Uncertainty Continues to Surround WTC Performance Center

Left: Maggie Boepple speaks to members of Community Board 1. Right: Conceptual model of the performing arts center, to be designed by Frank Gehry. Photos by Carl Glassman/The Tribeca Trib (Boepple); Gehry Studio (model)

It has but two staff members, many of millions of dollars yet to raise and no timeline for construction. But when—or if—the long-delayed World Trade Center performing arts center is finally built, it will undoubtedly be Downtown’s shining cultural hub.

Yet even as annual festivals, theatrical productions and storytelling hours are being imagined for the center,  a long-drawn-out political struggle over funding for the Frank Gehry designed center continues to leave the project clouded by uncertainty.

On Dec. 6, Maggie Boepple, a veteran Albany lobbyist charged with planning the center, talked to Community Board 1 members about the latest vision for the center and alluded to political obstacles, ones she hasn't seen “in all my years of working around government.”

“Someday I will write a book about it,” she said.

Boepple said the fate of the center, to be located where the temporary PATH station now stands, hinges on a critical vote this month by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The vote would determine, she said, whether the LMDC will release $1 million for staffing and fundraising.

“We will definitely know before the holidays whether or not this is really on the path to recovery,” Boepple told the CB1 members,


The 'PAC' Saga

Through the Years

Sept. 15, 2003 112 arts groups submit applications to be among four cultural institutions picked for the Trade Center site.

Feb. 10, 2004 Joyce Theater and Signature Theater are picked for a performing arts center at Fulton and Greenwich streets, the Drawing Center and International Freedom Center (IFC), to go in a cultural center on the memorial quadrant.

Dec. 2004 The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation is created to raise $500 million for the cultural buildings. March 2005 LMDC president Kevin Rampe says the performing arts center is on schedule for completion in 2009.

April 2005 Gretchen Dykstra is named president of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. At the same time, it is announced that the cultural components are not part of the initial $500 million funding. Instead, they are part of a “second phase,” creating the need for two capital campaigns.

May 2005 Design for the cultural center, by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, is unveiled.

June 8, 2005 Debra Burlingam, sister of the pilot of the American Airlines jet that terrorists crashed into the Pentagon, stirs an uproar in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, condemning IFC as un-American.

June 24, 2005 Daily News reports on Drawing Center shows that featured Abu Ghraib and other “anti-American” art.

June 24, 2005 Gov. George Pataki orders LMDC to get guarantees from cultural institutions that they will not produce programs offensive to the families of victims and to visitors. “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America,” he says.

July 2005 A letter from IFC organizers to the LMDC promises no “blame America” exhibits. They state: “We are proud patriots.” July 2005 Anita Contini, the LMDC’s director for cultural programs, resigns.

Aug. 2005 LMDC commits $50 million toward the Frank Gehry-designed performance center, estimated to cost eight times that. Sept. 2005 Pataki orders the IFC off the site.

Nov. 2005 LMDC will give the Drawing Center $150,000 to find an alternate Downtown home.

June 2006 Port Authority announces that a temporary PATH terminal will occupy a portion of the performing arts building site while the new station is under construction.

March 2007 City announces that the Signature Theater will not be in the performing arts center but in a rebuilt Fiterman Hall.

Aug. 2007 Signature Theater’s plans for Fiterman Hall fall through.

April 2008 LMDC chairman Avi Schick floats the idea of combining the performing arts center with the Fulton Street Transit Center. The idea is later abandoned.

July 2008 Schick says $5 million of the $55 million allocated for the center is going toward its planning and design. “The rest of it is waiting for the moment we can identify the place and time and site,” he said.

Jan. 2010 Officials end uncertainty over siting of the center, saying it will go next to 1 WTC building as planned.

Dec. 2011 Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoints the first five members of the Performing Arts Center Board, within days of a deadline to create the board or lose $155 million in LMDC funding.

Sept. 2012 The LMDC Board opts to delay a vote to release $1 million in funding for staffing and development for the PAC. Board Chair Avi Schick announces that the board is likely to meet in October to discuss the issue. It does not meet again in 2012.

referring to the years of stagnation and controversy surrounding the performance center, almost from its concept as part of the site’s original master plan.

But underscoring the tenuousness of that "recovery," LMDC president David Emil said just days later that it is unlikely that the LMDC board will meet to vote this month.

He told the Trib in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dec. 12, that there are still questions over where the needed funds—most recently estimated at $450 million—will come from.

"Until we understand what it is really going to cost, and how we are going to pay for it, there is hesitancy to commit significant additional funds," Emil said.

The LMDC, formed after Sept. 11 to oversee federal revitalization funds for Lower Manhattan, set aside $100 million for the performance center in 2010 ($1 million for staffing and administrative costs and $99 million towards construction).

But it has yet to authorized the spending of that money.

The LMDC board had been scheduled to vote on the $1 million allocation for the center at its September meeting.

But Emil and chairman Avi Schick temporarily withdrew it from consideration because of the uncertainty over funding. They said at the time that they expected it to come to a vote the next month.

In that September meeting, Kate Levin, the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and a member of the LMDC board, objected, saying the project has “quite a deep history of community support and private funding as well as public funding.”

She urged the board “to meet very quickly on this and resolve it.”

The board, however, has not met since.

“[The] LMDC slowed things down for political reasons that we think we have addressed,” Boepple said of recent meetings with the agency. “But you never know.”

She called Gov. Andrew Cuomo “the last hurdle.”

Julie Menin, who served on the LMDC board until her term as CB1 chair ended earlier this year, said there has been a history of delays by the LMDC caused by the “multitude of agencies and players involved.”

“But there does not need to be a delay for the allocation of this money,” she said.

Asked how much the center is now estimated to cost, Boepple would not give a number. "It is going to be a lot of money, " she said.

While funding for the center is still in question, the PAC’s small board—headed by real estate developer John Zuccotti and including World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein and former CB1 chair Julie Menin—is beginning to refine its plans for the space.

The board envisions a 1,000-seat theater and a smaller flexible performance space for audiences of 200 or 250.

The building would have smaller spaces for more intimate gatherings, Boepple said.

“We want to make this a very inviting and warm environment,” Boepple said. “So there will be lots of nooks and crannies where some odd things might take place, but there also will be places where you might meet with two or three friends.”

The board has been conferring with performing arts experts for programming and other ideas, Boepple said.

“[The program] defines the building and that will define whether or not we are successful,” she said. “However brilliant Gehry is going to be, and I’m sure he will be in designing this, if we don’t program it correctly it won’t be a success.”

The board opposes classical ballet and large-scale opera at the center, Boepple said. Rather, it favors contemporary dance, theater, ongoing events such as children’s storytelling and annual festivals. The Joyce Theater is the only arts organization that, so far, is designated to be housed in the center.

“If you think about the Lincoln Center Festival, it attracts all kinds of people,” Boepple said. “It attracts a diverse audience, it attracts a young audience, and we very much want to do that because of the changing demographics of Downtown.”

The board also hopes the center, to be open during the day for meetings, will collaborate with the annual Tribeca Film Festival, Boepple said.

If the LMDC gives the financial go-ahead for the center, the number of board members will be increased and a silent phase of fundraising will begin. Current board members have each pledged to donate or raise $5 million for the center.

To reduce the construction costs, Boepple said, the board has eliminated some features from the center, such as offices and classrooms.

“We have substantially down-scaled the building from when I got there, which was unsupportable,” she said.

Despite all the challenges, Boepple still sounded a note of optimism.

“We are all trying to gallop along here,” she said. “If nothing changes, I think the PAC could be open for business in 2017.”