Silverstein Properties’ Janno Lieber and Serge Demerjian Talk WTC

In the years it has taken to rebuild the World Trade Center site, Janno Lieber, a top executive at Silverstein Properties, has become the face of the company’s efforts to develop its collection of skyscrapers at the site. Serge Demerjian, a development and construction manager who joined Silverstein from the architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill in 2006, has become a behind-the-scenes asset at the firm, leading its efforts to negotiate the site’s infamous complexities and rebuild the millions of square feet of commercial office space that was lost 11 years ago. Both men spoke to The Commercial Observer last week about all the challenges of building the towers.

7wtc for web Silverstein Properties Janno Lieber and Serge Demerjian Talk WTC

Janno Lieber and Serge Demerjian.

The Commercial Observer: Serge, what has your role been at Silverstein and at the World Trade Center site?
Mr. Demerjian: My role, when I got hired here, we were looking for a liaison to interface with our projects along with many of the other projects on-site, because inevitably all of the buildings touch each other.

Mr. Lieber: And reconciling the needs of each project—it’s the technical design of cramming all the different things that need to be here together.

Mr. Demerjian: Everyone has their own agenda, their own needs and desires, how things should be. It’s really about making sure we resolve that, because in the end, not everyone is all aligned, so you want to make sure everyone works together.

What’s the lack of alignment?
Mr. Lieber: It has to do principally with space. Within the whole east bathtub you have to accommodate the hub, which has concourses, mechanical systems that are in our buildings—it needs access to infrastructure. In the case of the hub, they’re literally taking several floors of our buildings and sticking their air conditioning and other key mechanical systems, generators and so on in our buildings. So reconciling how much space in our buildings and how you connect it all physically is a huge issue. There’s the PATH Hub, designed to serve several hundred thousand people. They’ll pass through the hub and the concourses. Then there’s the needs of a performing arts center. The streets and sidewalks are a separate project. The vehicle security center is a separate project; it includes the roadways, but needs power and backup systems. I am probably boring you. How many different projects?

Mr. Demerjian: There are about 11 different projects. Eleven different sets of drawings, architects and engineers and project managers for each.

Serge, what expertise do you bring to Silverstein Properties?
Mr. Demerjian: I am an architect through training; I spent many years at SOM doing large-scale projects. Architecture and engineering and construction are my expertise.

How did you get started at the WTC site? What were you working on when you began at Silverstein?

Mr. Demerjian: I was working at SOM during the master-planning phase. Silverstein hired us and wanted us to represent them in the master-planning effort, and I was one of the lead architects analyzing, making sure the master plan, as it got developed, was in the best interests of the office buildings.

Was it a political or a technical process?
Mr. Lieber: Both. When it came to the street elevations – the grade levels – for more than a year all of the stakeholders were pushing and pulling in different directions.  The Memorial wanted an easy at-grade entrance at Church Street, and we agreed.  Calatrava and the Port Authority wanted the plaza around the PATH Hub to be as flat as possible to provide a kind of plinth or base that would optimize the views of his building.  And the Silverstein team – and David Childs of SOM was very much part of this – wanted to minimize artificial monkeying with the elevations.  We wanted  to make sure the streets followed the natural grades so you could actually see down the streets as you looked from north to south – to see into this new neighborhood that used to be walled off.  In the old World Trade Center, the elevated, flat plaza meant that as you walked west, down toward the river, there was a taller and taller wall next to you, these big blank walls that made the WTC feel inaccessible.  On Vesey Street, next to the old 7 WTC, it was like you were in a canyon in the old days, with a bridge over your head.  We wanted to make sure that as you walked west, you would have the buildings on your right, but also the actual memorial on your left, not some wall.  The City and the LMDC mostly agreed.

Did you ever get an early inkling that some of the construction plans and agreements would eventually cause an impasse over the development of your portions of the site and the transit hub?
Mr. Demerjian: Every architect wanted to do things their own way, but there was a master plan. There was the basic rules that you had to follow and then you sort of just had to work it out, and that was the challenge and the fun part of it.

Mr. Lieber: Serge came over in the beginning of ’06, in the summer. We made the deal where we gave up the Freedom Tower and we gave up Site 5 but we got Liberty Bonds, which was the essence of that deal. The Port said you have to design the whole east bathtub by September. You have to design the thing to a schematic level of design.

Mr. Demerjian: It’s basic space planning, basic rules. The program is established, the concepts of entrances and exits and egress. There is a first pass at mechanical systems. All that stuff is established.

Mr. Lieber: I debated with Steve Plate [one of the Port Authority’s chief executives in charge of World Trade Center construction]. I remember the discussion, because he was at home and had gone out to dinner with his wife ,and I asked what level of design was going to have to be achieved.

Was that a friendly conversation?
Mr. Lieber: It was complicated, because we were speaking different languages. Serge speaks standard in the trade architectural design standards. The Port has their own lingo for everything. So you have to kind of translate. And Steve said, “So I want it up to stage 2.” We said that’s like an early schematic, right? And Steve said, “No no, it’s a full schematic.” But we got it done. We had to achieve a certain level of design in three months, or the Port wouldn’t do the deal.

Have you both become fluent in Port Authority-speak?

Mr. Demerjian: Yeah, I have more than anyone.

Was putting the mechanicals for the Calatrava-designed hub in 3 World Trade tricky?
Mr. Demerjian: When you put that many mechanical systems in an above-grade space, you have to get it from there and back. It creates a lot of shaft space and chews up real estate quickly.

Mr. Lieber: Everyone thinks the fights went on and on and on. But the truth is, in 2006, it was a major turning point. Because for the first time, all the stakeholders who needed to work things out were doing that. Subsequent to that, the Port was struggling with the schedule. It became clear, principally with the hub.

When did you realize the hub project was behind, and did you get a sense of what the problems were?
Mr. Lieber: That was apparent to Serge very early. He was saying, “What do you need?
Show me your plans. What kind of feeders do you need? What kind of back-of-house space do you need?” And they were constantly changing. They hadn’t figured all their stuff out. That alerted us to the fact that there were difficulties on their side.

Where were they doing wrong?
Mr. Demerjian: It was the systems, which are extremely complex power mechanicals.
They’re not easy to decide. This thing is extremely complex. With how this thing deals with air, life safety, engineered smoke systems. It’s easy to criticize now. The point is that it’s a large, complex building.

Are you sympathetic to the fact that the hub went so far over budget and behind schedule?
Mr. Demerjian: Yeah. They were in a difficult spot dealing with many difficult issues. So yeah.

Mr. Lieber: You’re being generous

Mr. Demerjian: When you go to an architect who is known for designing bridges, what do you get? A bridge. You have three bridges on the site.

Bridges in the hub?

Mr. Demerjian: There is a bridge that was created over the subway box, a clear span so you can walk underneath. It’s 180 feet. He didn’t want columns. 180 feet clear span, which is great, but there is a price to pay for that. On the west side, there is a bridge structure over the PATH wall, which are the entrances down to the PATH station. That is a complex structure. It makes building really tall buildings look simple.

What were some of the engineering challenges on 4 World Trade?
Mr. Demerjian: One of the exciting things we’re doing is creating an outdoor terrace on that setback for tenants to use as functional space, like Rock Center. That’s up on the 56th floor, which is taller than 7 WTC. Some of the challenge is the wind. How do you deal with that and create a windscreen? We’re talking about that, making sure it’s a usable, friendly space. There are some challenges with that and it’s great.

What’s next for you, Serge? Construction seems like it’s winding down at the WTC site.
Mr. Lieber: Serge’s role has evolved. He came here as an architect. He’s now the construction manager for the Tower 2 project, which is only coming up to grade—but it’s how many square feet below grade?

Mr. Demerjian: It’s 400,000 square feet. The footprint is much bigger underground: it’s probably like four stories. It’s loading docks, mechanical systems, retail corridors, power distribution networks, spot networks.

Is it the biggest underground building in the city no one knows about?
Mr. Demerjian: Yeah. This site is 3.5 million square feet of below-ground space.

Mr. Lieber: Serge has grown in his role, so he’s now development manager. He’s definitely expanded, and we are taking advantage of his know-how for other projects. Serge has a future. He has been a big piece of our success at the site.

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