Two decades after Sept. 11, 2001, the last re-building block of the World Trade Center is coming together.
A proposal for a 900-foot residential skyscraper on “Site 5”, formerly home to the Deutsche Bank Building, is in the works. It will include 1,325 apartments, a quarter of which will be so-called affordable, or rented below market rate.
But as the 20th anniversary of the attacks arrives, some locals are pushing for something different: Why not make the building a place where survivors and their families can live, with all of the units set at income-adjusted, affordable rents?
To Mariama James, a longtime downtown resident who said she struggles with 9/11-related health issues and lost her father to a related cancer, taking that course is the right thing to do.
It would represent a recognition of the residents who made Lower Manhattan a “phenomenal” place to live after the attacks, she said.
“It’s the people who were asked to stay here, not to leave, and to live, basically, through a war zone — to move here in the aftermath of that, or to return to their homes that had been destroyed, and rebuild them. We did it. You asked, and we did it,” she said. “And there’s been no compensation for that. There’s been no thanks.”
James is a co-founder of a new coalition of Lower Manhattan residents and housing advocates rallying to push multiple public agencies and two mega-developers, Brookfield Properties and Silverstein Properties, to change course on the Site 5 plan.
The building is set to be the first residential property within the downtown complex, and the last major site to be redeveloped there since the 2001 attacks.
A Big Boost for Downtown
The current plan for the site calls for about 995 market-rate apartments and 330 affordable-housing units, also known as income-restricted apartments because they are rented to families within specific household earning categories.
The affordable units will be reserved for families making up to 50% of the area median income. With a local AMI of $107,400, a three-person family making only about $53,000 annually could secure a spot in the tower.
Will Burns, a spokesperson for Empire State Development — which oversees the Site 5 development proposal through its subsidiary, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation — described the newly planned building as delivering “the largest number of affordable apartments built in Lower Manhattan in decades.”
The proposed mixed-use tower also includes 12,000 square feet of community space, 55,000 square feet for public amenities, Burns noted.
The 330 units in the current proposal would boost the area’s available affordable housing stock significantly. In 2012, research by the local community board showed a total inventory of 946 units of affordable rentals in the district.
Since 2014, three buildings with a total of 131 affordable units between them have been built in the Lower Manhattan community district that encompasses the WTC, according to a map tracking new affordable units compiled by the city’s housing department.
‘Slowly Getting Boxed Out’
But it’s not enough to those organizing as The Coalition for an Affordable World Trade Center Tower Five.
“It’s like saying, ‘Isn’t this nice? Three-hundred units of potential affordable housing?’ No! We’re more than 300 people,” said Taylor Banning, a 28-year-old member of the coalition who was born in Battery Park City’s Gateway Plaza and has lived in the neighborhood for most of her life.
She’s watched as longtime neighbors have struggled to stay in the area, or been priced out. Seniors on fixed incomes are especially vulnerable, she said.
People who were children in the area on 9/11 and are now adults — like herself — say they have little hope of finding their own homes in a neighborhood that has become one of the city’s priciest.
“It’s a wealthy neighborhood, for sure. I recognize that. But a lot of the families who have been here since 9/11 are not all wealthy. They have jobs. They’re trying to sustain themselves,” Banning said. “At a certain point, those people who stuck it out are slowly getting boxed out. The young people can’t come back.”
The coalition formed this spring after the Port Authority and the LMDC — the two state-controlled entities with control over the site — in February announced Brookfield and Silverstein as the developers of the residential project.
The group’s main goals are to see a 5 WTC building that is 100% affordable housing, and to give a preference for some of those units to 9/11 survivors and their families — similar to how city-run housing lotteries often give an edge to applicants from the neighborhood or to public employees.
‘Badly Needed Housing’
But those aims are going to be a tough sell for a project that’s been in the works for years — and aims to use the development as a way to raise funds for several big-ticket items within the WTC complex.
Whenever Site 5 is built, the proceeds will go to the Port Authority as repayment for a land swap that allowed for the building of the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum as well as a performing arts center, under construction now, on land controlled by the Authority.
The LMDC had previously purchased Site 5, also known as 130 Liberty St., with HUD funds and took responsibility for its notorious, decade-long demolition that resulted in the death of two firefighters and cost $160 million.
How much the Site 5 plan is worth, however, is unknown. A 2019 memorandum outlining the deal — obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request by a member of the affordable housing coalition, Todd Fine, and shared with THE CITY — redacts the appraised revenue of the development proposal.
Neither ESD nor the Port Authority disclosed financial information about the deal.
Amber Greene, a spokesperson for the Port Authority, said the agency is “still negotiating lease terms and as such the project remains an open procurement.”
In a statement on behalf of the entire development team, Brookfield spokesperson Andrew Brent said: “On a site that was contemplated entirely as office space, the development will add badly needed housing, including hundreds of units of affordable housing, as well as beneficial community space in Lower Manhattan.”
‘This Is Public Land’
Upping the amount of affordable apartments in the Site 5 building would require an infusion of public money to make up the difference between the below-market rents and the cost of building and maintaining each apartment. Without it, Brookfield and Silvestein — or any developer — may decide it’s not worth moving forward with the construction.
Which public entity would take responsibility for that effort is unclear. Site 5 is under the jurisdiction of the LMDC and Port Authority, but the city’s affordable housing department as well as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are also involved.
Between the city, state and federal governments — plus the bi-state Port Authority — Fine, a Lower Manhattan historian and member of the coalition, sees an opportunity.
“We have these four different entities. Any one of them could change their mind,” he said.
“It’s an alphabet soup,” Jill Goodkind, a coalition member, said of the jumble of oversight agencies.
She is the widow of downtown activist and musician Tom Goodkind, who had pushed for more affordable housing in Lower Manhattan for years before his death from a 9/11-related cancer in 2019.
His advocacy serves as a kind of guiding light for the group, clarifying their goal despite the complexity of the project, she said.
“People are all going to say, ‘Affordable housing, affordable housing’ and never do anything about it,” she said. “This is the opportunity. This is public land. Public funds went to purchase this land. This is the moment and hopefully this message will resonate.”
A Long Road Ahead
The coalition held its first public meeting earlier this month, and has been reaching out to elected officials, local tenant groups and housing advocates to rally around the cause.
Members handed out flyers to first responders at the July 7 ticker tape parade on Broadway, and James says their materials made it into the hands of Sen. Chuck Schumer, mayoral Democratic primary winner Eric Adams and an aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“They didn’t throw it in the garbage,” James said with a laugh.
Even in its current state, the Site 5 project has a long road ahead before any construction can begin. Greene, of the Port Authority, said a finalized lease deal is expected by the end of summer. That agreement with Brookfield and Silverstein needs a number of approvals from the LMDC, Port Authority and ESD.
On top of that, since the original WTC General Project Plan, or GPP, from the LMDC calls for Site 5 to become a commercial development, building residential there requires a project plan modification.
Changing the GPP would require approval from the LMDC board and the state’s Public Authorities Control Board as well as review from the Attorney General’s office and state comptroller. It will also go through a new environmental review.
That process will likely last until at least next summer, according to an official with knowledge of the project.
In that time, Goodkind promised the group “will fight as hard as we can,” she said — because “the need for affordable housing is so desperate” and “the need for luxury housing is so not.”
“We’re surrounded by empty luxury towers as it is,” she said.