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  • Joseph Dolman

Calatrava's albatross? Don't bet on it

These are frustrating times for world-famous architect Santiago Calatrava, designer of the long-awaited WTC Transportation Hub. When his PATH commuter rail station finally comes to life within the next few months, it will be eight years overdue with a pricetag of $4 billion, twice the original estimate.

Even by New York standards, those numbers sound a little nuts. Four billion dollars for a station that will serve maybe 200,000 riders a day? Did the Port Authority let Calatrava's ego run wild?

Some people think so. The architect told The Wall Street Journal last week that a few potential clients aren't asking him to bid on splashy new projects, apparently worried they will wind up facing humongous overruns and more agita than they can handle. New York Magazine meanwhile reports that the Port hired Calatrava to create a "glorious boondoggle" after 9/11 that now threatens to destroy his reputation.

But it's too soon to eulogize Calatrava's battered reputation.

What happened on the WTC site is infinitely more complicated than the work of one guy. The World Trade Center reconstruction effort, which will soon enter its 14th year, has turned out to be one of the toughest, knottiest projects of its era.

There's the political infighting. City Hall, Albany and the bistate Port Authority all wanted their own say in the reconstruction and their own taste of glory.

There are some wicked engineering problems. Example: The state-run MTA demanded that the No. 1 subway line -- which connects the Staten Island Ferry, West Side Manhattan and the Bronx -- be rebuilt first after 9/11. That was a reasonable request, but it meant that the Port Authority and other builders on the site have had to work over and under a live train line for years.

And cost overruns? Calatrava is hardly the only culprit. When the MTA's Fulton Street Transit Center opened last fall a few blocks east of the WTC site, it checked in seven years late with a pricetag that had doubled to $1.4 billion. For other horror stories in this vein, consider the MTA's performance as it struggles to bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal within our lifetime.

When the Port hired Calatrava to design the hub, it wanted him to build something more than a train station to New Jersey. It wanted him to create an inspirational public space, something that would dazzle the world. As landlord of the 16 acres at Ground Zero, the Port Authority wanted to plant its own flag there and say that terrorism would never stifle this region's hope and imagination.

We won't know whether Calatrava pulled off that mission until his white-winged station is finished and riders are using it. It might be a flop with the public. Critics might hate it. It could be seen as a wanton waste.

But I doubt it.

New Yorkers love spectacle, drama and excess. And they forget surprisingly fast.

Ponder the fate of the Tweed Courthouse a few blocks from Calatrava's extravaganza. Built by Tammany's

Boss Tweed starting in 1861, the courthouse took 20 years to finish and cost $14 million -- about $10 million of which Tweed and his minions stole. Tweed was eventually tried and convicted in the building he built.

Today the building is considered a municipal treasure. The NYC Public Design Commission ranks it among the city's great monuments with "immense cast-iron structural and decorative elements" that are "unparalleled in any American public building." Mayor Bloomberg a few years ago made Tweed the headquarters for the city's public schools -- its splendor presumably symbolizing our dearest hopes for generations to come.

Lesson learned? New Yorkers like a bold statement. My money is on Calatrava.

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