Diller’s dream island dies

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Pier 55, conceptualized six years ago, was beset by lawsuits, escalating costs


Six years ago, billionaire Barry Diller and with his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, set out to rejuvenate derelict Pier 54, aspiring to replace it with a 2.4-acre undulating cultural island rechristened Pier 55. Supported by 550 concrete pylons in the Hudson River, the futuristic waterfront enclave was intended for offshore at the level of West 13th Street and would be linked to the mainland by two pedestrian bridges.

Construction was to have begun last year. But beset by a string of lawsuits over the project’s environmental impact and other claims, Diller last week announced it was “no longer viable to proceed.” Pier 55, Diller wrote in a conclusive email to backers, was sunk by “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.”

What had started as a $35 million idea had burgeoned into a $250 million enterprise intended to include a series of winding pathways and viewing platforms peppered between pockets of trees, and performance venues for arts and culture shows.

But since soon after its conception, Pier 55 has been subject to a saga of lawsuits initiated by The City Club of New York and co-plaintiffs Tom Fox and Rob Buchanan.

Last month, a federal judge cited serious deficiencies in a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and in effect rescinded the permit.

In his email, Diller said a settlement of the lawsuits was being pursued until very recently. But, he added, “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.”

Diller’s capitulation brought polarized emotions from the project’s various stakeholders, among them U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the project’s supporters, who expressed frustration at the ability of a small of number of people to impede such a large-scale project.

“So much wonderful work, the work of all of you, has gone to naught,” Diller wrote. “I am so sorry.”

In an email to his supporters, Michael Gruen, president of The City Club, said the goal was never to annul the project, but to simply insist on public participation and adherence to laws designed for the welfare of the public as well as marine life.

“Great donors — and Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg are great donors — should be profusely thanked, but occasionally reminded that their role is to facilitate,” he wrote.

The reconstruction of Pier 54 will now be undertaken by the Hudson River Park management, which will “increasingly be based on public involvement and the highest respect for the natural beauty and habitat the Park is intended to nurture,” Gruen said.

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