On the morning after a scaffolding collapsed at the Conde Nast building on Times Square, the building’s developer, Douglas Durst, stood in a supermarket in the West 40′s. Dazed and exhausted after a night of emergency phone calls and dark thoughts about the future, he made a private vow to avoid the newspapers, which would be filled with details of the disaster.
Mr. Durst hadn’t prepared himself for his collision with the front page of The New York Times . Looking at the supermarket newspaper rack, he was socked by a tremendous, lurid, 6-inch color photograph of his stricken building, 4 Times Square. Its scaffolding had buckled in midsection, looking like a flimsy toy mauled by a bored child. Chunks of steel seemed to be dangling perilously over one of the busiest intersections in the world. With a single memorable image, The New York Times had enshrined the building as a kind of vertical Titanic , a monument to misfortune rendered in the intricate details and subtle hues of an oil painting.
Mr. Durst was stunned.
“The picture obviously was quite beautiful. It’s a striking picture,” he recalled in his first extensive interview since the accident. “But it was a blow. This [the Conde Nast building] was something that had been the focus of my business life for three years. It clearly meant a tremendous amount to me. It was just a blow to see that picture there.”
For Mr. Durst, an heir to one of New York’s greatest real estate empires, 4 Times Square meant many things. It was his first big solo effort after the death of his father, the leprechaun-like builder Seymour Durst. It was a symbol of good-guy, environmentally sensitive development. And it was a bold grab for a key piece of Times Square at a time when his competitors were too frightened to gamble on what is now one of the most coveted chunks of real estate on the planet.
But in one horrifying moment, the building’s fortunes-and, by extension, his own-had taken an abrupt, downward plunge. Rivals, old and new (and perhaps simply perceived), seemed poised to pounce on him in his moment of sudden weakness. Amid the terrible aftermath of the accident, he persuaded himself that The New York Times -published by the Sulzberger family, relentless boosters of the new Times Square-had delivered an intentional dig at him with its in-your-face display of his crippled building. More was coming: Less than 48 hours later, he turned on the television and was dismayed to see Mayor Rudolph Giuliani speaking in tones usually reserved for cabbies and porn-shop perverts as he attacked Mr. Durst’s offer of $50,000 to a city emergency assistance fund as “inadequate”. And to add to his burdens, lawyers plotting class-action suits were rounding up scores of Mr. Durst’s afflicted neighbors-whose plight, as the disaster unfolded, was all too visible to the developer from windows in the Durst Organization’s headquarters at Sixth Avenue and 45th Street.
“It’s all been very much a blur,” Mr. Durst said. “I’d been extremely proud of this building. It was going to be something that I created. It took tremendous effort. It’s quite difficult to have something you’re proud of all of a sudden be responsible for tremendous havoc and somebody’s death.”
Mr. Durst was sitting in a sparsely appointed office in the Durst organization’s headquarters on a recent afternoon. Reserved and watchful, he leaned back in his chair and frowned at a wall as he struggled to perform what is clearly one of his least favorite activities: stringing together sentences in the presence of a stranger. As scion of one of the city’s most storied real estate dynasties, Mr. Durst oversees an empire of six and a half million square feet, with a total of nine skyscrapers on Sixth and Third avenues. But he is not given to the swagger or bravado so common among Manhattan’s real estate barons. He likes to show visitors pictures of himself in his long-haired Berkeley days. “I’m not famous for speaking,” he said at one point.
From Hell’s Kitchen to Hell
In two long interviews with The Observer , however, Mr. Durst narrated his nightmare. It began at around 8:30 A.M. on July 21. He had just left his apartment in a Durst-owned building in Hell’s Kitchen, where he stays during the week, when an employee called him on his cellular phone.
“Parts of the building had fallen,” Mr. Durst recalled being told. “I asked whether there had been any fatalities, and the response was, these were huge pieces; there must have been. [I believed] there were sure to be numerous deaths, perhaps scores of deaths. It was a feeling of complete dread.” A vision flashed before him: “It was one of smashed buildings, smashed cars and mangled bodies.”
He gathered an entourage of employees and rushed to the roof of a Durst-owned building at West 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue. From that vantage point, they could look down at the scaffolding and at the streets below, crowded with emergency vehicles. “The view was devastating,” Mr. Durst said.
Several hours later, in the Durst headquarters on West 45th Street, Mr. Durst and several executives walked tentatively into a corner office with three picture windows overlooking 4 Times Square. The blinds were down. Mr. Durst and two other executives each slowly raised a blind. Suddenly, there it was: a close-up view of the wound itself. Huge pieces of steel were dangling high above the streets. Mr. Durst and his co-workers stared out the window for two solid minutes.
“Nobody said a word,” recalled Bob Fox, the architect on the project. “We were looking in awe at the destruction of what we would characterize as a dream project. It was just the most poignant moment of my life.”
“Looking up at it [from the window], you saw how much damage there was,” Mr. Durst said.
The rest of the day was filled with phone calls and meetings with lawyers and city engineers. There were highs and lows as reports of a casualty were confirmed and discounted and confirmed again. Efforts to contact Mr. Durst’s insurer, the Liberty Mutual Group, were unsuccessful for hours-because the insurance company’s New York offices are in 1133 Sixth Avenue, which, he said, had been evacuated.
Then there was the maimed scaffolding, dangling high above the city. “Some people suggested that it should be collapsed [by] blowing the supports out with dynamite,” Mr. Durst said. “But that would probably have caused a tremendous amount of more damage. The pressure on us was constant from the city and from our concerns to try and get something accomplished.” The plan they settled on was to wrap the building in a huge black curtain. The material would later lend an eerie, corpse-like demeanor to the building. “I try to stay away from the word ‘shroud,’” Mr. Durst said.
For much of the day, Mr. Durst and his executives relied on radio news for updates on injuries. They were elated by one thing: No one, it seemed, had been killed. Employees were regularly dispatched to the front lines to learn what they could from the police.
Too Good to Believe
“It felt like a miracle had occurred,” Mr. Durst said. “You’re hoping against hope. But then we heard that there was somebody missing from the Woodstock [hotel]. They said that the dogs had sniffed somebody, but they weren’t letting anybody in to confirm.”
By late afternoon, it was official. Thereza Feliconio, an elderly woman who, as The Times later put it, “had a love of the lights and glitter that drew her to live in Times Square,” had been buried under rubble in her room. “Everything became very somber,” Mr. Durst said. “It lowered our spirits even more.”
From the start, there was tension between the lawyers and the public relations people over the thousands of displaced workers and residents roaming the area like refugees. The P.R. people (and Mr. Durst himself) advocated immediate assistance; the lawyers advised caution.
Mr. Durst and Tishman Realty and Construction, the builder of 4 Times Square, tried to resolve the problem by offering $50,000 to a city fund, for use as emergency assistance for displaced neighbors. That decision would haunt Mr. Durst for days. In the frenzy of finger-pointing after the accident, the other powerful entities with a huge stake in Times Square-namely, The New York Times and Mayor Giuliani-made a public display of their contempt for his offer.
When Mr. Durst read a Times editorial on Saturday, July 25, describing his offer as “measly”-two days after the Mayor called it “inadequate”-he stormed out of his Westchester house (where he stays on weekends) and went for a bike ride through the hills near exclusive Katonah. The excursion did not have the calming effect Mr. Durst had hoped for. He returned home and, vowing to demand a retraction and an apology, he called his lawyer, who informed him that he didn’t have a case. But Mr. Durst maintains that the Times editorial obscured the fact that the $50,000 was a one-day gift that could be offered to those in need of assistance at that moment-not a final offer of solace to the afflicted. (A separate news story the day before had made that exact point.)
“I was outraged by their attack on us at a time when we were quite frankly exhausting ourselves to remedy the situation,” Mr. Durst said. “I just found it terribly unfair. I used language that I don’t usually use.”
A Family Feud?
The scathing editorial might simply have been the result of Mr. Durst’s colossal bad luck. After all, his project caused a massive accident a block away from the most powerful newspaper in the world. But Mr. Durst maintains some of The Times ‘ coverage of the accident-from the editorial to the sappy descriptions of victims’ pets to the front-page photo of 4 Times Square-reflects an “antipathy” on the paper’s part toward the Durst family. He insists that the antipathy can be traced back to the 1970′s, when Seymour Durst was encroaching on Times turf by buying up properties in the West 40′s, between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The Durst family and the Times editorial board have historically been at odds over the direction of development in Times Square.
Mr. Durst is immersed in the newspaper’s coverage of his family. He offers visitors a thick scrapbook filled with clips that, he believes, prove his point. There’s a 1989 Op-Ed involving his family called “42nd Street Landlords: Greed Inc.” and a 1976 editorial describing one of his father’s deals as “farce in the classic style of Minsky’s burlesque.” And Mr. Durst charges that somebody at The Times once forgot to run a notice of a memorial service for his father, a reclusive widower and self-described “monarchist”who wrote dozens of letters to The Times over the years. “It crossed my mind that it could be possible that it was purposeful,” said Mr. Durst.
To further illustrate the point, Mr. Durst described being present at a meeting between his father and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The Times , in the early 1990′s. Mr. Sulzberger was helping form a Times Square Business Improvement District, but the elder Mr. Durst didn’t want his Sixth Avenue buildings included in the district. Mr. Sulzberger apparently wasn’t pleased.
“Arthur Jr. asked my father if [he] knew why it was called Times Square” Mr. Durst recalled. “Seymour was unconvinced. And [Mr. Sulzberger's] parting words were, there’s an old saying not to pick a fight with someone who buys printer’s ink by the barrel … I’ve since wondered whether the Sulzberger family felt that we were intruding on their area.”
Nancy Nielsen, a Times spokesman, confirmed that the meeting had taken place, although she said Mr. Sulzberger denied making those remarks. And she declined to address Mr. Durst’s charges of bias against his family, pointing out that the editorial and Op-Ed pages were simply opinion forums: “My response would be that Mr. Durst is entitled to his view, and leave it at that.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Durst’s discontent may continue for a long time to come. The company has yet to tally up total damages of the accident, which damaged three Durst-owned buildings on 44th Street, puncturing roofs and skylights and knocking fire escapes off building facades. But Mr. Durst said he believed Liberty Mutual would cover all damages.
Other kinds of damage will not be so easy to repair. The city, along with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, is investigating the accident, and Mr. Giuliani has said he might file a civil lawsuit. According to an executive familiar with the situation, the city has impounded the entire scaffolding as part of the investigation, and is now shipping off chunks to a site in Brooklyn.
Finally, Mr. Durst and his insurance company are staring at a swarm of claims and lawsuits-some of which have an undeniably comic tone. One downtown law firm is circulating a letter and retainer agreement among tenants at 156 West 44th Street. It asks the afflicted to tally up damages-asking, for instance, “whether your pet was stranded during the evacuation.” It even requests “a summary, with cost, of food spoilage suffered as a result of the occurrence.” “It’s a huge public relations and financial and legal project to deal with the aftermath of this accident, and it’s going to go on for a long, long time.” said Jeffrey Katz, the president of Sherwood Equities, which owns two buildings on Times Square.
For the time being, Mr. Durst has no choice but to take solace in the support of friends. A week or so after the accident, a developer who started in the business with Mr. Durst 30 years ago called to offer condolences.
“It’s just so ironic that this happened to your family,” Mr. Durst’s friend told him. “If you were just another sleazy landlord, this wouldn’t have happened.”