NEW YORK TIMES February 15, 2002

Undaunted and Planning the Next Great Skyline

NEW YORK CITY's familiar skyline — the old one — lives on in his incandescent gold cuff links. The Trump-size theme baubles come into their own as Larry A. Silverstein, the chatty septuagenarian who runs Silverstein Properties Inc., shrugs off his suit jacket and sinks, with a discreet groan, into a bottomless blue sofa in his Fifth Avenue office.

New York City's next skyline — the one he means to have a heavy hand in shaping — is alive on his agenda. Where others see a scar and a burial ground, he sees intimations of immortality: skyscrapers are forever. He hopes. Which is why he not only, at age 70, had the temerity to sign a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center, but is also now, just shy of 71, hyperventilating at the prospect of rebuilding his trophy from scratch, albeit in revised form. Using his blueprints as his footprint.

Give him 10 years, he says, and he'll give the world a greater New York.

Mr. Silverstein, an implacable developer who closed a fraught $3.2 billion deal for the twin towers last July only to see them obliterated six weeks later, can't help the hubris, or the hurry.

"Those who remain are obligated to rebuild downtown, because only in that way will we ever properly recognize those who gave or lost their lives and only in that way will we deprive the terrorists of what they were trying to take away," he asserts. His plans endorse a "dignified" memorial, a cultural center, a museum, a retail mall, a quartet of shorter towers to replace the twins. Not that he can rebuild without approval from the city, the governor, and the Port Authority, or without the $7 billion he's suing his insurers for. But he is raring to go at 7 World Trade Center, which he built 14 years ago adjacent to the towers and which he intends to see operational again by 2005, with more buildings in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

He set his cap for the twin towers the day he completed No. 7. "Here I was with this beautiful 47-story, two-million-square-foot building, but when I walked outside I realized it was totally eclipsed by the towers and thought, `Wouldn't it be wonderful to own that, too?' It was a compulsion with me."

When it came time to complete his consortium's bid for the trade center in January 2001, he was in the hospital with a crushed pelvis after having been hit by a drunken driver. "I said, `Doc, cut my morphine, I've got to be able to think.' "

Now it is a "Field of Dreams" mission: if he rebuilds, he is convinced, the tenants will come. And if he doesn't? "The tenants will go to New Jersey, and who wants that?" he asks, with some hand-wringing for dramatic effect.

"Under the terms of our lease, for which we pay the Port Authority $120 million a year in ground rent, we are obligated to rebuild. And with six or seven billion in insurance company proceeds, we have the opportunity to do something spectacular there. Spectacular," he reiterates, his smile multiplying the wrinkles etched into his sun-damaged face. (A morning appointment with his dermatologist on Sept. 11 probably saved his life; otherwise he would have been hobnobbing with trade center tenants.)

Serendipity spared him in several ways: "If those planes had hit an hour later, I would have lost half my company." Including his son, Roger, who had just arrived downtown when the first plane struck.

Mr. Silverstein's discarded jacket disappears, tactfully removed by the same assistant who serves his iced tea and daily bakes 100 chocolate chip cookies, two for his noontime dessert, the rest as deal sweeteners for visiting real estate magnates.

"We sweeten 'em up," he says. Point taken. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of billionaire partners (like the investor Lloyd Goldman), nimble lawyers (Jack Quinn was former President Bill Clinton's counselor), fresh-baked cookies and chutzpah, Mr. Silverstein usually gets what he wants, hence his 20 million square feet of Manhattan office space. And yacht. And six grandchildren. He refuses to believe he won't get to build a newer, better trade center.

As for the antirebuilding sentiments of survivors of Sept. 11 victims, he gets weepy about the four staffers he lost. "Candidly, I don't think there will ever be a way to satisfy everyone," he says.

ABOUT those rivals who warn that his $7 billion reclamation project portends a glut of vacant office space, Mr. Silverstein raises his eyebrows and unleashes a scolding. "I think they're being disingenuous, thinking of themselves and not the city," he says. Rebuilding is "a no-brainer. The World Trade Center was responsible for $47 billion in gross wages in 2000, and unless we get it back, it's going to decimate the region financially."

Mr. Silverstein, raised in Washington Heights, got into real estate because his father was in real estate: it was the logical thing to do, particularly for a young man whose asthma made physical exertion an impossibility. He was sickly; cortisone and Adrenalin shots were his lifeline. His father leased lofts to the garment trade, and so, until he came up with a syndication brainstorm at 25, did he.

"I suggested to my father that the guys making all the money were the owners, not the brokers. And he said, `But we have nothing.' I told him about syndicators like Lawrence Wein and Harry Helmsley. I said, `Dad, if they can buy the Empire State Building like that, why can't we?' " With 22 investors in at $10,000 each, they bought a loft on East 23rd Street. Then they bought another.