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Looking Back and Looking Forward

Sept. 1, 2003
Not a day goes by when Jim Usher doesn't think about the tragic events of Sept. 11. While many Americans watched their televisions in horror as the Twin

Not a day goes by when Jim Usher doesn't think about the tragic events of Sept. 11.

While many Americans watched their televisions in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed, Usher, vice president of communications for E-J Electric Installation Co., Long Island City, N.Y., was working in one of the World Trade Center's sublevel offices when the plane crashed into Tower 1.

While the contractors in the sublevel offices were able to escape, 17 IBEW Local 3 electricians were wiring tenant spaces on the 100th floor and above when the plane hit Tower 1. One year later, Usher said that visits down to Ground Zero still bring back painful memories of the many electricians and Port Authority employees who lost their lives during the terrorist attack.

“It looks like a big hole with fences all around it,” he said. “There's a viewing stand for the public, and a lot of people come to New York to go see Ground Zero. It's a big tourist attraction. It doesn't make me happy, but I certainly understand it. It's history now. When I'm there, I still see too much death and destruction, even if it's a big hole in the ground.”

Usher said while Sept. 11 will be a day he will never forget, he has been very fortunate in dealing with the trauma.

“I've been lucky in coping with the whole situation, especially when I compare it to a lot of my friends who have been out of work and are not really functioning,” Usher said. “Unfortunately, there's a lot of pain and suffering out there. A lot of people are having a really rough time.”

On Sept. 11, Usher plans to spend the night at a hotel in New York City.

“I just think that's important,” he said. “On a personal note, I would like to be here.”

The city of New York is planning services from 5 a.m. through midnight on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Some offices will also close their doors while others will leave it up to their employees to make the decision about whether or not to work that day.

“Management is trying to figure out, ‘What is the appropriate thing to do?’ That is the $64 million question,” said Usher. “It's going to vary between companies shutting down to not doing anything. It goes right back to rebuilding the site. What is the right thing to do? I don't think there are any right or wrong answers. It's a really tough issue.”

Rebuilding for the future

The Twin Towers once stood proud and tall in the New York skyline. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, crews spent a year cleaning up Ground Zero. Now the question still remains: What will be built on the site where more than 2,800 lost lives?

Usher said the rebuilding of the World Trade Center has become an economic and personal issue for thousands of people.

“Quite honestly, to me, it's Mission Impossible,” he said. “There's no way they are going to rebuild Ground Zero and make all the different organizations happy. Everybody has a different idea — from the size of the memorial all the way up to how many square feet of office space should be rebuilt. Should it be a couple of big towers again or should it be low-rise towers? Mayor Bloomberg has a heck of a job with the Port Authority to bring this together, get consensus and go forward.”

Usher said the plans are a long way away from being finalized for Ground Zero.

“From the business standpoint, there's no question that the construction market is definitely slowing down in New York,” he said. “Here it is, we're almost a year later and New York is a long way away from making a decision as to what will be built there.”

If Usher puts his “economic” hat on, he said the city has no choice but to rebuild on the site.

“That amount of real estate in lower Manhattan is not going to sit idle,” he said. “With Manhattan being a small, tiny island, all that space is comparatively huge. It will be good for the city from a construction standpoint. Once it gets going, there will be a lot of building for a long time.”

Bob Mann, chairman of E-J Electric, said he thinks it will be a year before construction begins on the site.

“Everything has been stalled as far as what's going to happen at the World Trade Center,” he said. “Things are very slow in New York because no one seems to be making up their mind exactly what they want to do. They have to rebuild, but what's going to be there is very much in the air. Obviously, there's going to be a memorial, but whether they're going to have buildings that are going to go up 50 stories or 110 stories, is the big question.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. unveiled six initial proposals in mid-July. Each of the six called for 11 million square feet of office space, a 600,000-square-foot hotel, 600,000 square feet of retail space and a transportation hub serving New York and New Jersey. The plans also featured a permanent memorial, public open space, cultural and civic institutions, a Greek Orthodox church and residential facilities off-site. Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, a New York architectural and planning firm, designed each plan with 60-story to 80-story office towers that were grouped around a memorial. Because the six plans lacked creativity and did not rise to the occasion, the city went back to the drawing board, said Beverly Willis, a New York City architect.

“The public clearly wanted something as heroic as the heroic efforts of the individuals who were involved in the rescue effort,” she said. “To simply treat this like another mega real-estate project does not fit the mood of the people.”

In August, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority announced an international design competition, in which five teams will be selected to create designs for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Willis, cofounder of Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.DOT), a coalition of lower Manhattan residents, businesses, associations, architects and designers, said R.DOT has been calling for an international design competition from the very beginning.

“We're elated with this turn of events,” Willis said.

To further development in lower Manhattan and allow the designers more creativity, the city of New York and the Port Authority are considering a land swap. If the plan is approved, the city will trade the land under the JFK and LaGuardia airports for the WTC site, which is now owned by the Port Authority. Usher said no final decisions have been made, but both parties are seriously considering the land swap.

No. 7 World Trade

While the plans for Ground Zero are a long way from being finalized, No. 7 World Trade is currently under construction. R. DOT's Willis said the building was a trade-off between Con Edison, the developer and the community.

“The community was not excited about the building, but by the same token, Seven World Trade is compact and opens up Greenwich Street,” she said. “Because there was a major concession made in terms of how the building was sited, the community approved a taller building. It's a blank wall parallelogram, but it's tucked amongst some existing buildings.”

The building, which will be off the Ground Zero site and north of the former Tower 1, will serve the electrical needs of the surrounding buildings.

“Seven World Trade contained multiple ConEd substations in the lower levels,” Usher said. “Of course, that was all destroyed and there is a real need to get that piece going. From a construction standpoint, that is definitely priority one.”

ConEd and Tishman Construction Corp. are now looking to hire an electrical contractor for Phase 1 of the project. E-J assembled an entire team of engineers to work on the estimate, and the company's chief estimator spent weeks poring over all the drawings. The company is now waiting to hear who is awarded the electrical contract. The winner is expected to be announced in early September, and the work will commence in the weeks following Labor Day.

“The project is going forward, the bids are out on the street and we've responded,” Usher said. “It's going to be done in several phases, but the first phase will be to work with ConEd and get the feeder conduit in for five new and five future substations. I'm sure it will be a fast-track project.”

The project is in conjunction with IBEW Local 3, which is helping to put in the substation.

“A big topic for the last six months has been ‘What are Local 3 and ConEd going to do?,’” Usher said. “It hasn't been totally resolved, but it looks like everyone is getting along.”

The first package, which Usher describes as a “pipe job,” will include the first four floors of the building. Seven World Trade will house the ConEd substations. The electrical team will run all the conduit, some of which will be reserved for security and datacom wiring.

“The electricians will set up all the pipe and conduit needed to run all the electrical, telephone and security service to feed the entire building,” he said. “This has to be done when the foundation is being poured. Otherwise, if you are a few days late, you're down there with jackhammers chopping it all up trying to bury your pipe. That's why this phase has to start right away.”

The office space surrounding Ground Zero has been vacant for the past year, but more tenants will soon move into the buildings in lower Manhattan.

“Obviously, those people are not down there using power because if they were, there would not be enough electricity in New York,” Usher said. “They have to get this substation built before office towers and everything else goes up. It's a real critical path that they're on. So ConEd is trying to move as fast as humanly possible.”

The construction on No. 7 World Trade should be wrapped up in the next year, Willis said.

“They are shooting for a deadline of summer 2003,” Willis said. “That will be completed five years before the other buildings. I think it will be 10 or 15 years before the site is rebuilt completely.”

Slowing construction in New York City

The stagnant economy, the dot-com bust and the terrorist attacks all wracked havoc on New York City's construction market. Although lower Manhattan lost 11 million square feet of office space when the Twin Towers collapsed, other buildings became available when the dot-coms went out of business.

“The people who decided they wanted to stay in New York could move into a lot of office space that had just been renovated for these dot-coms,” Usher said. “The dot-coms were only in the space for a year or two, spent big bucks fixing up their offices and basically went out of business and walked out the door.”

The increased availability of pristine office space has hurt the interior construction market, he said.

“People were able to move in and they didn't have to do anything,” he said. “It was all brand new and renovated office space. With all the huge layoffs and the dot-com bubble bursting, a lot of office space is now available.”

The Port Authority is now offering stipends to keep businesses in lower Manhattan. Gradually, crews have cleaned up the office buildings around Ground Zero and companies, such as American Express, have moved their employees back into lower Manhattan. Usher, who had a window office in No. 5 World Trade Center, now works at E-J's headquarters in Long Island City, N.Y.

“I suspect I will be back down in lower Manhattan as soon as we get a couple of good-sized jobs down there,” he said. “A lot of opportunity will be coming up as projects get off the drawing boards and actually get implemented.”

The electricians who worked at the World Trade Center have been reassigned to projects all over the city, from a $5 billion American Airlines expansion project at John F. Kennedy airport to the new corporate AOL Time Warner facility. Construction in New York City has slowed down considerably due to the aftermath of September 11, E-J's Bob Mann said.

“It's slow,” he said. “The general contractors are trying to find work, and so is everybody else. Projects aren't really going ahead as planned and the major corporations aren't taking space in the office buildings.”

Construction has slowed down in New York City, partly because companies are waiting for the government to approve an insurance program for future terrorist attacks. The major insurance companies don't want to face horrendous losses in case of another terrorist attack. At the same time, construction lenders, banks and finance companies are hesitant to finance a company that doesn't have insurance on a project.

“It has gone back and forth in Washington, and it still hasn't been firmed up,” Mann said. “Everyone in the construction and real estate industry has been lobbying terrifically to get this thing through and moving, but so far it hasn't been finalized.”

Usher said insurance rates for construction companies have gone through the roof.

“It's not a question anymore of getting three bids,” he said. “It's like you're out begging the insurance carriers to take you and then you're getting whacked 200 percent, 300 percent or 400 percent increases. It has been horrible. It's a huge problem here in New York.”

One year after Sept. 11, the day that 17 (another IBEW worker died four months later from a blood clot that came from injuries he suffered on 9-11) IBEW electricians lost their lives, Mann said New York City is not the same.

“It was horrendous,” he said. “It has impacted New York terrifically as far as knocking the economy down and creating a lot of the hesitancy on where people are going to have their offices and whether there is ever going to be another attack. I hope that it will be rebuilt, Lower Manhattan will have a better transportation system and companies will again go down there and be tenants.”

The rebuilding in Lower Manhattan will be good for the economy, Usher said.

“There's not a lot of new buildings coming up out of the ground right now, so that's why Ground Zero from an economic standpoint will be very good for New York,” he said. “When the World Trade Center complex gets going, if they build anything close to what was there, I would guess that all the major electrical contractors will be involved. That's how huge that project will be.”

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