Thirteen years after 9/11, a slow rise from the ashes

Holly Bailey
·National Correspondent
One World Trade Center stands out on the New York City skyline on Sept. 10, 2014 (Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
One World Trade Center stands out on the New York City skyline on Sept. 10, 2014 (Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

The view is among the most breathtaking in the world — floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a panorama of Manhattan and its surroundings 50 miles in every direction. The Empire State Building glistens to the north, the Statue of Liberty shimmers to the south. And on clear days, you can see as far as Princeton, N.J., to the west and Greenwich, Conn., to the east, from a vantage point so high that the cars below look like tiny ants.

But when One World Trade Center finally opens later this year, many of the floors with the best views will be empty. Formerly known as the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot building, the tallest in the United States and third tallest in the world, has struggled to attract tenants. Just 58 percent of the nearly $4 billion office building has been leased so far — a smaller percentage than its developers had hoped ahead of November, when the building is set to formally open its doors.

The Durst Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, co-owners of the building, have blamed a sluggish economy — even though real estate is so hot in parts of New York City that the air above existing buildings has sold for millions of dollars in recent months. But the developers also acknowledge security concerns have made their sell tougher. Thirteen years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks leveled the original World Trade Center towers, there’s an inevitable fear the new building could become a target for terrorists looking to strike again.

To that end, the developers have made a push to sell potential tenants on the security of the building. Though they’ve declined to say much publicly on the subject, some of the precautions are physically obvious — including the reinforced concrete base the building sits upon that was designed to resist a bomb blast. Windows on the lower floors have been covered in sheets of plastic, similar to shatterproof automotive glass. And One World Trade Center, like other buildings around the redeveloped complex, is set farther back from the street.

The building’s owners are also banking on a change in perception about the area long known as Ground Zero once the structure formally opens. Over the last 13 years, the 16-acre complex where the Twin Towers once stood has been largely fenced off — first for the removal of debris and then as a construction site as the area was rebuilt.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building on 9/11. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building on 9/11. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

But after long delays, access to parts of the space has slowly been restored in recent months. When the 9/11 museum opened in May, fences came down around pedestrian walkways adjacent to the memorial pools that mark where the downed buildings once stood. Until then, the park had been restricted through advanced tickets and layers of security. And in coming months, other areas of the site are set to reopen, as One World Trade Center and adjacent buildings near completion. The hope is that a place that for so long evoked the memories of a horrific American tragedy is transformed to a symbol of recovery, resilience — and normalcy.

“For 13 years, we’ve been behind a fence, but as we are actively starting to peel away some of that fortress, it will be a really pivotal moment where this area will begin to reintegrate itself back into the neighborhood,” the Durst Corporation’s Jordan Barowitz said. “Once that happens, I think people will be able to feel what it would be like to work in the building, to work in the neighborhood. Right now, a lot of people have just been operating on faith, but soon, they will be able to really feel the energy of it.”

In the meantime, the developers have tried to make the building more financially appealing to potential tenants. In May, One World Trade Center dropped its rents nearly 10 percent on some floors — hoping to lure more tenants. But as of this week, roughly 1.3 million of the building’s 3 million square feet are still open — mostly on the 104-story building’s highest floors. Just two tenants have reserved space above the 77th floor: the advertising firm Kids Creative, which signed a lease for the 87th Floor this spring, and Servcorp, an Australian company that offers co-working and virtual office space to clients, which will open offices on the 85th floor next March.

China Center, a business and cultural group that helps Chinese businesses work in the U.S. market, has leased floors 64 to 69. The General Services Administration is leasing floors 50 through 55, where it will open its regional offices as well as New York outposts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. BMB Group, a London-based financial services company, has rented space on the 46th floor. Cushman and Wakefield, the real estate firm that has been handling the leases for One World Trade Center, announced last week it had leased part of the 45th floor, where Legends Hospitality, the group operating the observation deck on the 101st and 102nd floors, will also have offices.

The building’s anchor tenant is publishing giant Condé Nast, which signed a deal in May 2011 to lease 1.2 million square feet — nearly a third of the building. The company will move into floors 20 through 44 in November — the lowest floors available for office space.