The Right Person at The Right Time
BY CHARLES BUTLER '85
Lou Tomson '61 Played a Key Role In the Development of Plans for
The World Trade Center Site
Tomson '61 moved the WTC redevelopment process
Lou Tomson ’61 wants to show a visitor something. For the
past 30 minutes, he’s been talking about the potential —
as well as the politics — of the former World Trade Center
site. Now, he wants to put it in perspective.
He grabs his cup of coffee. With his 6-foot-3-inch frame, which
for a few extra pounds around the middle hasn’t changed much
since his heavyweight crew days at Columbia, he rumbles from his
office to a conference room in the headquarters of the Lower Manhattan
Development Corp. Here, 20 floors up, nothing gets in the way of
looking straight down into the pit that’s Ground Zero.
Tomson sips his coffee, then starts pointing things out. His voice
seems detached; it hardly wavers. “It’s difficult to
recognize the enormity of the site. This north-south concrete box,
that’s the 1/9 train,” he says, pointing to one end
of the pit. He moves his right hand, trying to trace the PATH train,
which until 9-11 shuttled commuters from New Jersey into lower Manhattan.
“The PATH is being rebuilt. Look at that piece of equipment,
an earthmover. It looks like a toy [from here],” he says.
He goes on for a few more minutes, pointing out other keys to the
30 million square feet of space. But then, as he is about to finish
what seems like just another tour, he pauses. His voice dips slightly.
“All gone. Amazing, isn’t it? People say the site has
been recovered, but when you look at 2,800 people murdered here
… I don’t even like talking about the property destruction,
because in comparison, it’s meaningless.”
As executive director of
the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., Lou Tomson '61 was a key
figure in the development of plans for rebuilding the World Trade
Center site. Tomson (fourth from right) joins (from right)
Gov. George Pataki, architect Daniel Libeskind and Mayor Michael
Bloomberg at the unveiling of a model of Libeskind's plans for
PHOTOS: COURTESY LMDB
Still, for all that loss, Tomson was given a job after 9-11: Bring
as much life as possible back to the area. In January 2002, Governor
George Pataki appointed Tomson executive director of the LMDC. The
mandate of the state-city agency is to spearhead reconstruction
of the WTC site as well as oversee plans for a memorial to honor
those lost in the attack. “Lou Tomson is the right person
at the right time for this critically important job,” Pataki
said at the time of the appointment.
For Tomson, the job presented a headliner’s role after a
career packed with behind-the-scene parts in the private and government
sectors. He had held a variety of posts in the Pataki administration,
including first deputy secretary, where he was responsible for policy
developments for the state’s 60-plus public authorities, including
the Long Island Power Authority and the MTA (Tomson is credited
with the reduced bus and subway fares that came with weekly and
monthly MetroCards). A 1964 Law School graduate and the son of a
Nassau County, N.Y., judge, Tomson also had been a partner with
two law firms.
The LMDC, though, presented perhaps Tomson’s biggest challenge:
overseeing the process of building the agency’s staff, which
numbers more than 40; finding office space and financing; and, most
importantly, getting design plans in place so that new structures
and a memorial can be built. “I’m sort of an auto mechanic,”
Tomson once said of his position. “I’m looking at a
new engine, and it’s my job to make it run.”
In February, that work culminated with the selection of Berlin-based
architect Daniel Libeskind’s 1,776-foot design for the new
structure at the site. The selection concluded 13 vigorous months
for Tomson. “I think we not only produced a wonderful plan,
but a plan that works and is buildable,” Tomson says.
But the effort did not come without trials. Not only did Tomson
spend much of his time living in a Manhattan hotel and away from
his home near Albany, but also he, like others in the process, became
a target of criticism for politicians, lower Manhattan residents,
the media and 9-11 survivors regarding the pace and the scale of
the rebuilding. After an initial set of design plans was roundly
derided last July, new prototypes were unveiled in December to a
more enthusiastic response. But still there were detractors: Former
New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani chafed because the plans addressed
commercial and office space but not a memorial.
Tomson discusses plans with members
of the media.
Given such circumstances, and the hints that Tomson started dropping
late last year, it surprised no one when he resigned from the job
shortly after the Libeskind announcement. “This job wore me
out. It was the hours, as well as the need to accommodate many hostile
opinions,” he said this spring from his home in Voorheesville,
N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Ingegerd.
To illustrate his point, Tomson tells of how a seemingly off-the-cuff
remark made during his tenure came back to haunt him. “I once
said that New York City is sort of like of like a lobster. If it
loses a claw, it will regenerate a claw. If you left [New York City]
alone, it had the capacity to regenerate itself.” But later,
at a hearing to discuss the development plans, the mother of a 9-11
victim confronted Tomson, saying, “You said you could regenerate
New York. Well, let me see you regenerate my son.” Her comment,
Tomson says, “was very passionate, and it was very painful.
And the pain of those kinds of things sticks with you.”
Someone with only praise for Tomson, though, is Kenneth Jackson,
Jacques Barzun professor of history and social sciences, a New York
City expert and president of the New-York Historical Society. Jackson
got to know Tomson while giving the LMDC staff a tour of memorials
commemorating other New York City tragedies including the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument in
Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. Jackson contends that the enormity of
the Ground Zero project, and the countless emotions and opinions
it has sparked, makes gaining consensus on its future impossible.
He notes, however, that “[Tomson] was even-tempered and tried
to make [the process] as fair and objective as possible.”
Taking mixed messages and funneling them into a useful, clear direction
is a lesson Tomson says he best remembers from his Columbia days.
(Others memories are a bit more clouded: “I think I concentrated
in art history, but it could have been English.”) Tomson,
who transferred to Columbia in his sophomore year after spending
one year at Miami of Ohio University, considers his liberal arts
education and the Core Curriculum ideal preparation for the eclectic
career, which involves multitudes of constituents, that he carved
Tomson knows that his role at the LMDC made him a magnet for opinions.
His challenge was to use the diverse voices to move the process
along, not stall it. And with preliminary plans in place to rebuild
lower Manhattan, Tomson can look back satisfied that he fulfilled
a job presented from a day like no other.
“I was driving down Route 32 outside of Albany,” Tomson
says, remembering September 11, 2001. “It was a beautiful
day. Being away from the New York City, I’m looking at the
sky — only 140 miles from New York — and saying, ‘How
could a plane fly into the World Trade Center on a day like this?’
It seemed so strange.” He takes a breath, then adds, “It’s
wonderful to be given the opportunity to serve in a circumstance
like that, and try to make things better.”
Charles Butler ’85 is an
articles editor with SmartMoney magazine
in New York.