Plans for arts center at ground zero move slowly

NEW YORK – When he created ground zero’s master plan, architect Daniel Libeskind added a performing arts center to bring life to a site devastated by terrorism.

More than 100 arts institutions applied for a spot on the 16 acres. Four were chosen.

That was four years ago. Since then, three out of the four groups that were to have anchored the new performance space have moved on, and the center’s prospects appear to be fading.

Fundraising for the center, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, hasn’t begun. Ongoing construction of other buildings at the site – including an office tower, a transit hub and a Sept. 11 memorial – have complicated building prospects. State and city officials are now considering moving the center off the site, on top of a nearby subway station.

Libeskind called the arts center disarray “a great pity.”

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“It should be exactly where it was planned to be,” he said. “It’s critical for the diversity, and for the symbolism of this site.”

The arts were front and center in 2004, when officials announced that the rebuilt trade center would become the new home of two independent theater companies, the country’s only museum solely devoted to drawing and a new museum celebrating freedom.

Architect Frank Gehry was hired to build the theater, a 1,000-seat facility for the Joyce Theater dancers and smaller spaces for the Signature Theatre Co.

One by one, plans changed for all of them.

In the summer of 2005, the Drawing Center opted to find space elsewhere after survivors of people killed on Sept. 11 and other advocates criticized some of the works on exhibit as inappropriate.

Then the International Freedom Center was taken off the site by then-Gov. George Pataki following a campaign by the families of some victims who feared its programming would offer unwelcome, political interpretations of the 2001 terrorist attack.

Last year, the Signature Theatre Co. dropped its plan to move to the site after city and state officials said it would cost too much to build separate theaters for both them and the Joyce.

“We’re the last one standing,” said Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater.

Shelton said she had hoped the theater, a much-needed 1,000-seat space in a city where most venues are either much smaller, or many times larger, would be nearly built by now.

Development officials have defended the delays, saying their first priority was to rebuild destroyed office towers and create a memorial. But as the years have dragged by, state and city officials have wrestled to find ways to cut soaring costs and build.

The land for the arts center won’t be available until at least 2011; it is now occupied by a temporary entrance to a transit hub. The cost estimates for building the center on an incredibly complicated site, dominated by the $2 billion hub and a 1,776-foot skyscraper, seem to rise by the month.

Last month LMDC chairman Avi Schick suggested a solution: Take the arts center off site and build it on top of a subway hub at Fulton Street, another project that is already over budget with uncertain funding.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is still considering options for the Fulton Street transit hub and doesn’t have an opinion on the arts center, MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

Maggie Boepple, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, said the council doesn’t want to give up on the idea of building at the trade center, but might not oppose moving the center off the site if it is a viable possibility.

Other civic and arts leaders say that ground zero, one of the most emotional, politically fraught development projects ever, has already proven to be a difficult place for groups hoping to exercise artistic independence.

Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center, said the museum didn’t opt out of the site because it was concerned about censorship, but it did worry about being pressured to make changes.

“We couldn’t change our mission, even in the concept of respect,” he said. “Maybe it just wasn’t a good fit for us. It probably wasn’t a good fit for any visual arts organization.”

Libeskind said politics has delayed nearly every project under way at the site, but expressed hope that the cultural aspects of his master plan will still survive.

“It should be something, of course, that should be realized, that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” Libeskind said. “There is no reason to delay it.”