Title: 16 Acres
Director: Richard Hankin
Ever wonder exactly how and why, more than a decade since the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the site’s rebuilding hasn’t been completed, or in fact even come close? Enter director Richard Hankin’s “16 Acres,” a vital and in certain ways even cathartic documentary overview of the sort of sharp-elbowed but slow-footed bureaucratic maneuvering that comes with city planning, especially of a site this fraught with emotional baggage. At once fascinating and maddening, it’s a clear-eyed, fair-minded and exhaustively sourced look at the sort of story that national news organizations often have a hard time distilling and tracking through time.
Aside from the often under-reported staggering engineering challenges related to the river-adjacent tract of land, a major complicating factor in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is the massive number of parties involved. Real estate developers, insurance companies, architects, local residents, families of first responders and other 9/11 victims and of course politicians all lay claim to the area in various fashion, and have often had mutually exclusive feelings about what sort of rebuilding is appropriate. Just as a matter of sheer dramatic surface engagement, then, “16 Acres” delivers an engrossing tale.
A few of the highlights: developer Larry Silverstein, the owner of the site who was left still paying $10 million a month in rent after the attacks, filed a lawsuit over whether the felling of the WTC Towers was one incident or two separate events, for the purpose of recouping as much insurance money as possible. After initial plans for a new WTC site were met with opposition from the public, they were scrapped, and an international open competition was held. Then, after a battle in which Rovian political tactics were applied to a battle between the two finalists, New York Governor George Pataki unilaterally reversed the decision of the commission charged with studying the publically presented designs, even after word leaked in the press of the chosen winner.
Enter Daniel Libeskind, an architect with a compelling personal story who was picked for his visionary master plan, but had no experience at all with skyscraper design. Silverstein, then, brought in another architect, David Childs. Naturally, their visions clashed — as did the feelings of some families of victims with Michael Arad’s widely praised design for a reflecting pool-type memorial. And lest one think good, old-fashioned snafus couldn’t be part of the mix, the final, meticulously arrived at building design then had to be scuttled due to security concerns somehow lost in transit between the Port Authority and the New York Police Department. “At some point the anger just gives way to depression,” says one interviewee, and you totally feel where he’s coming from.
The victory of Hankin’s film is its scope and open airing of contrasting opinions. Both Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg submit to interviews, as well as Silverstein, the aforementioned architects and many other less well known figures, including reporters who covered the story for the “New York Times” and other publications. The result doesn’t demonize anyone unfairly. It’s a story about ego and hubris, yes, but also the better angels of our nature. Maybe Winston Churchill was really on to something when he said, famously, that after every option has been exhausted, Americans can be counted on to do the right thing.
NOTE: For more information on the film, visit www.16AcresTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.