‘Nobody had made an island’: Diller on Pier55

Arts lover Barry Diller — attending an event at the Metropolitan Opera, above — says he will be very hands-on with Pier55, a project he sees as a legacy “gift-benefit” to New York — and the world. Photo by David Shankbone

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | No one can argue that Pier55 is not a different kind of project.

For starters, even its name is different — it’s written “Pier55,” with no space between the pier and its number. Of course, that’s minor, and some even think it’s a bit of an affectation.

Far more significantly, the construction and ongoing operation of this $250 million “entertainment island,” as it’s being called, will be funded primarily by a private citizen, media mogul Barry Diller. The billionaire businessman and his wife, fashion design icon Diane von Furstenberg, are famous for their philanthropy, having notably given a great amount of funding to the High Line to help realize that groundbreaking project — which is just a block away from the site of the future Pier55.

The undulating pier will rise 62 feet at its southwest corner, its highest point. Some are outraged that it will block views to the river.

But it is being built. A huge crane was brought in this Tuesday to begin pile-driving to install the supports that will hold up the ambitiously designed structure’s concrete deck.

Pier55, also the name of the nonprofit entity that will run the pier, currently has a paid staff of five. The nonprofit is even managing the pier’s day-to-day construction.

The Pier55 staff currently includes an executive director, a project manager, a director of artistic programming, and a director of education engagement. Diller heads its board of directors.

The landscaped pier is expected to open in the fall of 2020. It will sport a unique “amoeba”-like shape, with its footprint rotated, so as not to be parallel to the park’s other piers.

Its hallmark will be its seasonal arts-and-entertainment programming, from late spring to early fall, with the first performances to debut on it in 2021.

There will be 250 events each season. Fifty-one percent of them will be free or low-cost, meaning under $30. The other 49 percent will be “fair-market value,” comparable in ticket price to other local nonprofit arts organizations, such as The Public, New York Theater Workshop or the Manhattan Theater Club.

The pier will boast three performance spaces: a 700-seat amphitheater facing the water; a smaller “southern space,” featuring benches and seating on a hill; and the “Main Space,” in the pier’s center area, which will also serve as a social space, with food and beverage options. This last space will also be able to host large events, like a jazz orchestra.

Last year, after The City Club of New York indicated it would not cease its litigation against the project on environmental grounds, Diller gave up in frustration at one point, and for six weeks, the project was very much dead. The Pier55 office was shuttered.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo interceded, promising the City Club plaintiffs he would complete the unfinished sections of the 4-mile-long Hudson River Park — which stretches from Chambers St. to W. 57th St. The plaintiffs relented, and Diller came back onboard.

The Villager recently sat down with Diller at his Frank Gehry-designed, white, sail-like IAC Building, at 18th St. and 11th Ave., which, built in 2007, is the headquarters of his media empire. It was Gehry’s first building in New York.

Diller, 76, whose days are tightly scheduled with meetings, wore a blue blazer, with no tie and a gray button-down shirt. Behind him, the small conference room’s windows — featuring white pixels gradually thickening on the glass toward the top — overlooked the West Side Highway, the Hudson River bikeway, Chelsea Piers and, beyond them all, the whitecapping Hudson River.

“How can I help you?” Diller said as he sat down at the table.


The Villager: Why are you doing this project? What is the vision?

Barry Diller: I thought it was a great opportunity to do something original. Nobody, basically, made an island in the Hudson River, and that was original. The architecture is very ambitious. The programming is ambitious. And I thought it was an opportunity to help create something that would benefit the people of New York and the people who come to New York. I’m mindful of the wonderment I’ve felt since I came to New York, of seeing things that, at some point — 50 years, 100 years before — somebody had taken the elective to do. They’re all electives. All public art is essentially an elective. It’s not like the sewer system or electricity or whatever. And I’ve always been in awe of that elective. Then, five, 10, 100 years later, of having it as a gift-benefit to the people of the city, of the world. That’s quite as fulsome as I think I can say it.

V: I know Diana Taylor, the chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors, initially got you involved in this project by showing you an idea of what the island could look like. Was the plan always to make it an arts / entertainment pier — was that your idea?

B.D.: The Pier 54 that they tore down had only been used for events, basically concerts. And so, the intial idea was basically to recreate it, and put some trees on it. And from there we kind of…went astray. We first of all said, “O.K., It’s not a pier. It’s an island. It doesn’t have to be rectilinear, no boats are coming on either side of it. Let’s make it ambitious.

V: But it reached a point where there was a lawsuit against it. You threw in the towel. The project was scrapped for a period of six weeks. The Pier55 office shut down. Can you take us through your thoughts then? And how did Governor Cuomo save it? Was it a phone call to you?

B.D.: It was very simply, we had been delayed. What I found, which I did not know, now do know: If there’s opposition to any public project, it will die. And by opposition, I don’t mean, just 42 people out of 2,000 people just simply say, “We don’t like this,” or whatever, whatever. We had approvals from the community boards, from every regulatory authority. However, if there is opposition in the form of litigation, I think, on any public project, more than likely, history has shown it will die. That is just the nature of things. I was astounded to learn that, even though our lawyers consistently said we would prevail on the merits, that because of the litigation process, the risks were untakeable because you simply could not risk investing… . When we canceled, we had lost somewhat more than $40 million, or invested… .

V: In design…?

B.D.: Just pure design, preconstruction, etc.  And I said, “Well, O.K., I don’t like it, but I can take the loss.” I would feel far worse if it was $150 million and nothing was shown for it. So, that stopped me. And then, some weeks later, the governor called, thought he had a chance to put this back together and asked me. And I delayed him a bit, and said, “Yes, if you can do it, and it’s clean, yes, I’ll go forward.” And he did, and we did.

A worker on the Pier55 project walks under the steel arch, the only remnant of the former head house of Pier 54, the pier where the S.S. Carpathia brought the Titanic’s survivors. The historic Pier 54 was demolished by the Hudson River Park Trust and is being replaced by the new and stylish Pier55. This Tuesday, a massive W526 crane arrived at the site of the planned new public park and performing-arts space, which is slated to open off of W. 14th St. in 2020. The crane will be used for pile-driving and installation of the project’s signature concrete “pots” that will sit atop the traditional piles and hold up the landscaped park’s deck. The pile-driving will start in June and continue until wrapping up in October, when the seasonal construction moratorium begins, and will then resume next May. Pile-driving is expected to be complete by fall 2019. The pot installation is expected to be complete by March 2020. Construction is already underway on the two access bridges that will lead out to the park from the “upland,” or shore-based part, of the park. Photo by Bob Krasner

V: Do you understand the opposition of Douglas Durst and Tom Fox to this project?

[Fox was one of the City Club plaintiffs. Developer Durst, at one point, funded the lawsuit — as first reported by The Villager. Durst was a former chairperson of the Friends of Hudson River Park, but had a falling out with the park’s governing authority.]

B.D.: I never understood Douglas Durst. It was never really explained to me. And I asked him, and he actually said his objection was “due to process.” He felt that the process was a bad process. So, too, did the others, but the others’ objections, in its purest form — the pier not being water-dependent and it’s not being another anything on the water…I found to be frankly absurd. Absurd because the total space that we were taking was in the footprint that was approved by everybody.

V: Well, the footprint was shifted slightly north from the original Pier 54 location… .

B.D.: Yes, but the footprint — the amount of space we were taking — was exactly the same. So we weren’t adding additional space. And I can’t help feel that this was motivated, in large part, by their experience with the Hudson River Park Trust. They had a not-good experience — right or wrong — I’m not picking sides. As Douglas Durst said, “I’m not really against your project but the process was bad by H.R.P.T., and we don’t approve of the way they do things.”

V: Also, the feeling was the design process for Pier55 wasn’t out in the open.

B.D.: The original criticism was that it was a “secret process.” It’s absurd to call it a secret process. We made plans. We didn’t push any buttons. We didn’t start drilling holes — or cutting steel, as they say. We developed our ideas to the point where we could present them. When we were ready, we presented them. And we went through a process, with Community Board 2, with various other constituencies. We presented our plans, we took feedback. We made changes to those plans, and then we proceeded, because “they then approved it,” close quote. I think the plaintiffs, so to speak, said that the process of development — we should have been, quote, “open development”; meaning, we should have shared our development process. I design process, and for me, I’m very happy, once coming up with an idea, to absolutely give it air and let people critique it. But I fully believe that you do not interrupt the process of conceptualizing that idea. Because it’s like saying to somebody, “Here’s the first act of a three-act play. Do you like the way it’s going?”… So, anyway…people can disagree.

V: What about the fact that this area is so incredibly busy now? You’ve got Chelsea Market. You’ve got the High Line — which you and your wife, Diane von Furstenberg…

B.D.: Yes, yes we did…

V: …funded.

B.D.: …a big part of it.

V: The High Line, the bike path, they’re both so heavily used by people. And the Meatpacking District is there, too. One concern of people is that this new Pier55 is going to be such a destination and bring so much additional foot traffic to the neighborhood. Is it all becoming too much at a certain point?

B.D.: I don’t know. Our surveys on this, and we did a lot of that work — in density and things like that — did not tell us that there would be, quote, “a problem,” close quote. The biggest thing we found is that there is less park space in this area than there is almost anyplace in the city. So, we felt that this was underserved, in that respect. I can’t say much about density, other than, while it will bring additional traffic, to some degree, all of the people who analyzed this did not see that as a problem.

V: How about sound? There are some concerns about sound carrying from the pier’s performances.

B.D.: We did extensive sound tests. I participated in them. It was great fun. One of our big consultants has a sound room Downtown where they simulate sounds from the tests that they take in the [project location]. So we did lots of testing. We found, actually, surprisingly, that the levels of ambient sound, etc., were not elevated — except at really close quarters. When you got further out, there was very little sound reverb past, let’s say, the West Side Highway. The West Side Highway, in a way, is a sound barrier. So, we did not find it to be a problem.

A design rendering for Pier55, at W. 14th St., shows how the piles would be topped by organic-shaped-looking “pots.” Starting next month, a lot of pounding with an enormous crane will be going on to install the piles, after which the pots eventually will be attached to the top of the piles. Construction has already been ongoing on two bridges to connect the island pier to the land-based part of Hudson River Park. Image courtesy Pier55 Inc.

V: Do you live in the neighborhood?

B.D.: I live partly on 14th and Washington, and partly Uptown.

V: So, can you live in the Meatpacking District — which has a manufacturing zoning — because of that archaic rule for “tender’s quarters”?

B.D.: We own the building. It’s not zoned for residence, but you can have a single-family occupancy, so to speak.

V: On Pier55, you’re the head of the board. What do you see your involvement being with this project on a day-to-day or regular basis?

B.D.: Extensive. I’m engaged. I’ll be engaged in all of it.

V: You’ve got this huge company, too, obviously, which is your business. Yet, you’re going to put a lot of time into Pier55?

B.D.: I certainly intend to.

V: What about Diane von Furstenberg’s involvement?

B.D.: She’ll be involved…to a degree. My wife and children will be involved to some degree, because they’re on the board of the parent foundation [the Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation, which is funding the Pier55 project], so it’s appropriate that they do so. But in the family, this is deemed to be my primary responsibility.

V: To switch back to the High Line, some people go as far as to say that it’s too successful, it’s changed Chelsea, it’s spurred too much development — overdevelopment — gentrification. What’s your take?

B.D.: Like everything, I think it overwhelmingly has it’s upside, but it has it downsides, it has consequences. This area, when we moved here, we scoped this out in 2001 — 2002 is when we started construction [on his IAC Building] — nothing had been developed around here. Literally, this 30-, 40-block area, West Village, Chelsea area. Basically, all the landlords had sat on their land with no improvements…wisely. Even though they wanted to tear down the High Line. They opposed the existing railroad tracks because they thought they impeded development. The High Line was the beginning of that transformation. And it has brought, on the positive side, just wander around, look at it. — everything — it is very positive. On the downside, it has brought a lot more people. It has raised prices, certainly, because people make investments in buildings and things like that. You know, those are the consequences of development. That’s just a factual report. … Another thing, it has been very little acknowledged how wonderful H.R.P.T. has developed the West Side, that strip. I use it. I bike along it. It’s wonderful, a wonderful amenity.

V: Similar to the High Line effect, I think it’s commonly accepted that the Hudson River Park coming in also helped spur the construction of the first two Richard Meier buildings at Perry St. — which were completed in 2002 — and the wave of development, in general, that followed along the Lower West Side waterfront, leading to its being called the New Gold Coast.

B.D.: Maybe that was the first… . But H.R.P.T. from Battery Park all the way up to the bridge, is just a fantastic resource for a city. I’m a big fan.

[Although the bikeway extends up to the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River Park only extends up to W. 59th St.]

V: What about some environmentalists — and also Assemblymember Deborah Glick — who warn about the dangers of building on the water in this era of climate change, rising waters and superstorms. What do you feel about all this?

B.D.: We’re 15 feet above the floodplain. Of course, I wouldn’t do it if… . One of the first things my wife said when were starting this was, “You can’t do that! It’ll be underwater in a few years.” From the very beginning, one of our issues, of course, was to be sure that, under a 1,000-year event — I mean, an existential event, nobody could do anything about — but through normal projections, it should be fine. We should be O.K…. No, we really reject that as a concern.

V: We started off the interview with the idea of an island. I think maybe Frank Gehry actually wanted to build something that actually looked like this building on Pier 40, at one point. What is the fascination with an island and being on the water?

B.D.: Well, one of the reasons we’re here [in the IAC building on 11th Ave.] is because I couldn’t get further. [He pokes his thumb out the window behind him toward the river.] I really wanted a pier. We couldn’t find one. Timing wasn’t right. Google ended up being able to take Pier 57. I love water, so anything on water I’m up for. And if you’ve seen the plans for Pier55, the ability to be out 200 feet on the water, and really feeling it, is a pleasurable experience. That’s why.

V: Some people say Google shouldn’t be allowed to develop office space on Pier 57, that there will be less public space, as a result.

B.D.: Well, what’s better? You could have torn down Pier 57 and made something for the public. However, Pier 57 has been sitting there for years, abandoned. It was used terribly. There were rats, I remember going to events there. There’s a lot of public space on that pier that Google is going to do.

V: Offices weren’t allowed in the Hudson River Park’s original founding legislation.

B.D.: You could object to that. That’s a rational objection. But given the investment they’re going to make. No one could use it before. Now Google will use a big part of it, and the public will use a big part of it.

V: Google’s going to bring in $1 million more per year than the Anthony Bourdain food hall — which for some reason didn’t work — that was being planned there.

A rendering of an aerial view of Pier55, which will have three performance spaces. Somewhat obscured by trees in the image, at the pier’s northwestern corner will be an amphitheater facing the water. A smaller performance space will be at the pier’s southern corner, while a “social space” that will also be able to host performances will be a paved area located near the structure’s eastern side. The pier will sit between the old wooden pile fields of Piers 54 and 56, and just to the south of Pier 57, where Google will be the anchor tenant. Image courtesy Pier55

B.D.: It was not financeable. I just know they’d been planning it for years, and couldn’t pull it off.

V: Do you have a sense about potential acts that will perform at Pier55? Can you talk about any programming yet?

B.D.: Too early. We’re going to deal with all the disciplines. It’s not going to be a place where, so to speak, a touring act will have it on its itinerary. More than anything, we’ll commission work — in all the arts. Everything: dance, theater, spoken theater, musical theater, concerts, etc., everything.

V: From bigger names to lesser-known people?

B.D.: Everything.

V: A lot of people in the community are very excited about Pier55 engaging with local schools.

B.D.: We’re going to do an awful lot with schools. Certainly, our primary resource and rationale is this Lower West Side community — and other parts of New York wanting to partake that are more landlocked, so to say. But we want to do everything we can for the local community.

V: And a lot of local Downtown artists are, no doubt, chomping at the bit to get up on stage and do their thing out on the pier.

B.D.: We’re going to do a lot of that.

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