BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Wed., Sept. 27, 11:20 p.m.: Before shockingly pulling out of the Pier55 plan two weeks ago, Barry Diller had already pumped more than $40 million into the ill-fated project, the media mogul confirmed to The Villager last week.
In addition, Tom Fox, one of the plaintiffs from The City Club of New York who had been filing lawsuits against the project, detailed to the newspaper, point by point, what conditions they had been negotiating in order to allow the project to proceed.
Those negotiations were wrapping up two weeks ago between the City Club plaintiffs — who had recently filed yet another lawsuit against the pier — Diller’s representatives and the Hudson River Park Trust, when Diller, on Wed., Sept. 13, in an e-mail to those who had worked on the project, suddenly announced he was throwing in the towel.
Diller and his wife, fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg, through their Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, had committed to fund most of the project’s cost, which had ballooned to $250 million — and counting.
Meanwhile, as first reported by The Villager, the wealthy developer Douglas Durst helped finance the City Club’s lawsuits. A former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, the 5-mile-long park’s leading private fundraising group, Durst had a falling out five years ago with the Trust, the park’s operating authority.
With the new City Club lawsuit about to hit court, Diller got cold feet. To paraphrase how one Pier55 supporter bluntly put it, the Chelsea-based billionaire had already “pissed tens of millions of dollars into the Hudson River,” and had had enough.
In his Sept. 13 e-mail finale, Diller wrote: “It was six years ago, with such happiness and hope that we started to develop an ambitious plan for a public park and performance center. For many of those years, you and so many others worked with the sole purpose of providing a beautiful park on a dazzling pier for New Yorkers and visitors from around the world to stroll and wander, to be entertained, to be stimulated, to be playful, and to have the most wonderful time in a unique setting.
“Unfortunately, for the last two and a half years, that work was interrupted by a series of lawsuits by one tiny group that resulted in multiple stallings in our build process, escalating costs and delays, and media attacks that colored this project in a controversial light from which it will be difficult to recover.
“Up until this week, we had been working on a settlement of these lawsuits. But, I couldn’t in good faith agree to a settlement agreement as I felt we had done nothing wrong and that to give victory to these people was in itself wrong. Because of that, and the huge escalating costs of the project, based greatly on the delays catalyzed by the lawsuits and what would be the inevitable continuing controversy over the next three years throughout the building process, my family and I have decided it is no longer viable to proceed. … I am so sorry.”
Future use of gift?
Through a spokesperson, Diller confirmed that he had poured more than $40 million into the project.
Asked by The Villager if he would now be willing to take his commitment to spend $250 million on Pier55 and instead shift it to reconstruct the former Pier 54 — which Pier55 was designed to replace — Diller did not say yes and responded only in general terms.
“Our foundation will spend all and more than $250 million on future public projects,” he said.
Pier55, a high-profile 2.7-acre “floating island” — designed by award-winning English designer Thomas Heatherwick — was to rise off of W. 14th St. in the Hudson River Park. It was to be heavily programmed with entertainment performances, 51 percent of which would have been free or low-cost, and the rest of which would have been at higher ticket prices. Under a contract with the Trust, a nonprofit led by Diller — Pier55 Inc. — would have operated and maintained the pier and programmed its entertainment for 20 years.
Its critics, however, including environmentalists, panned the plan as “Diller Island” and “Dilligan’s Island.”
Shades of Westway
The sudden sinking of the “fantasy island” set off a tsunami of reactions from the project’s supporters and opponents alike, from local politicians, waterfront park activists, environmentalists and area residents. Indeed, it was the biggest defeat of a Lower West Side waterfront project since Westway was beaten back in 1985 after opponents successfully argued the sunken-highway-and-landfill megaproject would harm the striped bass’s spawning grounds.
The reactions of Pier55 backers to the epic meltdown ranged from outrage to just plain sad.
“Most of the mainstream press is playing this off as billionaire-versus-billionaire,” said Michael Novogratz, who replaced Durst as chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park. “But it’s the citizens who are going to lose out on all this. You had this magical pier that was going to appear — with music and Shakespeare and bluegrass — and it’s going away, and it’s not coming back for a while.”
Novo slams Blaz, Cuomo
Like Diller and Durst, Novogratz is a billionaire himself — a former hedge-funder currently heavily invested in bitcoin. “Novo,” as he is nicknamed, blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio and also Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Pier55 project’s failure. Both publicly strongly supported the plan.
“If I was the mayor of the city and I dropped a $250 million gift, I’d feel really stupid,” Novogratz said.
He charged de Blasio simply waited too long before starting to make an effort to try to salvage the pier plan.
“Let’s be honest,” the Friends chairperson told The Villager, “the mayor got involved after your article, where Douglas admitted to being involved with the lawsuit.”
The Villager’s May 18 article “Durst admits funding Pier55 lawsuit, proving ‘Novo’ suspicion true” revealed the developer had been helping the City Club in their legal fight against the pier plan. Subsequently, de Blasio called Durst in July to beg him to stop funding the lawsuits — but, as Durst previously told The Villager, he already had not been funding them for months.
De Blasio commented about Pier55 at an unrelated event at Brooklyn Bridge Park the day after Pier55 imploded.
“I think it’s sad that it’s come to this,” the mayor said, the New York Post reported. “I think Barry Diller was trying to do something good for New York City and I very much supported this effort. The efforts to stop it were a mistake… . We had a chance here to have someone else’s money pay for a public park in a world where we don’t have enough money in the public sector.”
The Post reported that the mayor also noted that without Diller’s private dough, the project is all but dead.
“We’re certainly going to look for any way to revive the concept, but I don’t know of any other source of revenue that would match what he was offering,” de Blasio said. “The city is not going to cover that expense. The only way we could do it is if there were private funds.”
‘Diller got sick of it’
As to why the IAC and Expedia chairman finally pulled the plug on the pier project, Novogratz simply said, “Barry Diller just got sick of getting kicked in the nuts.”
Novogratz said that, in fact, Diller had funneled much more money into the Pier55 project than $40 million, even though that was the figure Diller himself gave to The Villager last week. (Perhaps Novogratz was also including government funds the Trust had spent on the project so far, including constructing a series of trestles for two pedestrian bridges out to what would have been Pier55 and some overhanging platforms jutting out from the shoreline.)
“Barry Diller just pissed $66 million into the water between the design and development [of Pier55],” Novogratz said. “He had people on staff [for this project] for years. This was a big organization that was going to provide the [pier’s] programming. He was going to curate it for 20 years.”
The loss to the park of Diller’s $250 million is incalculable, Novogratz said.
“There are 25-odd people in New York City that can make that gift — not 500,” he said. “It’s like the second or third biggest gift in the history of New York.”
The project’s cost started out far lower — an estimated $35 million — six years ago when Diana Taylor, the chairperson of the Trust’s board of directors, first broached the idea to Diller. But, as Diller noted, the City Club lawsuits and the delay of construction only added to the escalating price tag.
“If these son-of-a-bitches didn’t file these lawsuits, we’d have been done building this thing by now,” Novogratz fumed.
What plaintiffs wanted
Fox spoke to The Villager on Fri., Sept. 15, which was supposed to be the final day of the negotiations, hopefully ending in a settlement.
“This was a torturous six-week process,” he said, “with a deadline of today to either do it or not. We had litigation pending — the court had asked for a date [for a hearing].”
Fox laid out for The Villager the conditions that they were negotiating with the Trust and Diller’s representatives before everything fell apart. He stressed that it was the Trust, eight weeks ago, that had reached out to the City Club plaintiffs to try to forge a settlement. If an agreement were reached, the City Club would withdraw its lawsuit.
“They initiated the negotiations,” Fox said.
For starters, in exchange for allowing the 2.7-acre “arts island” to be built, the plaintiffs wanted assurance that two “soft-edge” access points to the river — totaling an equal amount of space, 2.7 acres — would be included in the park. In fact, these had been included in the Hudson River Park’s original “general project plan,” but the plaintiffs wanted a firm guarantee that they actually would be built. These two spots would have included beaches and natural areas, and would have served a dual role — as launch areas for small boats, like kayaks, and also as support for the river’s natural habitat.
“The Gansevoort Peninsula [two blocks south of W. 14th St.] seemed to make a lot of sense and also the area south of Pier 76 [at W. 36th St.],” Fox said of the two spots they were asking for.
In addition, the plaintiffs wanted Pier 97, at W. 57th St., to be completed. While the pier’s piles and deck were rebuilt five years ago, the full project has not been finished — it’s still just a bare concrete pier. Fox said it’s estimated that an additional $10 million is needed to finish the pier. The Trust had been using the pier for concerts, until Durst and other residents complained. Now it is just used for unamplified events.
Third, Fox and his City Club co-plaintiffs wanted an interpretive exhibit included on Pier55 about the historic West Side waterfront “that celebrates its rich maritime history,” he said. He noted that there is currently nothing of this nature in the park.
The plaintiffs also demanded a ban on non-water-related uses in the “estuarine sanctuary,” meaning the water part of the Hudson River Park. Obviously, there are already non-water-related uses on existing piers in the park, and Pier55 would have had non-water-related uses — but this ban would have applied to anything new that the Trust planned for the park, such as a new pier on a new footprint, for example.
“I have no idea what they might have been planning,” Fox admitted, when asked exactly what they were worried about potentially being constructed in the river down the line.
Again, this prohibition would not have applied to Pier55, which, if the negotiations had been successful, would have been “a done deal,” Fox said.
‘Back to the future’
Another important point the plaintiffs were pushing was for “a very robust requirement for community participation in the park,” or, as Fox put it, “Everything needs to be public — just like it was in the beginning [of the park’s creation].”
For example, whenever a permit would be required for any action in the park, the community would be notified about it through an e-mail blast, “just like the way I get an e-mail about ‘Bob’ playing guitar,” Fox noted, referring to entertainment events in the park. “It’s ‘back to the future’: At the beginning, everyone complained and moaned, and everyone was heard. And that’s the way you accomplish things.”
Fox played a leading role early on in the nearly 20-year-old park and led the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the Trust’s predecessor agency.
‘Keep public informed’
Simply put, Fox said of the current Trust, “They are stewards of the park, and we should know what’s going on. It’s basically saying that the Trust has to do what it was intended to do — public participation.”
Yet another requirement they stipulated was for regulations for signs in the park, “so signage wouldn’t get out of control.”
Asked if he felt bad that the Pier55 project, as designed, ultimately collapsed, Fox said, no.
“Not at all. This is a river,” he stressed. “They’re building a theater. Put it across the street — they can still see the river. I think there’s a site just south of the Standard hotel — Interstate Beef — put it there,” he said, referring to a spacious parking lot outside the Meatpackers Co-op building. “It could be on the Gansevoort Peninsula, it’s 6 acres,” Fox added. “Why not build it there?”
In a similar vein, Tribeca architect Michael Sorkin recently pitched an alternative plan that incorporates many of the planned entertainment uses from Pier55 onto the existing Pier 40. Under that plan’s premise, Diller would give his $250 million earmarked for Pier55 instead to the repair of Pier 40, as well as to the maintenance of the whole Hudson River Park — or at least so Sorkin hoped.
Local politicians opine
Local politicians weighed in following the end of the Pier55 saga. State Senator Brad Hoylman said it all points to a fundamental problem with authorities — governmental entities that lack the same level of public accountability as normal state or city agencies.
“I think the Pier55 project tested the limits of private philanthropy substituting for major public-works projects,” Hoylman said, “especially when there is major infrastructure involved, like the complete rebuilding of a pier over a protected natural resource. It’s no coincidence that another grand privately funded project, the so-called Garden Bridge over the Thames in London by the same architect, Thomas Heatherwick, also foundered recently.
“The way the Hudson River Park was conceived decades ago I think helped lead to this project’s undoing,” Hoylman noted. “There is little formal oversight from either the state or city and a lot of the park’s operational issues, including funding and transparency, fall between the cracks. Robert Moses invented state authorities for this very reason — to bypass normal channels of government and expedite public works. But we can see clearly now the major downside to this model.
“Going forward,” Hoylman said, “I’d like to see the Hudson River Park Trust conduct a forensic analysis of the Pier55 project and share this information with the public. Basically, we need to know what happened. Not to point fingers or cast blame, but to learn if any of the protracted legal mess could have been avoided. Did the relatively narrow opportunity for public comment contribute to the project’s demise? Could the state or city have done more, for example, by stepping in to pick up the legal costs?
“In addition, we should know how much has been spent on the project,” he asked. “What’s the future of the partially rebuilt pier? Can any of these sunk costs be reclaimed? Will an R.F.P. [request for proposals] be considered for future disposition of the site and what role will the city and state play?”
‘So much was lost’
City Councilmember Corey Johnson bemoaned the loss of Pier55 and the things it would have brought to local arts and children — plus to butterflies and bats, too.
“The loss of this gift is a blow to Hudson River Park and to the West Side,” Johnson said. “Community Board 2 has one of the lowest ratios of public open space in New York, and Pier55 would have added 2.7 acres of parkland to our community. There would have been innovative partnerships with local public schools and programming with local arts groups. The local community would have had a strong voice in determining the arts programming on the pier.
“From an environmental standpoint,” Johnson added, “the new parkland would have featured native flora specifically chosen to support pollinators that have shrinking habitats, like bees and butterflies. It would also have provided needed refuge for migrating birds and even bats.
“I want to thank Barry Diller for his generous gift to the public,” Johnson said. “I hope there’s a way this pier can be brought back to life.”
Glick: ‘E.I.S. needed’
For her part, Assemblymember Deborah Glick said a major flaw of the project was that a proper environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., was never done for it. Instead, the Trust only did what is known as an environmental assessment, a lower-level study.
“I certainly understand it’s a generous gift from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation for Pier55,” Glick said. “But it was being done without an environmental impact study, which of course was always a question we raised. It was a major new incursion into the estuary, and if anything deserved a full E.I.S., it was that project.”
More to the point, in Glick’s mind, building new piers is risky in our globally warmed world.
“And, of course,” she said, “now that we are in an age of rising sea levels, it’s really questionable how much development should occur along the waterfront and in the river — it’s really very, very problematic. Whatever we do moving forward should not be wildly expensive, because we can see the increasing severity of storms and rising sea levels. The walkways to this would have been underwater.”
However, the Trust strongly disagreed on that point. David Paget, an attorney for the authority, said, “Anyone who asserts that an E.I.S. was needed for the Pier55 project evidences a complete lack of familiarity with or understanding of the multiple decisions rendered by every level of the state court system — all of which soundly rejected that argument.”
‘Legislature was misled’
Glick also blasted the Trust for being deceptive from the outset, including when it lobbied the state Legislature in 2013 to amend the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 to allow Pier 54 to be rebuilt wider and shorter.
“They should have been doing what they asked the Legislature to do,” Glick said, “which was a shorter, wider pier. That’s what they should be doing now. Pier 54 should be rebuilt, perhaps not in its original footprint…perhaps a bit shorter and wider. They totally and completely misled the Legislature. They provided misleading information.”
(The Trust’s main justification for asking for Pier 54 to be rebuilt wider was that it allegedly would make it safer for large crowds at events on the pier. And yet, Diller’s Pier55 design featured two relatively narrow pedestrian bridges connecting the pier to the shore.)
A New York Times article two weeks ago revealed how Trust board Chairperson Taylor had whispered the idea for the Pier55 plan into Diller’s ear at a High Line fundraising party six years ago.
“It’s quite clear now from the Times article,” Glick said, “that they knew what they wanted to do in 2011, and in 2013 they asked for changes [to the park act], as opposed to [asking for] a specially raised platform well out from the shore. And there was no discussion of something that would rise four or five stories.”
What happens now?
As for what should happen with that spot in the river now — such as rebuilding Pier 54 — Fox said he supports a pier there for recreational use and historic ships, which is what the park’s original plan always called for.
“The original plans for the pier did not have performance on it,” Assemblymember Glick confirmed. “It was for historic ships and passive recreation.”
The Trust, for one, isn’t ready to answer the question.
“The Trust spent nearly six years on Pier55,” a spokesperson for the authority said, “and it will take some time to wind down the project. Right now, it’s too soon to comment on anything related to the future of the site.”
‘A significant setback’
Tobi Bergman, a former Community Board 2 chairperson and longtime waterfront park activist, called the Pier55 debacle a shame and said the project would have added luster to Hudson River Park.
“I can’t speak for C.B. 2,” Bergman noted, “although we did strongly support the plan after holding several well-attended public hearings.
“Personally, I think it’s a significant setback for the park,” he said. “It was an excellent proposal that would have made the park bigger and better and provided very special and unique cultural benefits to the whole city. While Hudson River Park is a good park that has improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of residents, it is still treated like chopped liver. This would have enhanced its standing and put it on the map. It’s a great loss and a great shame.”
Fox said the denouement of the Pier55 story took everyone by surprise— including the plaintiffs.
“I don’t know why they thought they had to settle,” Fox said of the Trust’s reaching out to the City Club to negotiate a deal. “They felt they had a new permit [from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] and we filed suit. They modified the plan to take out poured-concrete piles to replace them with driven piles,” in an effort to skirt a federal Clean Water Act review, he noted.
Back in March, a federal judge had pulled the permit for Pier55, ruling that the Army Corps had erred in deeming the pier water-dependent under the Clean Water Act. In fact, the judge said, it was basically an entertainment pier, and thus didn’t need to be sited in the water.
The pier’s subsequent redesign, Fox and his allies pointed out, was once again done completely out of the public’s sight — which, again, only backfired on the Trust and Diller, leading to new aspects of the design that were set to be challenged in the latest lawsuit.
Island could have lived
Fox said his side, in fact, was willing to accept Pier55 — even with all of its entertainment uses — as long as the plaintiffs got the things they had been negotiating for in return.
“There were a lot of things in the settlement to like,” he said.
Meanwhile, Novogratz and others are charging that Durst, during the negotiations, tried to “extort” money from the Trust to finish building Pier 97, which is near his new Via 57 West — a striking gray pyramid-like residential building that Durst also happens to live in.
“It was a shakedown,” accused Novogratz, who, unlike Fox, was not actually in the room during the negotiations. Durst was not in the room, either.
Durst, though, pointed out to The Villager that several months before the Pier55 negotiations started, the Trust had committed to finishing Pier 97 with money from Hudson River Park air-rights sales from Chelsea Piers to a development site on the other side of the West Side Highway owned by Joe Rose, a former Trust board member, who plans 70-story high-rise towers there. Durst sent The Villager the documentation to prove that the Trust had indeed made that funding commitment.
What the City Club wanted, however, Fox explained, was simply a commitment from the Trust to finish Pier 97 within the next five years. The plaintiffs didn’t care where the money came from, Fox said, adding it was the Trust that, during the negotiations, first raised the subject of finishing Pier 97.
Fox, in turn, blasted Novogratz and others for trying to “smear” Durst.
Pier55 supporters also accused the City Club of trying to pressure Diller to contribute a “significant amount” of money to “their fund” as part of the settlement.
But Fox said the request was to cover their legal fees.
“We asked for legal fees as part of the settlement,” he stated, “but that request was denied because the Trust thought it would provide the City Club with resources to work with in the future.”
The Trust declined comment when asked if the money the City Club was asking Diller for was actually to pay for legal fees.
“C’mon, can anybody admit they were wrong?” Fox said in frustration. “This is the same issue that killed Westway — déjà vu all over again. This is a special habitat, a vital estuary that helps feed the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a vital, living thing. Why can’t they just appreciate it?
“It’s procedure,” Fox stressed. “It’s like covering up a lie.
“It might have been on Gansevoort,” he mused of the site for the ill-fated Pier55 project, “but nobody ever asked. The process was never public enough.”
Trust: ‘Case was flimsy’
In a statement on the overall outcome, the Trust said, “It’s important to remember that while the plaintiffs were successful in their repeated attempts to delay the project, their legal case was flimsy throughout. They never really sought to establish any environmental harm. They had a wetlands expert whom the Trust discredited and was never heard from again.
“They lost at every level of the state court system, including all environmental claims and public trust and transparency assertions, which of course were not founded in any laws or regulations. Their one victory was a technical process one that lost any relevance when we shifted to a no-fill project.
“Also, they never got any environmental group or activists to join their suits or file supporting briefs or affidavits. They were solitary complainants. They profess to have brought the suit because of a lack of transparency and environmental harm, but they proved neither and lost all of their lawsuits asserting both.”
Lots of work left
As for Novogratz, he said there’s still more than enough work left to do on the rest of Hudson River Park.
“We’re going to build Pier 26 [at North Moore St.],” he stated, “Gansevoort, Pier 57 — Google’s going to be on the top floor and there’s going to be a food court. There’s a ton of good stuff that’s going to come to this park.”
Like Pier 97, the piles and deck for Pier 26 were rebuilt, but it still needs to be landscaped and finished. Citi, which has offices right nearby, has pledged $10 million for that. The park at Gansevoort — formerly home to a Department of Sanitation garage – still needs to be designed and the peninsula itself environmentally remediated.
Meanwhile, redeveloping Pier 40, the community’s “family sports pier,” at W. Houston St., will be the next big fight, Novogratz said. The community is expected to resist efforts to maximize the amount of development on the massive, 14-acre pier.
“That pier needs to generate $10 million to $12 million a year for the park’s maintenance,” the Friends chairperson said, noting it currently brings in barely half that amount. “In some ways, it’s idiotic that the city doesn’t kick in money for Pier 40,” he noted. “Just 0.5 percent of the city’s budget goes toward parks. If the city gave $12 million a year to the park, you wouldn’t need to have so much [commercial] stuff on Pier 40.”
Yet, people shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the mayor and governor to pay for Hudson River Park, as government funds for it have increasingly become few and far between.
“We’ve got a benefit coming up,” Novogratz said hopefully of the Friends fundraiser, which typically nets millions for the park.
“Pier 40 is going to be the next one,” he said. “It’s going to be a wrestling match. You learn in this city stuff, it’s like a ground war.”
Also, Glick noted, rather than glitzy projects like Pier55, the Trust should focus on finishing the unbuilt parts of the park north of Chelsea up to W. 59th St. — including across from the new Hudson Yards area. Lots of families will be coming to Hudson Yards, she noted.
‘A terrible situation’
As for Durst, asked his thoughts on the demise of Pier55, he said, “My opinion is that they should have followed the law, in which case it would not have been two courts that ruled against them.”
Asked how he feels, in general, about the flashy-pier-turned-fiasco, he said, “I think it’s a terrible situation for everybody involved.”
Queried as to what he supports being there now, he said, referring to the former Pier 54, “I would like to see the original plans for the pier reinstated. The original plans did not have performance on it. It had historic ships and passive recreation.”
Durst resigned from the Friends five years ago after the Trust rejected his proposal to retrofit Pier 40 with commercial office space. At the time, the Trust instead favored redeveloping the pier with luxury residential housing. Both uses would need a legislative change to the park act. Ironically, the Trust is now favoring commercial office use at Pier 40 as the best way to generate revenue there.
‘Bridges to nowhere’
And what now of the forlorn-looking trestles that were pounded into the river to support the two pedestrian bridges that would have led out to the dazzling Pier55, none of which now will probably ever be built?
“Tom Fox can ride his rowboat around there, if it makes him happy,” Novogratz scoffed.
Fox had warned it was unwise for the Trust to work on those bridges during lulls in the lawsuits when court-mandated stop-work orders were lifted — that they could very well just be wasting money.
Maybe, it was suggested to Fox, the trestles could be made into…fishing piers? He thought that idea sounded not bad.
“I think they should have a design contest,” he said, “and a fishing pier would be appropriate — because it’s water-dependent.”