NEW YORK — The saga of what may be the city's biggest boondoggle, or what could be its greatest public building since Grand Central Terminal, or both, began at a news conference 10 years ago.
The Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was grasping for words to describe his design for the planned World Trade Center Transit Hub. So he stepped from the podium — "Let me draw what I cannot say'' — and sketched a picture of a girl releasing a bird into flight.
That image, he said, inspired the shape of the vast, glass-and-steel hall at the heart of a network of subway lines that converge in Lower Manhattan. It would be longer and higher than Grand Central Terminal's hall, and brighter — "a lamp of hope,'' Calatrava said, for a city still shadowed by 9/11.
"'Wow' is the first word that's just got to come to your mind," said the mayor, Michael Bloomberg. It would be more than a station, said the governor, George Pataki, it would be "a tribute to those we lost on Sept. 11.''
A decade later, however, the Trade Center Transit Hub has taken twice as much money and time to build as promised. Design changes have made it look more like a stegosaurus than a bird, and it's been vilified by a legion of kibitzers as a political self-indulgence, an architectural ego trip and a money pit — the world's most expensive subway station.
The Hub's neighbors — the 9/11 Memorial, the 9/11 Museum, the nation's-tallest Freedom Tower (now One World Trade Center) — are finished, despite their travails; the Hub is a year from completion.
But what's most striking about the Hub is not the fact that it's five years overdue and $2 billion (100%) over budget; that its funds (almost $3 billion of them federal) could have done more to improve mass transit; that its wings have been clipped.
No, what's really amazing about the project is that even now, under construction, it inspires a feeling that 50 or 100 years from now, Calatrava's creation could indeed be regarded as "more than a station.''
A 'STARCHITECT' AT GROUND ZERO
The 9/11 attacks destroyed the mass transit infrastructure under the Trade Center, which had two subway stations and a PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) terminal with subway service to New Jersey.
A temporary PATH station opened two years after the attacks; by then, service also had been restored to all city subway stations in the area except Cortlandt Street, directly under the center (which is being reconstructed as part of the Transit Hub).
Planners had long wanted to improve the connections between the many subway stations in the area, and thus make lower Manhattan — whose commercial cachet waned after Grand Central opened in midtown in 1913 — more accessible and navigable.
Calatrava was selected as architect of the Transit Hub, which would include not just the transit hall and stations, but a network of underground passageways and a regional shopping mall's worth of retail space. He had designed rail stations in Lisbon, Lyon and Zurich and was a proven crowd-pleaser — the personification of the 21st-century "starchitect.''
His addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, featuring a movable, wing-like screen that opens by day and folds over the structure at night, had become a municipal symbol. His Sundial Bridge, a pedestrian span over the Sacramento River in Redding, Calif., became a tourist attraction.
His design for the Transit Hub was heavy with symbolism. The wings that formed the arched roof could be retracted to open the concourse to the sky on certain occasions, including 9/11. By day, skylights in the 9/11 Memorial plaza would bring natural light to the subterranean station platforms; by night, columns of light from the station would rise into the plaza.
The Transit Hub was scheduled to open in 2009 and cost what the Daily News called "a whopping" $2 billion. But the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the site, was building a monument for the ages.
"I don't think we can afford not to be grand," said Bloomberg (who as mayor had no direct stake in the project). "What would people say 50, 100 years from now if they look back and thought just because we had a short-term financial problem that we jeopardized our whole future?"
Over the next four years, however, almost everything that could go wrong did:
Security requirements changed. After the Madrid train station bombing in 2004, the Transit Hall was redesigned with more side columns (or ribs), which made it look heavier and less avian. And protuberances designed to "harden'' the two main entrances evoked less a bird's beak than a stegosaurus' head.
Construction priorities changed. In 2008 political leaders decided that, after years of inactivity, the memorial must be finished by the 10th anniversary of the attacks. So although part of the memorial plaza would sit atop the Hub's PATH station, it would be built first.
"We had to do top-down construction,'' shrugs Steven Plate, Port Authority construction director, "like building the roof of a house first, then the floors, and the foundation last.'' It was expensive, he says, "but that was the policy decision.''
The cost changed. Because of the delays, the design changes and the difficulty of constructing an elaborate building on a complex site, the cost gradually escalated from $2 billion at the unveiling to more than $3.9 billion. Meanwhile, the movable roof wings and the memorial plaza skylights were scratched. The mezzanine, a span designed to be free of columns, now had four.
Critics began to turn on the project. New York Post columnist Steve Cuozzo, an early admirer of Calatrava's design, went from declaring the project "ever more unmoored'' to "a catastrophe.''
Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic from 2004 to 2011, (who in 2005 said the transit hall "may end up as one of the most glorious public spaces in New York'') now described it as "hollow at its core.''
For these critics, the disparity between the Hub's extravagant design and limited purpose is a pyrrhic victory of form over function.
For $4 billion, the project provides no new track or station stops. It doesn't even serve that many riders. The PATH terminal's 50,000 daily passengers are fewer than those handled by many city subway stations, and 650,000 fewer than Grand Central's.
And, unlike most rail station concourses, the Transit Hall is far from the rails. Transit users still must do a lot of walking to reach other stations.
To make matters worse, part of Calatrava's architectural past has caught up with him.
Several of his earlier projects have provoked complaints, including a bridge in Bilbao that got so slippery when wet that, after several pedestrians fell, the city laid down rubber mats; a winery roof in the Alava region of Spain that leaked; and an opera house in Calatrava's native Valencia whose skin began to wrinkle in the heat.
Stephen Jacob Smith, a New York Observer architecture writer, calls Calatrava "the world leader in designing public works projects that cities come to regret.''
The work of an innovator like Calatrava inevitably is subject to some problems; several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings come to mind. But these woes have made the Hub's seem like part of a pattern.
Through it all, Calatrava has held his tongue and kept his head down, repeatedly trimming, tucking and revising to fit budget and security requirements, acting less like a self-indulgent artiste than a pliable Hollywood script doctor.
Still, Calatrava says, "The design is the same — conceptually, visually, ornamentally. The original idea is 100% preserved'' — or improved.
As for his critics, Calatrava says that until the project is finished, it can't be fairly judged. "Let the design become what it will be. The glass has to be there. The light has to be there.'' Then, he says, it will look like a bird after all.
RISING FROM THE ASHES
Two reasons why the Transit Hub might redeem itself:
The past: The soaring, gleaming transit hall may express the recovery from the ashes of 9/11 with more symbolic power than the austere 9/11 Memorial waterfalls next door or the underground 9/11 Museum.
The future: Posterity tends to discount how much a project cost, how long it took, or how many people were killed building it. Grand Central's beloved terminal alone cost $43 million (roughly $1 billion today), about twice the amount budgeted.
No one worries about that now. But Grand Central was financed by the Vanderbilts' Grand Central Railroad, not federal taxes or public bridge and tunnel tolls. And it was a real train station, with more than 40 platforms (compared to the PATH terminal's four) and cars with conductors, tickets, and leather seats.
And it was part of an $80 million project that electrified tracks; depressed and covered them under Park Avenue; and sparked a Midtown real estate boom that saw values double in the decade it took to build it.
Three miles south and 100 years later, "I have no doubt the Hub can do the same,'' Calatrava says. "It will be a motor for development.''
As it takes shape, the transit hall is an amazing sight, even if from the street it does resemble a dinosaur more than a dove. Two giant construction cranes stick up from the spine of its hulking skeleton. Sparks from welders' torches shoot out from its ribs.
Inside, the Transit Hall concourse -- 365 feet long, 65 more than a football field and 90 more than Grand Central – is already one of the city's great spaces.
To the west, an underground corridor connecting PATH to an office tower complex is long (600 feet), bright (white Italian marble) and pricey (more than $200 million, prompting the critic Smith to dub it "the world's most expensive hallway'').
The Trade Center's 2003 redevelopment master plan called for a more modest project. "We could have done a glass box,'' Steven Plate admits. "But we took the time to convert something very dark into something very special. Our home was destroyed, our people were lost. We wanted to send a message: 'We're back.' ''
From the beginning, the Transit Hub was designed for posterity. Ten years and $4 billion later, posterity seems its best hope.
"This building is dedicated not for us today, but for coming generations,'' Calatrava says.
"Years from now,'' Plate predicts, "people will ask, 'How did they even do this?' ''
He can only hope they won't ask, "Why?''