Freedom Tower Construction Begins at Ground Zero

After months spent wrangling for control of buildings and money at ground zero, politicians and developers Thursday celebrated the start of construction on the Freedom Tower, a 1,776-foot-high skyscraper designed to replace the World Trade Center.

"It is going to be a symbol of our freedom and independence," Gov. George Pataki said at a news conference overlooking the site.

On Wednesday, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the property, approved a broad deal with developer Larry Silverstein to move the project forward.

Under that agreement, five towers will rise from the 16-acre site by 2012, joining a memorial and transit hub scheduled to open in 2009, and a performing arts center. For the next month, crews will be relocating utilities and making other preparations for laying the building's foundation.

The city lost millions of square feet of office space when the twin towers collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Silverstein, who had signed a 99-year lease to the twin towers six weeks before the attack, agreed this week to give control of the $2.1 million Freedom Tower to the Port Authority, along with a second skyscraper that may change from an office building to apartments. Silverstein will build and lease three other office towers at the site.

"This is an opportunity for us to show our determination, our resiliency, our resolve," the developer said Thursday.

Politicians broke ground on the Freedom Tower on July 4, 2004, with a 20-ton inscribed granite cornerstone, but the site's development has been tied up in disputes among the owner, developer, business leaders and politicians over control of development and billions of dollars for the rebuilding.

Even with the deal Wednesday, Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association advocacy group, said the Freedom Tower "still looms as a potential public liability."

Pataki addressed concerns about the tower being a potential terrorist target while at the site with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Silverstein.

"We are not going to just build low in the face of a war against terror," Pataki said.

The Freedom Tower — initially designed by architect Daniel Libeskind to be a twisting glass skyscraper with an off-center spire to evoke the Statue of Liberty — so far has no tenants committed, although the Port Authority said nearly half of it would be filled with government leases.

Charles Gargano, a vice chairman at the Port Authority, said continued rebuilding will attract tenants who left lower Manhattan after the attacks.

The tower was redesigned after police expressed concerns that the building was not sturdy enough to withstand a terrorist's truck bomb.