greeting his tenants. With three World Trade Center buildings under his control, Larry A. Silverstein became one of the largest commercial landlords in New York City. Until Sept. 11, 2001.

The Lease of His Worries

Various shots of his 130-foot yacht, taken from different angles, decorate Silverstein's office at Silverstein Properties. A corridor is decorated with gallery-lit portraits of some of the dozen buildings he owns, most on Fifth Avenue. In the conference room, his father, Harry Silverstein, the company's founder, smiles genially from the wall. The walls also are hung with schematics of 7 World Trade Center. The renderings will be publicly unveiled today. Nearly two decades after he built it the first time, Building 7 soon will rise anew.

It is but one step toward Silverstein's larger goal: to regain what he lost on Sept. 11, when terror attacks obliterated the entire 16-acre world trade complex plus several more buildings around it. And his quest to get back as much of his 12 million square feet as possible is at the heart of the economically complicated, emotionally charged and civically challenging question of how to redevelop the Trade Center site, how to revive Lower Manhattan and how to memorialize the nearly 3,000 people who died, including four Silverstein employees.

As a pivotal character in this fraught process, Silverstein has been accused of blatant self-interest, especially when he began talking of rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding in the early weeks after the terror attacks. Some families of the dead have set upon him for not embracing their vision of the site's hallowed status. After all, the remains of more than half the dead have not been found and were perhaps scattered as ashes all over the site.

For many months, Silverstein's interests appeared to be shaping the redevelopment process. When preliminary designs were unveiled over the summer, the dense concentration of 50- and 60-story office blocks atop Ground Zero reflected the singular desire of the city, the state and Silverstein to restore the millions of square feet of office space that were a key revenue stream. In the 2001 privatization of the twin towers, Silverstein leased them from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land. And Silverstein's 99-year lease obligates him to rebuild what was lost -- if not precisely, then pretty nearly.

But the public and the city's architecture and design community largely pooh-poohed the early designs. New priorities have taken over, guided by the overwhelming demand that whatever is built on Ground Zero be spectacular and grand and visionary. And a new set of designers -- who have been encouraged to be creative -- is at work. Their preliminary drawings are to be unveiled next month.

Silverstein is not the only key player in this complex process, which is being led by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. But he is important enough to be a spoiler, if he chooses.

For instance, says Marcie Kesner, co-chair of New York New Visions, a planning and design group advising LMDC, "he might be pivotal because he might be the one person holding out."

But Silverstein says the challenge of Lower Manhattan's redevelopment is not just about his interests and his lease.

New York lost 100,000 jobs in the Trade Center area, he says. "It's had a devastating effect on the economy of the city. Lower Manhattan produced $47 billion of gross wages [in 2000]. That's 15 percent of the gross wages of the entire state of New York. . . . The only way you're going to put back that gross-income generation is by putting the jobs back, and the only way to put the jobs back is by putting the buildings back.

"My lease requires me to pay $130 million a year for 99 years. I only have 98 years to go." He laughs, then says seriously, "And my lease obligates me to rebuild. . . . So with the insurance money coming to me, I'm going to take those proceeds and rebuild the Trade Center and fulfill my obligation under the law."

The insurance proceeds, however, are tied up in court. The many insurers of the World Trade Center are at odds with Silverstein on whether the terror attacks constituted one event or two. If it was a single event, only $3.5 billion would be due Silverstein. But if they were two events, one for each plane, he'd be due $7 billion. (7 World Trade Center is not part of this dispute. Just across Vesey Street and outside the footprint of the original Trade Center, it was insured separately.)

The redevelopment process depends in large measure on the insurance outcome. The first question to watch is "What's the scale of the settlement," says Mitchell Moss of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. "Then, what's the role he will have in any redevelopment."

Despite early court rulings in favor of some of the smaller insurers and their single-event claim, Silverstein is convinced that he will win a multiple-event payout. The battle is far from over. His lawyers have found a legal precedent that could help Silverstein. The case will likely be decided next year.

"We'll never lose," he says. "We won't lose it."

But what if? He cuts off the question.

"No ifs. No ifs," he says. We're gonna succeed."

Silverstein casts himself as a come-from-behind kind of guy, an underdog who somehow pulls through adversity, like the time a drunk driver barreled into him and crushed his pelvis just days before his bid for the Trade Center was due in 2001. The accident left him in such pain he required morphine in the hospital. But he couldn't think, being so drugged. And he needed desperately to be sharp.

"So I asked the doctors to lower the dose of morphine and get my guys into the hospital so they could sit there and frame this final bid, which we did. And that was no fun, but that ultimately led to the success of the bid and the culmination of the process.

"Oh, the pain was horrendous. Terrible pain."

Then he switches into his jokester mode. "But nevertheless I said I'm not gonna let my competitors beat me down." He's laughing now. "They tried to get me with a car and I won't allow it! I'm gonna show these bastards!"

Appointment With Destiny

He will only talk a little about "that morning," Sept. 11.

"That morning," he offers, "was the serendipitous quality of life."

He'd complained of a problem with his skin and the sun. His wife, Klara, demanded that he go to the dermatologist. She even made the appointment, which was scheduled for that morning.

"So I'm getting dressed to go to the doctor and saying, you know, 'I have so much to do downtown. This is a horrendous waste of my time. I should be going to work.' And she's saying, 'You're not going to cancel this appointment this morning, you're going to the dermatologist.' And, you know, when you're married to the same woman for 46 years, you learn early on to say 'Yes, dear.' "

He was about to leave his home in Midtown when the news came: A plane had hit the North Tower, WTC 1. And then, a few minutes later, the other tower. His son and daughter, who are in the family company with him, had not arrived at the Silverstein Properties offices at the Trade Center and were also spared.

The aftermath defines his life. He's a big philanthropist in the city, involved in health and research and charitable endeavors, but since 9/11 everything has revolved around the recovery and the rebuilding.

Within days of the attacks, he says, the telephone calls started, and the e-mails and the letters, from friends, acquaintances, total strangers, from people around the world, all saying one thing, he says: Rebuild. He was hit by a groundswell of outrage, he says, from people who felt the best response to terror was to erect the twin towers maybe even taller than before.

Of course there were people with a different message, though they apparently weren't the ones writing and e-mailing. As the weeks passed, these dissenters made themselves heard in the most profound ways, and Silverstein has had no choice but to listen to them, even to have his vision tempered by them.

"Those who've lost loved ones -- oh, what they've suffered through. And for so many of those families, there are no remains."

He measures his words carefully as he tells of his contacts with the families, who became increasingly vocal and civically active on redevelopment issues over the past year.

"I've been visited by scores of those families. Scores of them. I listen to them with sympathy and understanding, compassion. It's excruciatingly difficult to talk to them, because so many of them -- 1,800 of the 2,800, where there are no body parts of any kind, no remains, therefore no burial, and no closure. So many of them have come to me and said, 'They're down there somewhere and that's their hallowed ground. Therefore you can't build anything on that 16-acre site.' I mean, that is brutally difficult to listen to. Your heart goes out to them. But there are those who have lost similarly who have come to me and said, 'You've got to rebuild and you've got to rebuild on that site.' "

And there will be a rebuilding. But the 10 million square feet of office space from WTC 1 and 2 is not likely to be replicated on the 16-acre site. Officials driving the redevelopment process have responded to civic pressure and reduced the volume of commercial space that will be built on the site. They have deferred, to a degree, to the overwhelming demand from New Yorkers to have more open, dramatic space available to remember Sept. 11.

It is just another gale in the long storm that defines Silverstein's post-Sept. 11 world. And it really has been a storm, he says, not unlike a recent painting he saw called "The Abner J. Benyon."

"I will tell you that I saw at a recent auction at Christie's a magnificent painting by Montague Dawson. There was this sailing ship coming through tumultuous seas and obviously horrendous storms and its sails were ripped apart, in tatters. But you could also tell that the sun was beginning to come out behind the storm and that this ship had made it through. . . . If ever there was anything symbolic of adversity and coming through, that was the picture."

His voice goes lusty again.

"And I looked at it and I said, 'That is irresistible. Gotta own that one.' "

And it would become his.

"It's at the framer's getting framed now."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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