Billionaires, Bruised Egos and the Death of a Grand Project

Instead, Mr. Diller said, after all the questions, “I ended the meeting so depressed.” He had grown “disillusioned” about the project in the spring, when a federal judge revoked the permit for the pier, stopping preliminary work. When settlement talks began in July, he was “uncomfortable” sitting down with the people who had used the courts to wage a war of attrition against the project.

That feeling of pique only intensified the message he had been getting from his family — Alexander and Tatiana Von Furstenberg, the grown children of his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. “My family essentially had an intervention with me in the last couple of weeks to say, We’ve watched you be stressed and tortured by something that was only meant to be a good thing,” Mr. Diller said. “Then my family said, Don’t you think we should use our resources where they’re wanted?”

And so, late on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 12, Mr. Diller called Madelyn Wils, the president and chief executive of the Hudson River Park Trust, which oversees the development and operation of the park. Mr. Diller explained that he’d had enough: Diller Island was dead.

“It was kind of like an out of body experience,” Ms. Wils recalled. She felt like her heart had stopped. “You’re not quite sure you heard what you heard,” she said.

With that phone call, Mr. Diller ended a six-year saga that had cost $40 million before construction had started in earnest. The pier had grown from a relatively modest original proposal into a grand project worthy of a billionaire’s ambitions. It was stalled in the courts by a tiny band of activists backed by an opposing billionaire, Douglas Durst of the New York real estate family. And it was a battle as much about shifting personal relationships and hurt feelings as it was about city or state regulations or the delicate environment of the Hudson River estuary.

Its denouement demonstrates some of the dangers of turning over funding of city infrastructure to individuals with deep pockets but, perhaps, thinner skins.

“Diller joined David Rockefeller in being another billionaire who couldn’t impose his will on the West Side waterfront,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University, recalling Mr. Rockefeller’s backing of the failed Westway highway project. “Hudson River Park emerged from the failure of Westway. There will be new ideas that emerge from the failure of Diller…

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