Board members of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey revealed a deep split Wednesday over the agency's role in effecting the completion of the long-delayed 3 World Trade Center project, with some commissioners lauding the effort and others expressing grave concerns.
The discussion at the monthly board meeting offered a rare glimpse into the negotiations that have been going on behind the scenes in recent months, both between the Port Authority and developer Larry Silverstein and, apparently, between the board members themselves over the bistate agency's role.
The public discourse wouldn't have happened in previous months or years, but the Port Authority, stung by recent revelations over the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and other negative publicity, has adopted a more open policy at its board meetings.
A board vote on the plan had been a possibility for Wednesday, but executive director Patrick Foye opted instead to furnish an update on the negotiations with Silverstein. According to Foye, the Port Authority, which is proposing to commit more than $1 billion as a loan guarantee to complete the project, stands to have greater upside and less risk than under a deal struck in 2010. He said he expected to have a final negotiated plan to bring to the board by next month.
"This is a good, fair commercial deal for the Port Authority," Foye said.
While vice chairman Scott Rechler and commissioner Richard Bagger voiced support for the plan, others were lukewarm or adamantly against it. Commissioner Kenneth Lipper called it "obscene" and "a scandalous over-reach into the public cookie jar" during lengthy comments.
"It's not appropriate for a public agency using public money gained through tolls to use that to fund a speculative real estate project, no matter how patriotic our goals are," he said.
Janno Lieber, a Silverstein spokesman, attended the meeting and disputed Lipper's contention that toll payers and airport users, who provide the Port Authority with the bulk of its revenues, would be on the hook.
"The World Trade Center exists in part to give the Port Authority a large sum of money from ground rent, which can be used to take the pressure off the toll payers of New Jersey," he said. "That will guarantee that tolls won't have to be raised in the future."
Lieber added that the company has been paying rent on the property totaling hundreds of millions of dollars while the public debate has dragged on and the project has languished.
"Now, we and the Port Authority need to join forces to get the building up so we can continue to pay these huge ground rents that take the pressure off the toll payers," he said.
Advertising company GroupM has agreed to lease about 515,000 square feet of 3 World Trade Center at a cost of more than $75 per square foot, Foye said Wednesday. That satisfied a benchmark in the earlier agreement between the parties, he said. Lieber wouldn't say whether GroupM had indicated how long it would wait for a deal to be reached.
"We have an agreement with GroupM that is obviously based in part on us delivering a building they can occupy," he said. "Clearly, the Port Authority understands that we have a tenant standing by waiting to know their future."