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The real estate developer and the billion dollar battle to rebuild Ground Zero

As the ruins of New York’s World Trade Center smoldered following the September 11 attacks of 2001, developer Larry Silverstein, who signed a $3.2 billion 99-year lease just six weeks before the Twin Towers fell, said it “was probably the worst day of my life.”

Now, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Silverstein, 90, says that what has stayed with him was seeing the goodness of New Yorkers in the days after.

“Thousands of New Yorkers decided to come down to the site… they simply volunteered to put themselves in terrible danger… and endeavor to rescue people,” he said. “It was New York at its best, at its finest. And I was so proud to be a New Yorker. I was so proud to know that these people were coming down to help the best they could. It was something that I could never forget.”

The Twin Towers and surrounding buildings were destroyed by al Qaeda hijackers, killing 2,753 of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.

Silverstein, at the time 70 years old, was ready to retire.

“I said to my wife, ‘Now that we’ve got the brass ring… whatever you want to do that we delayed all these years doing, we can do.’ It didn’t turn out that way,” he said. “Such is life.”

Silverstein immediately decided to rebuild after the 9/11 attacks. He thought he could finish rebuilding the World Trade Center complex in 10 years but needed his wife’s support.

“I said, ‘I can’t do this without your being right by my side.’ She said, ‘You’re not going to be happy doing anything else with your life, so let’s get on with rebuilding the Trade Center.’ Good partner,” he laughed.

A plan was born, and a lengthy metamorphosis turned the disaster zone into a giant pit, then a walled-off construction site, and finally, some $25 billion later, a tourist attraction and business center with three skyscrapers, a transportation hub, a museum and a memorial.

After breaking ground on One World Trade Center in 2006, Silverstein had to give up the massive project just six months later. Douglas Durst and the Port Authority took it over.

“We paid $3.2 billion to acquire the Twin Towers,” he said. “We were in the middle of a five-year litigation with 22 insurance companies to collect $4.5 billion, which the courts said we were entitled to and they wouldn’t pay, even after litigation concluded, they still wouldn’t pay. So it became obvious to me that to relinquish something was probably an intelligent thing to do and an appropriate thing to do and the rational thing to do.”

The next 10 years were a challenge.

“It was a heady time, a difficult time, intense pressure,” Silverstein said. “The insurers, they said, ‘You’re going to lose this case. We’re not going to pay you a dime, so why don’t you stop now?’ That was their attitude. I said to them, ‘I’m not a stopper. You’re not going to convince me that way. I’m a New Yorker. I’m here to get this done.’ It was a battle.”

In 2007, then New York Governor Eliot Spitzer helped end nearly six years of legal battles seven World Trade Center insurers had with Silverstein. They reached a $2 billion settlement that resolved outstanding claims.

“Things began to move forward,” Silverstein said. “Thousands of decisions had to be made and they were totally unsolvable to such an extent that the lawyers… concluded that the best thing to do was to just handle a few decisions that they could resolve today.”

And slowly but surely, Silverstein Properties reopened 7 World Trade Center on May 23, 2006, then 4 World Trade Center on November 13, 2013, then 3 World Trade Center on June 11, 2018.

Silverstein thought the entire site would be rebuilt by 2020, but that changed after the planned anchor tenant for 2 World Trade Center pulled out.

“We’re still not finished,” he said. “But since I’m only 90, no rush, I have plenty of time.”

(Production: Roselle Chen, Hussein Al Waaile)


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