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City Has Backup Plan if Barry Diller Pulls Out of Island Project

By  Rosa Goldensohn and James Fanelli | April 20, 2015 7:34am 

 The city Parks Department and the Hudson River Park Trust have agreed to a backup plan if Barry Diller bows out of his plan to build a $151 million island at Pier 54. The trust would build a more modest $30 million park at the pier.
City Parks Department Has Backup Plan if Barry Diller Balks on Floating Island
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CHELSEA — Billionaire media mogul Barry Diller plans to build a $151 million island oasis in Hudson River Park — if the group that runs the park meets his demands to revitalize nearby dormant space along the waterfront.

Under a lease inked with the Hudson River Park Trust, Diller has the right to pull his money from the project at Pier 54 if overhauls at neighboring piers don’t meet his satisfaction.

The lease sets out expectations that two long-troubled points in the cash-strapped park — Pier 57, a dilapidated former garage, and Gansevoort Peninsula, a swath of unused land whose fate is tied to the construction of a waste transfer station — will be developed into parkland and a commercial space.

Diller’s donation is also predicated on the construction of a publicly funded $22.5 million esplanade that will serve as an entrance to the island.

The city has pledged $17 million toward Diller’s vision and the adjacent esplanade. But DNAinfo New York has learned that, to hedge against the possibility of Diller bowing out, the Parks Department and the trust created a backup plan, a more modest $30 million park at Pier 54.

DNAinfo reviewed a working draft of the contract between the city Parks Department and the trust, which reveals that if Diller pulls out, the city’s $17 million investment will go toward a park in the same spot — but it'll come without the bells and whistles in the billionaire’s vision. The contract is still in the process of being approved.

The difference between the parks is dramatic. Where Diller imagines a floating paradise for fundraisers and theater shows, the alternative park would be similar to other pier parks along the Hudson.

Diller’s park, to be re-dubbed Pier55, would be a 2.4-acre futuristic confection designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick. The alternative park would be 1.9 acres, with stainless steel railings and some decorative planters.

The trust told DNAinfo that it was confident that Diller’s project would move forward without a hitch.

“We have no reason to believe the Pier55 project won’t proceed. Good planning dictates that, as a contract contingency, the Trust and city consider the ‘what if’ scenario of no Pier 55 project,” Hudson River Park Trust spokesman James Yolles said.

He also defended Diller’s say in plans for other parts of the waterfront.

“Mr. Diller’s contemplated donation should be understood within context,” said Yolles. “It should not be a surprise that he would not commit to building just any project of any sort, regardless of what is ultimately approved or allowed both on and near the reconstructed Pier 54.”

The Parks Department said it expected Diller's plan would move forward, but would go with the alternative if it fell through. The agency said that it does not plan to commit more than $17 million to either project.

But the city and the state have ponied up money for other projects in Hudson River Park, which, Diller says, need to happen for his island to move forward.

The city has budgeted $25 million in this year's capital commitment plan as payment to the trust for longstanding plans at Gansevoort Peninsula a few blocks down from the planned island, according to the Sanitation Department.

In 2008, the state Legislature approved a plan to build a Sanitation Department waste transfer center at the peninsula, a landfill from the 1800s. Under the agreement, the transfer station would be at the tip of the pier at Gansevoort Street and the Hudson River. The rest of the pier would become a park.

Under the deal, the city and the state would each pay $25 million to the trust, which can use the money to improve or acquire parkland.

The deal also requires the governor, the mayor and state lawmakers to sign a memorandum of understanding that allows the station to be built. But, seven years later, it has yet to be signed. Sanitation Department officials said the city is working to finalize a deal.

Diller also has high expectations for Pier 57, which has had its share of delays. In 2009, developer Youngwoo & Associates won a bid to redevelop it as a massive retail and office space center known as the SuperPier, but the plan has languished for six years and the builder has blown its 2015 completion date.

In 2014, Youngwoo partnered with office landlord RXR Realty to advance the job.

In addition to his demands for the neighboring piers and esplanade, Diller can walk away for a multitude of other reasons, including if the project goes over budget, if government intervention interferes with his plans for permitted events, or if the aesthetics of the theaters change from plans. 

Diller has pledged $130 million for the building of the $151.8 million park, plus $25 million for future maintenance. That $151.8 million pricetag does not include the state-funded esplanade. The esplanade, which will include a three-block pedestrian walkway and a 21,000-square-foot concrete deck, will be funded by an $18 million grant coming through the state Department of Transportation and the park trust. 

Diller’s nonprofit Pier55 would have the exclusive rights to determine all programming on the island, from theater shows to fundraisers. Pier55’s board also includes millionaire theater and movie producer Scott Rudin and English director Steven Daldry.

Diller will also have the right to use the publicly funded esplanade for events and activities on the island.

Representatives for Diller and Pier55 did not respond to requests for comment.