By George Capsis
At 7:00 a.m. on September 22nd, I came out of the shower to a ringing phone and stood, still dripping, as Westview contributor Barbara Chacour announced with exhilaration, “Diller Island is Dead.” These were the very words printed on the front page of the New York Times article by Charles V. Bagli who, I suspect, went to P.S. 41 with my kids. Wow, Diller Island Dead. You can go through a lifetime without a victory like this but it was not my victory or Westview’s victory. It was that of realtor Douglas Durst who paid the City Club of New York’s attorney hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, in action after action, to block the start of construction and convince the courts, among other things, that the 2.7-acre undulating, concrete “island” on gross, enormous, bulbous, mushroom-shaped piles some seven stories high “was not an appropriate water-related use.”
Indeed, these legal delays stopped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from granting a permit to build, which contributed to the startling decision by 75-year-old former head of Paramount, Barry Diller, perhaps in a moment of terminal pique, to say, “The hell with it, I’m out of here!”
This came as a surprise to everybody including the members of The City Club’s President, attorney Michael Gruen, and former head of the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), Tom Fox, who were hours away from presenting a compromise. They were going to let the island proceed if Diller and/or the HRPT would recreate a beach shoreline at Pier 79 (Gansevoort Street) and restore a pier for historic ships. What motivated 73-year-old Durst to write a blank check to Gruen to keep filing actions to stop Diller even though it seemed that Diller would inevitably get the approval?
The companion to billionaire Michael Bloomberg, Diane Taylor, who continues, inexplicably, to serve as the Czarina of the HRPT, along with HRPT operating head Madelyn Wils, got ALL of the politicians (Schumer, de Blasio, and even Cuomo) to say, “Sure, Diller Island is good and this handful of City Club old men who are trying to stop it are past their prime and should be ignored.” (Yes, well, I think that some of Westview’s graying readers will resent this. We don’t have the money to buy an action but we have the wisdom to say when it is wrong.)
So now we come to why I used our little newspaper to fight Diller Island…
First, I thought it was ugly—an undulating, concrete slab like an over-easy egg draped over enormous, bulbous, mushroom-shaped piles. I think it was ugly because it was the casual back-of-the-envelope doodling of a designer, not an architect who has a sense of what these avatar shapes will cost to construct.
And maybe we should say something more about the word ‘ugly.’ I remember when pretend-painter Fernando Espada explained why he transitioned to abstract art: “Traditional painting takes too much work.” I also recall when the inventor of the electric toothbrush, Philippe Woog, called me from Switzerland to get the price of a paint-splattered studio ladder that had become a “work of art” by accidental proximity.
We are born with a sense of beauty. However, you need only read the review of an installation of urinals to understand our current, perverse desire to deny that natural sense of what is attractive and what is ugly with words, words, words.
And then there was the cost…
I mean, you did not have to be an architect to know that those ponderous bulbous piles, which had to be driven down hundreds of feet into bedrock, were going to be gratuitously expensive. Two years before Diller finally asked a contractor to bid on them, we had our Architecture Editor, Brian J. Pape, price them out. The calculations came out to nearly $137,000 per pile and there were 300 of them.
When Diller finally got around to asking a contractor to bid on these monster golf tees with openings the size of swimming pools, the contractor gave up and only offered an educated guess and then a cost-plus contract. How unprofessional it was to wait two years to get a cost estimate! (They just flattened them into lily pads. So much for artistic integrity.)
When they started planning Diller Island years ago, the cost was about $50 million and now they were talking about $250 million. No, its not inflation; they just began to get for-real cost quotes.
When the head of Home Depot gave $250 million to NYU after Sandy pushed the East River into the basement and blew the power, they named it ‘NYU Langone.’ So, why doesn’t Barry Diller give $250 million to Beth Israel to save it from becoming condos?