When the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH terminal opens in 2015 at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, it will become the world’s most expensive train station. Visitors, however, can already get a taste of the $4 billion boondoggle: The pedestrian passageway beneath West Street is open to the public.
The tunnel, which one source pegged at just 100 feet long (or is it 600 feet?), is cavernous and blindingly white, and does not disappoint. But it still managed to impose a heavy financial toll on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The station’s total cost — $4 billion, plus another few hundred million for temporary stations — was what most first-world cities would pay for an entire rail line. And this single pedestrian underpass, which runs from an office complex across the West Side Highway (which, despite its reinvention as West Street, still feels a lot like a highway), looks to account for at least $100 million. This is the “amount previously authorized for the construction of the core and shell of the Pedestrian Underpass,” according to minutes from a Port Authority committee meeting. (The Port Authority has not returned my calls asking for a final cost figure for the hallway.)
Somehow I doubt that the police stand was part of the original Calatrava design. Credit: Stephen J. Smith
The underpass replaces what had traditionally been a bridge, the first of which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks. A temporary span, replete with dysfunctional elevators and escalators, went up in 2003 and is now being torn down.
Sharing the site with the world’s most expensive train station and hallway, we have the world’s most expensive office building (1 World Trade Center, $3.9 billion) and parking garage (the “Vehicle Security Center,” budgeted at $633 million in 2008, back when the whole project was billions of dollars cheaper).
It’s all part of an elaborate underground design by Calatrava — an architect trailed by lawsuits and the world leader in designing public works projects that cities come to regret — that almost didn’t see the light of day. Former Port Authority executive director Anthony Shorris wanted to cut many of the underground elements from the Transportation Hub’s design in order to stay within, or at least close to, the then-budget of about $2.5 billion, according to a memo from March 2008.
But soon after Shorris’ cost-cutting plan was proposed, his boss, Eliot Spitzer, was taken down by a prostitution scandal. A new governor and executive director arrived, and the Port’s focus shifted from keeping costs down to delivering the site’s memorial by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The passageway is also somewhat of a gift to Brookfield Office Properties, the Canadian real estate giant that owns the World Financial Center. The company is not paying anything for a tunnel largely meant to serve its tenants, as it connects directly to the “Winter Garden Atrium” of its 8 million-square foot office complex.
In part, the high design of the Transportation Hub was supposed to add to the appeal of neighboring office buildings like the World Financial Center, but it’s not clear if this is working. The World Financial Center, a collection of postmodern office blocks that opened in the mid-’80s, has fared poorly in the current market and has millions of square feet of vacant space, with the World Trade Center buildings set to open soon not doing much better.
Banks are shedding jobs, and while the complex has been rebranded as “Brookfield Place” and renovated to attract media and tech companies, creative companies tend to prefer prewar loft buildings to office towers, never mind ones that are cut off from the city by a highway and sectioned off in an anodyne, master-planned development on the water.
Visitors should savor the passageway and other underground elements, though, as they were built to Calatrava’s extravagant specifications, having dodged the cost-cutting bullet in 2008. (Bear in mind that the whole thing is heavily patrolled — when we visited at 11pm on Friday, six police officers, whose most apparent purpose was to try to prevent people from taking pictures, stood guard in the passageway.)
The aboveground elements weren’t so lucky. It turns out that the record-setting sum of $4 billion didn’t even buy New York a complete Calatrava design. The light and airy bird-like structure with a retractable roof simulating flight was value-engineered down, its wings rendered immobile and its rib-like supports doubled, leading to a heavier-looking structure. Those are being hoisted right now, and the full station is not scheduled to open until the middle of 2015.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.