NEW YORK (AP) – A prolonged debate over whether to preserve a 175-ton staircase that still stands at the World Trade Center site is threatening construction schedules for new office towers, according to rebuilding officials.

The staircase, which several people used to escape the debris-filled complex in the moments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has been named one of the nation’s most endangered places by a preservation group. It is the only remnant of the complex that is above street level.

Historians first lobbied to keep the staircase in place, and lately have lobbied to move it intact to a nearby park or plaza while officials prepare the land to build one of three office towers.

The staircase sits on the footprint of a tower proposed by British architect Norman Foster. That building is one of three planned to complement the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower skyscraper.

“We’re trying to save an important piece of history,” Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said Wednesday.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. rebuilding agency earlier this year proposed tearing down all but a few steps of the staircase, and moving the remaining portions to the Sept. 11 museum, or including a few steps in the Foster tower design.

But just before a public comment period ended in February, officials in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s administration pushed for further discussion.

In a letter last month, the state’s Historic Preservation Office called the proposal to tear down most of the staircase “insufficient,” given its symbolism.

A spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., the LMDC’s parent agency, said there is no timetable for a decision on the staircase. “This is something that we’re carefully examining,” said Spitzer spokeswoman Jennifer Givner.

If the state decides to preserve it, securing it and moving it off the site will take three months, a Port Authority official wrote in a memo last month.

It would be 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide when it’s ready to move, making it difficult to transport it for large distances, wrote Steve Plate, the agency’s director of priority capital programs.

“The Port Authority believes that there could be delays in the rebuilding schedule if the stair remnant is not relocated soon,” Plate wrote the LMDC in February.

The agency is currently excavating the land for the three towers, including the Foster-designed tower, and needs to deliver it by next year to trade center developer Larry Silverstein to meet deadlines of the new lease. The agency is scheduled to begin work on the spot where the staircase stands in late April, an official says.

If the staircase does not need to be preserved, moving portions of it off site will only take one month, Plate has said.

The staircase is not the only remnant of the trade center complex still on the site; officials have already preserved steel columns at the base of the twin towers’ footprints, and part of a retaining wall that formed the towers’ foundations. Several pieces of trade center steel have recently been pulled from a service road being searched for human remains. Remnants of the complex’s old parking garage and even a square or two from the former trade center plaza are still at the site.

AP-ES-03-22-07 1646EDT


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