What is ground zero today?
It’s a massive, rectangular pit crammed with construction crews, blasting and drilling equipment, and the skeletal beginnings of a handful of buildings. But the enterprise was supposed to be much further along by now. The centerpiece of the 16-acre site in lower Manhattan, the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, originally was scheduled to be completed in 2006, but that building just rose above ground level this past spring. Of the six office buildings planned for the area, one 52-story building across the street from the main site has been completed, but five other buildings are not even close. “At least 15 fundamental issues critical to the overall project”—including basic transportation and security needs—remain unresolved, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, said in a recent report. Officials admit that they’re chagrined at the lack of progress. “It’s time for this international embarrassment to end,” says Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
What’s taking so long?
The project has become a multibillion-dollar political football, pitting numerous agencies and interest groups against one another—each with its own agenda. Many critics say the blame begins with former New York Gov. George Pataki, who in the aftermath of 9/11 made big promises—and demanded tight design schedules—that proved wildly unrealistic. But the creation of “Pataki’s Pit,” as it has been dubbed, had no shortage of helpers. Among those involved are the Port Authority; 19 local, state, and federal agencies; two developers; 33 designers, architects, and consultants; and more than 100 building contractors. Efforts to respect the wishes of victims’ families, including their desire to retain the footprints of the original towers, have also contributed to delays. Then there are the extraordinary construction challenges posed by the site, which Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward calls “as complex as any in the world.”

What makes the project so challenging?
To begin with, its sheer size and ambition. The completed project will contain as much high-end office space as now exists in all of downtown Atlanta. The steel used to reinforce the foundations alone would stretch from New York to Washington, D.C. The site is already home to one of the densest mass transit hubs in the U.S., moving 150,000 commuters each day on subways, trains, and buses under and around ground zero; erecting a small city on top of that is a daunting engineering challenge. To further complicate matters, the perimeter of each foundation must be supported by what engineers call a “bathtub,” to hold back subterranean flow from the nearby Hudson River. There are also unique security issues, given that the project grew out of the deadliest attack ever committed on American soil.

How does security influence the design?
Political leaders, vowing “Never again,” have paid particular attention to the project’s ability to withstand a major bombing or kamikaze airplane attack. No building can be terror-proof, but experts are taking secretive precautions to ensure that the new buildings do not implode and crumble, as the World Trade Center towers did. In March, an architect from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that redesigned the Freedom Tower (after the original design by two feuding architects was shelved), accompanied demolition experts to the New Mexico desert, where they detonated explosives inside a three-story model of the tower. Results of that test were not released. Security concerns persist, however. In April, a New Yorker named Mike Fleming who was rummaging through some garbage discovered confidential blueprints of the Freedom Tower that contained floor plans with details on air ducts, elevator shafts, and more. Fleming gave the blueprints to the New York Post, which did not publish them but did publicize the embarrassing breach. They “could have ended up on eBay,” Fleming says.

So when will construction be finished?
It’s anyone’s guess. The latest version of the Freedom Tower is now scheduled to be completed by 2012, but earlier predictions for virtually every phase of the site’s construction have been way off. Foundation work has begun throughout the site, including on Tower 2, which promises to be the city’s second tallest building after the Freedom Tower. Having been burned in the past, officials have stopped making firm promises. In the meantime, plans for a memorial, museum, and underground transit hub are still in doubt (see below). “We’re not going to give any phony dates or timetables at this point and then follow it up with phony ribbon-cuttings,” says New York Gov. David Paterson.

What will it all cost?
The Port Authority’s most recent estimate is $15 billion. But with construction costs in the city rising at a rate of 1 percent a month, few expect that estimate to hold. Some experts say overruns could add another $3 billion to the tab. One casualty of the cost crunch will be the enormous underground transit hub designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His original design called for a winged roof with a large skylight. Officials say a much more modest transit hub is now likely. But after so many broken promises, the new mood of retrenchment is widely considered progress. “After seven years of Alice in Wonderland fantasy plans,” says New York Sen. Charles Schumer, “it’s refreshing to finally be presented with a no-nonsense, realistic look at the challenges to progress at ground zero.”

Remembering the victims
Like the towers it will be nestled among, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum represents another case of arrested development.  The planned memorial will consist of a three-acre plaza surrounding two recessed reflecting pools; names of the nearly 3,000 victims will be inscribed around the pools. But after several false starts due to controversy over design and location, the complex still exists only on paper. In June, the Port Authority acknowledged that the $650 million memorial would not be ready in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, in 2011. Families of victims, who have rarely agreed on anything, seemed unanimous in their outrage at yet another delay. “There are family members that I know that are elderly or very ill and they want to memorialize their son and daughter,” says Bill Doyle, whose son was killed at the World Trade Center, “and I don’t know if that will happen anymore.”