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
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
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
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
And it would become his.
"It's at the framer's getting framed now."