Developer Douglas Durst.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Three months ago, Douglas Durst unveiled an alternative plan for Pier 40.
Then, in recent weeks, the high-profile developer declared the aging West Houston St. pier’s piles could be repaired for as little as around one-third of what the Hudson River Park Trust has been saying — or just $30 million versus $80 million.
Capping things off, last week, Durst resigned as chairperson of Friends of Hudson River Park, the waterfront park’s main private fundraising arm.
In a statement sent to The Villager last Friday morning, Jordan Barowitz, Durst’s spokesperson, said of the prominent builder, “He is still deeply committed to the park, but he has a different vision from the Trust of how to move the park forward. He believes all sides have the best interest of the park in the hearts, but it was counterproductive for him to remain in his role as chairman of Friends.”
Ben Korman, who was one of the group’s two vice chairpersons, has also resigned his position, and Durst and Korman have both left the Friends’ board of directors.
The Friends of Hudson River Park was formerly the 5-mile-long park’s main watchdog group, aggressively suing the city and Trust to get unwanted municipal uses out of the park, such as the Department of Sanitation garage on Gansevoort Peninsula. But the Friends has more recently forged much closer ties with the Trust as Friends has morphed into the chief fundraiser for the state-city park authority.
NO CHOICE BUT TO RESIGN In an e-mail sent to The Villager this Tuesday, Korman said, “I have been on the board of the Friends for almost 13 years. I fully endorsed the mission changes at Friends and its collaboration with the Trust. However, the Trust leadership’s emphasis on putting housing in the park and their lack of both transparency and a long-term financial strategic plan for the park, forced my resignation and reignited the need for advocacy on behalf of the Hudson River Park. The park is a precious public amenity that must be protected and enhanced.”
Korman, whose C&K Properties formerly ran the parking operation at Pier 40, collaborated with Durst in crafting the alternative Pier 40 plan that the developer unveiled in late August. That proposal includes a high-tech commercial office campus, along with automated, valet parking, while retaining Pier 40’s popular artificial-turf playing field.
Durst has previously stated of his alternative Pier 40 proposal that he’s just “putting it out there” to be “helpful” and that he would not reply to a request for proposals, or R.F.P., if the plan was put out to bid by the Trust.
Durst opposes residential development on the pier, saying it just “won’t work.” Yet the Trust wants to open up the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 to allow a wider array of uses for the park — including residential housing — saying that more viable, revenue-generating options are needed, since two previous tries to redevelop the decaying structure both failed.
GRATEFUL GOODBYE In response to a request from The Villager for comment on Durst’s resignation, Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president, and A.J. Pietrantone, the Friends’ executive director, issued a joint statement last Friday:
“The Friends of Hudson River Park and the Hudson River Park Trust are extremely grateful for the many contributions of Douglas Durst and the Durst Organization to Hudson River Park,” they said. “His philanthropy and advocacy for the waterfront and this distinct New York City amenity have had a profound effect on the quality of life for countless New Yorkers. We welcome the leadership and commitment of Friends’ Acting Chairperson Justin Sadrian as we develop a more permanent transition plan for the board in the coming months. Despite these and other challenges, including the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy, the Friends and the Trust remain wholly committed to working together to secure resources for the park and sustaining its future.”
The park still hasn’t had its electrical power restored since Sandy almost burned out Pier 40’s transformer. However, Pier 40’s playing field reopened Monday after repairs following Superstorm Sandy.
In a telephone interview last Friday, Pietrantone explained how Durst and Korman announced the news.
“Wednesday, at our quarterly board meeting, they resigned,” Pietrantone said. “They basically expressed a desire — because they had a difference of opinion about some of the activities of the Trust, particularly about Pier 40 — that they thought it was in the best interest of the park and for the Friends that they step down.”
Durst joined the Friends board in 2002. Korman was one of the group’s founding board members in 1999.
As for how Durst’s departure will affect the Friends’ pocketbook, Pietrantone said, “That’s something that remains to be seen. Douglas Durst is a very philantrophic person. He’s been a major contributor.”
NID STILL NEEDS HIM Durst remains a steering committee member of the nascent NID, or neighborhood improvement district, for Hudson River Park. The NID’s catchment area would extend two to three blocks inland from the waterfront park, and — if the special district is approved by the city — property owners would be assessed a special tax, which would raise millions annually for the park.
“The NID is one thing he’s been a major catalyst on,” Pietrantone noted.
Losing Durst is a blow, but the Friends is committed to its mission, the executive director assured.
“A leadership change is a setback,” he said. “But we’ll move forward and get the park the resources it needs.”
One of the Friends’ biggest coups was the settlement of a lawsuit it filed to get the Sanitation facility off of Gansevoort Peninsula, near W. 14th St., so that a park can be built there. Under the agreement, the city agreed to pay the Trust an escalating fee each year it didn’t vacate the peninsula. As a result, by the time Sanitation vacates the parcel — which is expected to happen in spring 2014 — the city will have paid $36 million to the park.
The Friends earlier this year also raised $1 million for the Trust at a white-tent benefit on Tribeca’s Pier 25, setting a new record for a fundraiser for the park. The group has a goal of raising $4 million per year, which will go toward the park’s operations, and also hopes to raise even more cash on top of that to help with capital costs to finish the park’s construction.
GLICK: ‘TRUST MUST BE FLEXIBLE’ Assemblymember Deborah Glick has been one of the most vocal critics of residential housing in Hudson River Park. But she didn’t see much of a downside to Durst’s departure from the Friends.
“I think it’s a loss for the Friends,” she said, “not maybe for the park. I believe that Douglas Durst has been a huge supporter of the park — and of the park as a park.
“I’m sorry that there is this conflict with the Trust,” Glick added. “I think that Douglas only has the park at heart. I’m sure that he will continue to be involved [in the park].
“I would hope that the Trust, going forward, would be flexible enough to work with partners who are totally focused on the future of the park, and be more engaging and receptive to hearing things that are not simply whatever they have decided behind closed doors is the future of the park.
“They need to work with those of us, and people like Douglas, who are committed to the park’s future,” Glick continued. “And just because he has pointed out some of the financial shortcomings that many of us have pointed out before in their financial plan, there’s really no reason for them to be so offended.”
FINANCED GANSEVOORT SUIT Arthur Schwartz, a longtime Village waterfront activist, said the loss of Durst’s financial prowess is serious for the park.
“Durst is one of the richest people in America,” he said. “He’s not in the Bloomberg field, but he’s one of the biggest developers in America. If it wasn’t for Doug Durst, Friends wouldn’t have existed its first 10 years. He not only donated a large percentage of the money that paid for the litigation they did — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars — about the Sanitation facility at Gansevoort, eliminating the tourist chopper flights at the W. 30th St. Heliport — he was also the connection to people in the money world.
“This year they raised more than ever at their benefit, so there was something at play there more than Doug Durst; so it doesn’t mean that fundraising will go away without Durst,” Schwartz noted. “But it’s a loss, a real loss. I would guess, in New York, there isn’t a person of his means more dedicated to parks. Ratner and the Central Park Conservancy, he’s a close second. But Douglas Durst is the most environmentally concerned person in the world you’re going to find. So it’s a loss.”
Schwartz, who is the chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, said personally he’s open to any and all ideas for Pier 40 — including Durst’s — at this point.
“It’s always good to have counterproposals,” he said. “It’s always good to have a competition of ideas, if they’re not hot air — and Douglas Durst doesn’t spout hot air.”
DURST’S PRIOR PIER 40 PLAY Schwartz recalled that Durst and Korman made a play for Pier 40 back in 2003 during the Trust’s first R.F.P. attempt to find a developer for the pier. At first, their proposal was for a water-based FedEx hub, with shipments ferried to and from the pier by barges. That plan morphed into one including rooftop gardens. Both plans preserved the pier’s sports fields. The second version featured a Home Depot and a Costco.
“I wouldn’t call them superstores,” Schwartz said, though conceding, “They were big enough.”
Schwartz, who was chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee at the time, supported the Durst/Korman plan, and said Glick did, too.
“Everyone thought the proposal was great,” he recalled. “And that was when Aubrey Lees [the then C.B. 2 chairperson] came in and did the ‘Sunday Night Massacre,’ and took me and Elizabeth Gilmore and Tobi Bergman off the Waterfront Committee. And the next thing we knew, the Oceanarium was being pushed, which the Trust wanted.”
Lees thought there was a conflict of interest since Korman and the three committee members were all Friends of Hudson River Park board members. But Schwartz said the city’s Conflict of Interest Board ultimately ruled there was no conflict.
Ultimately, that R.F.P. process sunk, as did another R.F.P. attempt a few years later that featured a pitch by The Related Companies for a glitzy “Vegas on the Hudson” entertainment destination spot, which topped all previous plans for inspiring horrified community opposition.
Bergman is the head of P3, a youth sports organization that uses Pier 40. It’s also part of the new Pier 40 Champions coalition of youth sports leagues, which recently floated an idea for towers next to — but not on — Pier 40 as a way to raise funds for both the decaying pier and the cash-strapped park.
‘NOT A NONPROFIT LEADER’ Asked for comment on Durst’s departure from Friends, Bergman said, “Douglas Durst is a great builder who cares about New York and the park, but I think he realizes his strengths are not the ones needed to be an effective nonprofit leader. At board meetings, he always projected a sense of reluctance or ambivalence. I think it is impossible for a developer to play an unconflicted, leading role in creating public policy for Pier 40 because of its innate development significance and also because of its impact on nearby in-play properties, especially the St. John’s Building. His best value to the pier will be as a responder to a future request for proposals. Of course, given the needs of the park, we all hope he will continue to be a generous contributor.”
Indeed, some suspect Durst will eventually make another play for the prime pier property. A duo of a developer and a parking magnate who once operated at Pier 40 is too coincidental, according to one source close to the Trust who requested anonymity.
“There’s an utter and complete lack of randomness” in Durst and Korman striking out on their own, he said.
But Durst spokesperson Barowitz insisted the developer isn’t interested in the St. John’s Building property, which stretches for several blocks along West St. in front of Pier 40.
“Like every other large developer in town, we looked at it,” he said, “but we are not buying it, nor are we trying to buy it.”
And Barowitz added, “As we have said from the beginning of the process, we have no interest in developing Pier 40.”
Likewise, asked if he’s angling to run the parking again at Pier 40, Korman said, “I have no intention in getting involved in executing the plan. The purpose of our plan for adaptive reuse of Pier 40 is to prove that there are economically viable solutions for Pier 40. I have been working on it for the benefit of the park and its users, not for any self-serving purpose.”
FEBRUARY PIER 40 FORUM? David Gruber, the new chairperson of Board 2, has been “immersing himself in the waterfront,” as he put it, getting a handle on Pier 40 and all the rest. But he said he’s not in a position to speculate on Durst’s maneuverings.
“This is internal stuff, to be honest with you,” he said. “I never met Durst. I never physically met him. But I’m looking forward to meeting him and seeing the presentation of his plan.”
Gruber said he plans to hold a public forum on Pier 40 and the park but not until February at the earliest.
“There’s a lot of players, moving parts,” he said. “I’ve got to get them all lined up.”