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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Plot's NY Lessons

Cities, Economics New York City

Rebuild the economic assets

LAST Thursday's news that British intelligence had uncovered a plot to blow up as many as 10 American airliners over the North Atlantic points up rule No.1 in the battle against ruthless, patient Islamist terrorists: Prevention is paramount. But, unfortunately, the news also underscores why it was so important for New York to rebuild Ground Zero quickly after 9/11.

The terror plot's unveiling shows that the tools the West has relied on since 9/11, including scouring terror suspects' banking records, are vital. For example: The Brits have tracked the suspects' financial dealings, including money transfers from Pakistan, through surveillance of their bank accounts. America has similar financial-tracking powers under the 2001 Patriot Act.

It's also comforting that NYPD intelligence officials, working with their British counterparts, were aware of the threat long before any of us knew about it and are working with information from British intelligence to root out any plotters in the United States.

But the details of the uncovered plot are also a stark reminder of what New York already knows: Al Qaeda and its sympathizers still want to hit America's economy as hard as they can, just as they did on 9/11, That means, inevitably, plotting to hit New York — the heart of America's financial industry and one of the pillars of its entertainment industry.

Plus, the scale of the airline plot shows that the Islamist terrorists also want to ensure that their next attack meets or surpasses 9/11 in its economic impact and human carnage.

New York is doing all it can to prevent such an attack (and could use more funding from the Department of Homeland Security). But, still — Al Qaeda need succeed only once.

That's part of why it was so important for New York to rebuild Ground Zero as quickly as possible after 9/11. A rational rebuilding plan, and a tight schedule to get it done, isn't important only for our own economic recovery or to show our enemies and the world that we won't be bowed by a direct hit.

It's also vital because we can¬not give Islamist terror the opportunity to conduct its war on American soil by attrition: Islamists cannot have the chance to decimate one of our vital economic assets — the World Trade Center at the nexus of the financial district of Lower Manhattan — and then be afforded five years' worth of planning time conceivably to try for a direct hit on another of our vital economic assets before the first one is rebuilt.

Consider: Nearly five years after 9/11, just one new sky¬scraper stands at the World Trade Center site, out of seven destroyed by al Qaeda. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the best we'll have to boast for the rest of Ground Zero is ... a plan, plus some pre-construction work being done at the site. And it's certainly not a plan that should have taken five years to put together; it's a proposal to build more skyscrapers, a memorial and a museum, the obvious and simple thing to do all along.

By any standard, construction should be halfway done by now. When New York has two strong financial districts — Midtown and Downtown — it's clearly in a better position to withstand, economically at least, the additional horrors that we know only too well our enemies would like to inflict upon us.

But even if all goes perfectly from today on out, lower Manhattan won't have recovered physically from 9/11 until at least 2015 — 14 years after the attack. This delay leaves us vulnerable: we should not allow our enemies to decimate vital private-sector infrastructure — a hub of commercial office space — for half a generation.

At this late date, the city and state are finally close to doing what should have been done all along: allow the World Trade Center's private-sector leaseholder to rebuild what Al Qaeda destroyed.

But even that plan isn't certain. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns Ground Zero, must vote on the "final" rebuilding plan next month, after years of unnecessary architectural contests and public meetings. Since recovery workers cleared Ground Zero of the remains of the World Trade Center, the city's recovery has been bogged down in this kind of bureaucracy — it's just the way it is to get anything done in New York State.

But the news of the latest terror plot should concentrate public officials' minds and give them the will to ensure that Lower Manhattan finally has a clear path to recovery. It's not just embarrassing if we don't finally fix this — it's dangerous.