NEW YORK - When he created ground zero's master plan, architect Daniel Libeskind included a performing arts center to bring life to a site devastated by terrorism.

More than 100 arts institutions applied for a spot on the 16 acres. Four were chosen.

That was four years ago. Three of the four groups have moved on since, and the prospects for the arts center appear to have faded.

Fund-raising for the center, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, has not begun. Construction of other buildings at the site - including an office tower, a transit hub, and a Sept. 11 memorial - has complicated building prospects.

State and city officials are considering moving the center off the site to the top of a nearby subway station.

Libeskind called the arts-center disarray "a great pity."

"It should be exactly where it was planned to be," he said. "It's critical for the diversity and for the symbolism of this site."

The arts were front and center in 2004; officials announced that the rebuilt trade center would become the new home of two independent theater companies, the country's only museum devoted to drawing, and a new museum celebrating freedom.

Architect Frank Gehry was hired to build the theater, a 1,000-seat facility for the Joyce Theater dancers and smaller spaces for the Signature Theatre Company.

One by one, plans changed for all of them.

In summer 2005, the Drawing Center chose to find space elsewhere after survivors of people killed on Sept. 11 and other advocates criticized some of the works on exhibit as inappropriate.

Then the International Freedom Center was taken off the site by then-Gov. George Pataki after a campaign by the families of some victims who feared its programming would offer unwelcome, political interpretations of the 2001 attack.

Last year, the Signature Theatre Company dropped its plan to move to the site after city and state officials said it would cost too much to build separate theaters for both it and the Joyce.

"We're the last one standing," said Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce.

Shelton said she had hoped the theater, a much-needed 1,000-seat space in a city where most venues are either much smaller or much larger, would be nearly built by now.

Development officials have defended the delays, saying their first priority was to rebuild destroyed office towers and create a memorial. But as the years have passed, state and city officials have wrestled to find ways to cut soaring costs and begin building.

The land for the arts center will not be available until at least 2011; it is now occupied by a temporary entrance to a transit hub. Cost estimates for building the center - on a hugely complicated site, dominated by the $2 billion hub and a 1,776-foot skyscraper - seem to rise by the month.

Last month, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council chairman Avi Schick suggested a solution: Build the arts center on top of a subway hub at Fulton Street, another project that is over budget and with uncertain funding.

Other civic and arts leaders say that ground zero, one of the most emotional, politically fraught development projects ever, already has proven to be a difficult place for groups hoping to exercise artistic independence.

Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center, said the museum did not opt out of the site because it was concerned about censorship, but it did worry about being pressured to make changes.

"Maybe it just wasn't a good fit for us," he said.

Libeskind said politics had delayed nearly every project at the site, but he expressed hope the cultural aspects of his master plan would survive.

"It should be something, of course, that should be realized, that doesn't cost an arm and a leg," Libeskind said.