9/11 Rebuild Documentary Director on Delays and Controversies Around New World Trade Center


As the memorial museum opens, "16 Acres" director Richard Hankin explains why much of Ground Zero remains a construction site.

With Wednesday’s official opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, The Hollywood Reporter decided to check in with filmmaker Richard Hankin, whose all-access documentary 16 Acres offers an insider’s view of the World Trade Center rebuild, to get his take on the delays and controversies surrounding the new World Trade Center and what downtown Manhattan will look like when it’s finally complete.

Hankin doesn't think the entire site will open until 2018, in the best-case scenario.

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“They still haven't opened One World Trade Center [formerly known as the Freedom Tower], which keeps getting pushed back,” the director explains. “Currently the plan is for it to open in the fall and Conde Nast will move in in January. Tower Two and Three are big question marks, while the bird-like transportation hub designed by [SantiagoCalatrava -- that’s its own saga and could be a film unto itself -- is supposedly opening in 2015.”

Years ago, former New York Governor George Pataki predicted construction would be completed by 2006.

"I think he really believed that would be the case," Hankin says. But there were other forces that delayed the process.

The World Trade Center was often referred to as the most valuable 16 acres on earth prior to 9/11. After the Twin Towers fell, a tug-of-war quickly developed over the expensive real estate below the wreckage, which Hankin explores in his documentary.

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While most people see the construction site that still exists in downtown Manhattan as a national embarrassment and a symbol of bureaucratic incompetence, Hankin believes people need to realize just how difficult this process has been and the significance of Wednesday’s benchmark.

“I think one thing the general public doesn’t grasp is the number of stakeholders who had a voice in figuring out what to do with the site. The pols, the developers, the families, all these people looking at it as a zero-sum game: 'What I want is diametrically opposed to what you want, and I'm going to get my way.' "

The most recent controversy involves the families of 9/11 victims being upset that the new museum will charge $24 admission and that the unidentified remains of those who died in the tragedy will be entombed at Ground Zero.

For Hankin this development is just another example of why this process has been so difficult. "Some families didn't want anything to be rebuilt, they wanted the entire 16 acres to be a memorial. It was sacred burial ground to them," he says.

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Hankin is quick to point out that the family members of the attack's more than 3,000 victims have a variety of opinions, and they in no way speak with one unified voice, as it often seems in the media. “That's one of the reasons things were so complicated from day one," Hankin says, "It’s impossible to filter through all the very emotional, very raw opinions that were oftentimes quite different, especially for politicians who don’t want to appear to be steamrolling grieving families."

The 9/11 families are only one group that affected what the new WTC would become. 16 Acres chronicles how many of the biggest setbacks over the past 13 years have been the product of dozens of city, state and federal agencies all having a say in how Ground Zero would be rebuilt.

The most stunning example of this is when the plans for the Freedom Tower had to be completely scrapped over a "lost" memo that resurfaced in 2004. The NYPD document addressed safety concerns but had been misplaced by Port Authority. “Nobody disputes a letter was sent, or that it was lost on the Port Authority’s side,” explains Hankin. “It was absolutely mind-boggling: How could there not be follow-up after a letter like that was sent? And then of course, this is just the NYPD and PA. You also had the developers who had to clean up this mess. In a way it perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of what was going on down there."

For Hankin, though, there is something uniquely New York about the entire process and its many delays. “Putting a bunch of New Yorkers in a room and getting them to some kind of consensus, even in the best possible scenario, is really complicated,” says the N.Y.-based filmmaker. “I lived in a small co-op on the Upper West Side, and if somebody wanted to change the wallpaper in the lobby, that ended up being a five-year process."

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“This is a really messy democracy, and in a lot of ways this has been a really messy democratic process, but a surprisingly productive one at the end of the day,” Hankin reflects.

Despite documenting so much of the petty infighting, political opportunism and greed in 16 Acres, the filmmaker genuinely believes that the back-and-forth will result in something special.

“It is hard to realize now with the site being blocked off, but part of the vision of the design is the whole site will be reintegrated into the neighborhood in a way the old Trade Center never was -- that wind-swept, isolated plaza that was hard to get to. The big vision is the streets will go through so that it is integrated into the downtown neighborhood. I think once everything opens up, it'll be pretty amazing.”

The ebook "16 Acres+: Companion to the Acclaimed Documentary About the Struggle to Rebuild Ground Zero" was released last week.

The documentary "16 Acres" is available for download via iTunes, and streaming via Netflix. Watch the trailer below.