Friday, May 05, 2006

"Beyond reason"

The planned 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York City is expected to cost -- are you ready? -- nearly $1 billion.

I'm not making this up.

Rebuilding officials concede that the new price tag is breathtaking — "beyond reason" in the words of one member of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation board — and it is sure to set off another battle over development at the 16-acre site, with calls to cut costs, scale back the design or even start over.

This is just the memorial, not the commercial development going up at the site. And that's not counting an $80 million visitors' center being built by the state.

The new estimate, $972 million, would make this the most expensive memorial ever built in the United States.... It is likely to draw unfavorable comparisons to the $182 million National World War II Memorial in Washington, which opened in 2004; the $29 million Oklahoma City National Memorial, which opened in 2000; or the $7 million Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which opened in 1982.

Much of the problem is that the memorial would be underground, necessitating lots of expensive steel, concrete and labor. But that's hardly an excuse. Some of these estimates are dramatically higher than they were just a few months ago.

The report estimates the cost of just the memorial and its related museum at $672 million, up 36 percent from $494 million only four months ago. In addition, the latest projections include $71.5 million for an underground cooling plant, up from $41.5 million four months ago.

How does a cooling plant's cost go up 72 percent in just four months, except through really bad planning?

If the memorial foundation were able to raise that kind of money privately, then no problem. I'd still think it reflected seriously misplaced priorities, but it's private money. However, in perhaps a sign of good sense among the American public, the foundation has collected just $130 million so far.

New York's mayor and the governors of both New York and New Jersey have said the memorial shouldn't cost more than $500 million. That's still a bit mind-boggling, but as an upper limit it seems quite reasonable.

We need a memorial, and it should be tasteful, impressive and thought-provoking, as befits such a history-changing event. But turning its construction into an enormously expensive boondoggle would not do justice to the memories of the victims. Set a reasonable price tag, and then design the best memorial that fits the budget.

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