After spending months wrangling for control of buildings and money at ground zero, politicians and a private developer gathered Thursday as excavation trucks rolled out to mark the beginning of construction of the Freedom Tower, the symbolic skyscraper designed to replace the destroyed World Trade Center.

Hours after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center, approved a broad new deal with developer Larry Silverstein that changes timelines and rebuilding strategies for lower Manhattan, Silverstein announced Wednesday that construction crews would report to the site Thursday morning.

Early Thursday, New York Gov. George Pataki, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Silverstein stood on the ramp leading to the site, shaking hands with about a dozen workers. Three large excavating trucks then rolled down the ramp, driven by workers wearing hard hats emblazoned with the American flag and the words "Freedom Tower, World Trade Center."

For the next month, crews will be relocating utilities and doing other preparatory work before laying the building's foundation.

"It is going to be a symbol of our freedom and independence," Pataki said at a news conference overlooking the site.

Addressing concerns that the Freedom Tower would be a potential terrorist target because of its height, Pataki added: "We are not going to just build low in the face of a war against terror."

Silverstein, who leased the twin towers weeks before they were destroyed in 2001, said: "This is an opportunity for us to show our determination, our resiliency, our resolve."

Pataki, Bloomberg and other politicians had called the developer greedy in recent weeks during a heated battle for control of development and billions of dollars in rebuilding money at the 16-acre site.

Wednesday's deal switches control of leasing the Freedom Tower from Silverstein to the Port Authority, along with a second skyscraper that may change from an office building to apartments. Silverstein, who oversaw design and construction plans for the $2.1 billion Freedom Tower, will still build it, and build and lease three other office towers located closer to a mass transit hub on the site.

David Childs, the Freedom Tower's architect, said he didn't expect the Port Authority's takeover of the building to change the design or delay rebuilding. "They've been looking at all our plans and endorsing it all along," said Childs, who attended Thursday's event.

Business and political leaders say the resolution of the impasse that had stalled rebuilding would help return millions of square feet of destroyed office space to downtown Manhattan and attract tenants who have been slow to come back.

Silverstein has built another tower, 7 World Trade Center, that still is mostly empty. The Freedom Tower has no tenants committed, although the Port Authority said it would commit to fill nearly half of it with government leases.

Business leaders expressed concern that the Freedom Tower would be difficult to rent because it is in a more distant part of the site and a potential terrorist target. Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association advocacy group, said Wednesday the iconic tower "still looms as a potential public liability."

"Before billions of public dollars are committed to its construction and tenancy, we encourage the Port Authority to take a second look at its viability from a security and marketability perspective," Yaro said.

But Charles Gargano, a vice chairman at the Port Authority, expressed confidence that continued rebuilding will attract the tenants lost by the twin towers' destruction by the time the Freedom Tower opens in 2011.

"We have five years to create that kind of a market," he said.

Thursday was the second time officials tried to start construction on the tower, which is on its third design. Architect Daniel Libeskind drew the first Freedom Tower, a twisting glass skyscraper with an off-center spire meant to evoke the Statue of Liberty. Childs produced a second design of the tower, then a third last year after police expressed concerns the structure was not sturdy enough to withstand a terrorist's truck bomb.

Politicians broke ground on the tower for the first time on July 4, 2004, with a 20-ton inscribed granite cornerstone that has remained encased in blue plywood since construction stalled.

Officials said the deal Wednesday ensures that all five planned towers would be built by 2012. Other plans for ground zero include a memorial, a transit hub and a performing arts center. Construction has begun on the memorial and transit hub; both are scheduled to open in 2009.

New York Daily News