Durst and the Towers

By Roland Li

The Durst family has long had a connection with the World Trade Center.

In the 1960s, when the Port Authority was poised to begin development of the original twin towers, patriarch Seymour Durst, along with Lawrence Wien and Harry Helmsley, began buying newspaper ads criticizing the project. They formed the Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center, which argued that the “mountain” was impractical and would present a hazard for airplanes. They said the height should be lowered to 900 feet. (The North Tower’s radio antennae would eventually reach 1,727 feet.)

Some 40 years later, Seymour’s son, Douglas Durst, and Anthony Malkin, Wien’s grandson and owner of the Empire State Building, took out their own ads, creating the Continuing Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center. They criticized what was then called the Freedom Tower, arguing that the time wasn’t right for another massive glut of subsidized office space.

But last year, the Durst Organization emerged as the frontrunner for a minority stake in One World Trade Center, following a heated contest that was seen as a sharp reversal for a tower that many feared would remain mostly empty. Durst beat the Related Companies, which had envisioned a project akin to its Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, and paid a minimum $100 million for around 10% of the multibillion dollar skyscraper.

Douglas Durst said that with the tower’s delayed construction, its timing aligned more with his views. The modern, green features of the building also converge with Durst’s signature affinity for environmentally friendly buildings.

Under the terms of the deal, the Durst Organization would also manage the tower, and the developer quickly brought its own building manager and engineer to the site, where they have worked for the past year.

4 Times Square

In the midst of the Durst bid, the Port Authority was negotiating with Samuel Irving Newhouse, nicknamed Si, chairman and CEO of Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications. Condé, a tenant in Durst’s own 4 Times Square, was searching for its next home, hoping to find a deal comparable to its $40 per s/f bargain at its current midtown location, itself a product of post-9/11 tax incentives. After looking at Hudson Yards and Brooklyn, the publisher was in serious talks to become the anchor of One World Trade.

Officials from Durst held marathon negotiations at its newest skyscraper, One Bryant Park, hosting officials and Condé’s broker, Mary Ann Tighe of CB Richard Ellis, and the Port’s lead broker, Tara Stacom of Cushman & Wakefield. Leasing details were vast, spanning the installation of an exhaust pipe for a state-of-the-art cafeteria to access to the building for the publisher’s signature black town cars. But there was confidence that the deal would close.

“It involved almost all the same players, except for the addition of the Port,” said Douglas Durst. “It was a lot easier this time. We were on friendly terms.”

Finally, in May, almost a year after initial rumors emerged, Conde Nast signed a $2 billion lease for 25 years, taking slightly over 1 million s/f in the tower. The Port Authority will also assume Condé’s lease at 4 Times Square, which runs until 2019, until a new tenant is found.

The Condé lease was the most recent triumph for the Durst family’s storied history. Douglas’ grandfather, Joseph Durst, arrived in the United States in 1902 with $3. After working in dress manufacturing, he bought his first building, the Century Building at One West 34th Street, in 1915.

The Dursts moved into development, building five office buildings along Third Avenue in the East 40s. As Seymour Durst took over the business, the focus shifted from midtown east to midtown west. Seymour became a master of assembling parcels, particularly along Sixth Avenue. At the same time, he was an observer and critic of both city and country, installing the now famous national debt clock to a building in midtown. In 1978, he was elected chairman of the Real Estate Board of New York, and Seymour’s mantra became an enduring principle for the Dursts: “Don’t buy anything you can’t walk to.”

One Bryant Park

As Douglas ascended to top executive, he began assembling one of the trickiest sites in the family’s portfolio, a parcel on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. After decades of work, the site was finally ripe for development, and Durst partnered with Bank of America to construct the first large tower since the 9/11 attacks. The irregularly shaped, crystalline structure was designed by Cook + Fox and is one of the most environmentally sustainable office towers in the world, certified LEED Platinum. In the basement, blocks of ice form in the night and are used to cool the building in the day, and the building has floor-to-ceiling insulated glass, a greywater system, waterless urinals and a cogeneration plant.

While such features can be expensive, Durst said that the return on investment from cost savings is substantial. “You expect a return on in way or another,” he said. “If there’s a higher cost, it’s because you’re trying to build a better building.” They also enabled the landlord to charge rents well north of $100 per s/f, including a $185 per s/f listing for the last vacancy.

Although One World Trade Center will not have nearly the same level of environmental features, it is designed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world, with a reinforced concrete base and core.

“There was a lot more attention paid to the infrastructure and security,” said Durst. “The security protocol is stronger than our other buildings.”

While the tower remains Durst’s central focus, it remains active in other areas, particularly residential housing with its Durst Fetner affiliate. The firm recently opened condos at 1212 Fifth Avenue in Harlem, and it has a mixed-use rental project planned in Herald Square. One of the city’s most talked about projects, the Bjarke Ingels-designed West 57th Street, which resembles a pyramid, is undergoing land use review.

“The demand for rental residential market is strong and we expect it to stay strong,” said Durst. The firm is always exploring New York acquisitions, and recently, Durst made the unprecedented move of investing in Chinese residential real estate, while at the same time visiting the country to market One World Trade to Chinese businesses. Beijing Vantone Industrial Co. was, after all, the first private tenant in the building.

“This is going to be the iconic tower, known around the world, in New York. We think in this case, it’s logical to be seeking tenants outside,” said Durst.

Although he has done much to transform the city, Durst doesn’t appear to be sentimental. When asked what project he is most proud of, he doesn’t hesitate.

“We’re always most proud of the next development, which is One World Trade Center,” he said.

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