Durst admits funding Pier55 lawsuit, proving ‘Novo’ suspicion true

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    A design rendering of the proposed Pier55 project, which would sit offshore from Hudson River Park, connected to it by two pedestrian bridges. The ambitious project now sits in limbo after a federal judge ruled it was not “water dependent,” and rescinded a critical permit needed for it to move forward.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Tues., May 23: Following a federal judge’s stunning ruling in March that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had wrongfully issued a permit for the Pier55 project in Hudson River Park, Michael Novogratz and Tom Fox — as Villager readers have seen — have jousted at each other in the pages of this newspaper.

The judge on that case, Lorna Schofield, ruled that the Army Corps violated the federal Clean Water Act by finding that the “basic use” of Pier55 — a $200 million “entertainment pier” planned for off of W. 13th St. — was “water dependent.” Schofield scoffed that the project obviously did not need to be on a pier in the river, and that there was absolutely no reason why it could not be sited on land.

The pier’s construction, plus its programming and maintenance for the foreseeable future, were all to be funded mostly by a massive cash gift from media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, fashion legend Diane von Furstenberg.

According to Fox, the Hudson River Park Trust — the state-city authority that operates the 5-mile-long waterfront park — and the Army Corps have until May 22 to say whether they plan to appeal the ruling. If not, then the ambitious project would have to be redesigned and go through the entire approval and permitting process all over again from square one.

Fox and his co-plaintiff, Rob Buchanan — both members of The City Club of New York — crowed over their lawsuit’s favorable outcome. Meanwhile, Novogratz, an uber-wealthy hedge-funder “master of the universe” and chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, hit the roof — as seen in the letters he wrote to The Villager, blasting the City Club plaintiffs as “crusty,” washed-up activists desperate to remain “relevant.”

A veteran waterfront park activist, Fox led the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the Trust’s predecessor, and was intimately involved in the riverfront park’s early planning. Buchanan is a boating enthusiast who savors rowing in the river’s traditional Whitehall craft, the art of building which has been revived and today continues at Pier 40.

At the 2016 Friends of Hudson River Park Gala fundraiser at Chelsea Piers, from left, Michael Novogratz, chairperson of the Friends’ board of directors, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Scott Lawin, the vice chairperson of the Friends. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

In a recent interview with The Villager, Novogratz, who goes by “Novo” for short, didn’t change his tune. In fact, he further charged that developer Douglas Durst, the scion of the Durst Organization and himself a former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, has actually been funding the City Club lawsuits against the Pier55 project because he is unhealthily “obsessed” with the park. Other park activists had also grumbled that they suspected Durst of financially fueling the litigation, but there had been no proof it — until now.

In a Villager exclusive, Durst last week admitted to the newspaper that, it’s actually true — he did fund the lawsuit.

Novogratz accused Fox and Buchanan of filing “five lawsuits” against Pier55, “to try to stop a public project that did go through a complete vetting process with elected officials and community boards, who all support it. The Trust is representative government — its members are appointed by the mayor and governor,” he added.

(In fact, there are only three lawsuits, though there have been some appeals, which Novogratz may be counting.)

“It feels like a conspiracy,” Novogratz said, “by funding by Durst and a group of old guys who still want to seem relevant. Durst seems obsessed with the park.

“It’s hard to get people inspired to do public / private projects,” Novogratz added. “He’s ready to spend a quarter-billion dollars to give a gift to the city,” he said of Diller. “It’s one thing if there was major opposition to this project — but it’s three or four grumpy old men.

“This club was dead,” he complained of the City Club, like some other park activists, charging that the group seemed moribund, only to revive itself to fight Pier55.

“It’s completely obstructionist,” Novogratz said of the litigation. “I don’t get it, I completely don’t get it. Good public citizenship doesn’t mean getting in the way of something just to feel relevant.”

Fox, for his part, says he’d like to see the former Pier 54 rebuilt in its original footprint, and have historic ships dock there, as outlined in the original Hudson River Park Act of 1998. That was the very pier where the Carpathia famously dropped off the Titanic’s survivors. The Trust, however, not long ago stripped the crumbling concrete decking off Pier 54, as it pushed forward with its plan to build Pier55 on a new footprint between the old pile fields of Piers 54 and 56.

Novogratz, however, scoffed at Fox’s fixation on reviving some version of a lost historic waterfront.

“If you ask the whole community, ‘Would you rather have historic ships tethered to a pier or a dynamic arts pier?’— you should poll people — you’ll be about 95 to 5 in favor of an arts pier,” he said. “Tom Fox is part of a small — but vocal — minority. It’s actually Looney Tunes,” he said, in exasperation.

In fact, Novogratz accused, Fox, while claiming merely to be performing a civic duty, is doing just the opposite.

“It’s not very patriotic what he’s doing,” Novogratz charged. “He calls himself a patriot, ‘he’s standing up for the city, he’s standing up for the little man.’ … I mean, ask some people in Tribeca or in the West Village — who doesn’t want to sit and watch some bluegrass?

“It’s bulls— to pitch this as a rich guy’s project,” Novogratz fumed. “It’s a rich guy paying for it, but the events would be $5 or free… . Some would cost more,” he admitted.

As for Durst, the financial tycoon said of him, “He feels like he deserves to make all the decisions in the park, and that’s not the way it works. He doesn’t work well in a group. It was his way or the highway.”

Developer Douglas Durst in One Byrant Park, one of the high-profile high-rise buildings his company constructed and owns, with a view of the Hudson River in the background.

Calling it “a great idea,” though, Novogratz said he did support Durst’s idea for a Neighborhood Improvement District, or NID, for the park, which would have assessed a tax on property owners near the park, with the funds being used for the park’s maintenance and operations. But the Trust worked to stealthily slip in an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act at the very end of the state Legislature’s session in 2013, authorizing air-rights transfers from the park to development sites on the other side of the highway — and the NID died.

As for Durst, he had a falling out with the Trust and abruptly quit as the Friends’ chairperson in December 2012.

Three months before bolting from the Friends, Durst had pitched a redevelopment plan for Pier 40 — the park’s beloved but deteriorating “family sports pier,” at W. Houston St. — but didn’t get any traction with the Trust or local youth sports-league parents.

Durst, who obviously knows from construction, had also recently shown up Trust C.E.O. Madelyn Wils when he publicly stated that Pier 40’s corroded steel support piles could be repaired for as little as nearly one-third the cost that Wils had been citing — $30 million versus $80 million.

“He is still deeply committed to the park, but he has a different vision from the Trust of how to move the park forward,” a Durst spokesperson said at the time the prominent developer bailed on the Friends. “He believes all sides have the best interest of the park in their hearts, but it was counterproductive for him to remain in his role as chairman of Friends.”

Novogratz, who was then on the Trust’s board of directors, in turn, took over Durst’s former position at the Friends. By that time, the Friends had already turned into the park’s main private-fundraising wing, after having earlier been more of a watchdog group, fighting illegal municipal uses within the park.

In an interview with The Villager last week, Durst admitted to funding the City Club’s legal challenges to Pier55, but said it was just a stop-gap measure to help the group.

“I haven’t been involved in the [Pier55] lawsuits in over six months — maybe even longer,” he said. “And my role was very limited in it.”

Durst declined to reveal exactly how much money he had poured into the legal effort.

Basically, he said, Riverkeeper initially had been behind the lawsuit, but then dropped out. When the two City Club members, in turn, picked up the ball and became the plaintiffs, Durst kicked in funding to keep the lawsuit going.

(According to a source who requested anonymity, Riverkeeper — “much to the chagrin of its staff” — was reportedly pressured to abandon the lawsuit by two large donors who provide 8 percent of the Hudson River environmental watchdog’s funding and threatened to cut off their cash. In a possibly unrelated story, two months ago, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney for the past 30 years, stepped down from that role and from the group’s board, saying the work was “hard on his family.”)

As to Novogratz’s charge that Durst is “obsessed” with the Hudson River Park, the developer said he “won’t argue” over that, but referred to his track record of leading the Friends for more than a decade. His Durst Organization funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into lawsuits by the Friends to get the W. 30th St. heliport, Basketball City, the Police Department’s horse stable and the Department of Sanitation garage on Gansevoort Peninsula out of the park.

Durst said that, until now, however, he has purposefully kept quiet about his having funded the Pier55 lawsuit.

“The reason I did not want my name involved is I did not want this to be a personal battle between me and Barry Diller,” he said. “I have nothing against Diller — except he said he wishes I had been killed by my brother.”

That low blow referred to Durst’s troubled brother, Robert, who is a suspect in three murders — of his own wife, a friend and a neighbor.

Fox said he hates to hear vicious cracks like that aimed at Douglas Durst.

“Hasn’t the man suffered enough?” he asked.

Durst said he did not want to comment on the record about Pier55.

He was willing to talk about Pier 40, though.

“If they had listened to us,” he said of the Trust, “they could have had the pier finished and throwing off money by now, and you wouldn’t have needed air-rights transfers.”

Durst’s plan for Pier 40 basically called for redeveloping it with commercial office space — ironically, the same use the Trust is now pushing for. The park act would need to be amended to allow office use there, however. Back in 2012, the Trust and local youth-sports leagues, to generate revenue to fix up Pier 40, instead favored building luxury residential towers there,  which also would have needed an amendment to be allowed.

Tom Fox is feeling good after a federal judge recently ruled in favor of his lawsuit against the Pier55 project, which he charges started off badly on the wrong foot by being planned and developed in secret.

Fox brushed off Novogratz’s gibes at the City Club members and the lawsuit against Pier55.

“It’s kind of like the old gang is getting together again, very disappointed that the park is being put up for sale,” he said of the club, which includes a core group of veteran New York City civic leaders, like preservationists Kent Barwick and Brendan Sexton.

“I’m trying to be true to something I started, and not to see it go astray,” Fox said of the Hudson River Park.

Fox formerly headed up New York Water Taxi and today speaks around the world on ferry and waterfront issues.

As for Novogratz’s taunt that Fox is just trying to stay relevant, Fox asserted, “Relevant? Relevant to whom? I’m seen by others as an experienced and level hand when it comes to waterfront issues. But they don’t want level-handed, they want to sell the park.

“The old guard is very experienced,” Fox assured, “and we’re not walking away from the fight.”

Fox and Buchanan charge that the Pier55 project was cooked up out of the public eye by the Trust and Diller and then presented to the community basically as a fait accompli. To Fox, that flies in the face of the spirit of community-based planning that was a hallmark of Hudson River Park, at least in its earlier days.

As for everyone allegedly being so disappointed over the Pier55 ruling, Fox said, sarcastically, “They all come out in such droves to weep over its loss.”

Regarding Novogratz calling Fox unpatriotic, it bears mentioning that Fox did serve in Vietnam.

“Two tours,” he noted. “I don’t wear it on my sleeve that I’m right on public issues. What I do is what I feel is right, not what I’m told to do. We spent a long time to get Hudson River Park right. The way I describe myself is a warrior — I’ve been at this 35 years.”

Fox used to live on Bank St. in the Village, which is where his waterfront activism was kindled.

“Pier 49 is where I used to go just to get away and that was going to be filled in by Westway,” he recalled of how he got involved with fighting that mega-development highway / landfill project and, in turn, with planning what would eventually become the Hudson River Park.

“This is a crime of passion to me,” Fox said of the park. “What I start, I finish.”

Novogratz, who got involved with Hudson River Park about a decade ago, said he did so simply because he and his family loved the park and he wanted to make it even better. Pier55 is just an extension of that, he said.

“I did this because I had four kids that played in the park and there seemed to be a need for it,” he said.

Asked if he knows whether the Trust will ultimately appeal Schofield’s ruling on Pier55, or throw in the towel and go back to the drawing board, Novogratz said, “I’m staying positive. I think it will get built,” he predicted. “It would be a tragedy if it doesn’t get built.”

Corrections: The original version of this article inaccurately stated that Barry Diller “was ready to spend a quarter-million dollars to give a gift to the city.” That should have read “a quarter-billion dollars.” Also, regarding the two Riverkeeper contributors who allegedly threatened to pull their funding unless the environmental group withdrew from the Pier55 lawsuit, they reportedly only give 8 percent of the group’s funding — not most of it, as the article originally stated.