Times Square Land Grab! Doug Durst Fights for Peep-Show Block

Douglas Durst must be feeling pretty frustrated lately.

Mr. Durst, the sardonic 55-year-old heir to one of the city’s greatest real estate empires, has tried for a decade to seize control of an immensely valuable strip of real estate on the west side of Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets. There, Mr. Durst would builda2million-square-foot tower to complement his marquee project, the Condé Nast building, which sits at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway.

But in recent weeks, a new round of behind-the-scenes squabbles-one featuring a cameo appearance by Donald Trump-has broken out between Mr. Durst and a handful of landowners who own key chunks of the long-coveted property. So an exasperated Mr. Durst is trying to persuade state officials to condemn the site and turn it over to him, once he finds a tenant for his planned tower.

Mr. Durst already owns 86 percent of the contested land, which comprises the eastern two-thirds of the block that now is home to the Condé Nast building. Standing in his way are several landowning families who have resolutely clung to their parcels. Thanks to the impasse, the property-a grimy strip of storefronts that runs along the Deuce and turns the corner onto Sixth

Avenue-remains the block that Times Square forgot. The forlorn stretch mocks the new kid-friendly 42nd Street, with a neon “Peep-o-Rama” sign and a video store offering old classics like “Brides of the Beast” and “Three on a Meathook.”

Mr. Durst’s campaign to win the property through condemnation has intensified the protracted battle among the landed

families. For example, The Observer has learned that Joe Bernstein, whose family owns four of the coveted plots, is secretly trying to get Donald Trump’s help in buying out Mr. Durst’s parcels. Mr. Trump’s involvement is unlikely at best. But Mr. Bernstein also said he’s in talks with a “major hotel group” interested in the site. And he is telling any fat-walleted builder who will listen that Mr. Durst can be persuaded to sell at the right price, which may indicate that Mr. Bernstein is intent on holding out on Mr. Durst for as long as possible.

That’s not all. In recent weeks, Mr. Durst was certain that he had struck a deal for the option to buy another long-coveted parcel on 42nd Street-this one owned by a little-known Times Square fixture named Richard Maidman. But after the two men became locked in a backstage bickering match over a sign to be posted on Mr. Maidman’s building, the parcel eluded Mr. Durst’s grasp.

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Durst is trying to enlist the state’s help. He confirmed in an interview with The Observer that he is lobbying officials to consider condemnation.

“The state has indicated to me that they’ll condemn the site under appropriate circumstances,” Mr. Durst said, “if, for instance, we find an appropriate tenant user for the site.”

But the landowners whose property may be seized have roundly denounced Mr. Durst’s threat of condemnation as a naked land grab. They are likely to wage a nasty court battle that could hold up Mr. Durst’s dream scheme for years to come.

“We would fight it tooth and nail,” said Mr. Bernstein. “He’s using the state to buy out people he can’t buy out. He’s using condemnation for his own private purpose-to develop an office tower for a private tenant. It’s a threat to try to get everybody in place.”

Mr. Durst’s latest threat has reignited a long-simmering feud between himself and Mr. Bernstein. It’s the latest chapter in an endless real estate melodrama involving a series of families whose history is as intertwined with Times Square as New Year’s Eve and George M. Cohan. As The New York Times noted recently, the Bernstein family had long dreamed of developing the site itself.

Flip-Flop Artist?

In the 1980’s, Mr. Durst’s father and mentor, the late Seymour Durst, a virtuoso of land assemblage in his own right, agreed to lease the Bernsteins the property they needed for their plan. But at the last moment the Durst family killed the deal, citing news reports tying the Bernsteins to Ferdinand Marcos, the late Philippine dictator. The move apparently infuriated the Bernsteins.

Hard feelings are still very much in evidence. “He flip-flops all the time,” Mr. Bernstein said of Mr. Durst. “One day he’s selling and one day he’s not. He goes back and forth. It was a lot easier dealing with his father.”

Mr. Durst refused to respond to Mr. Bernstein’s assault, except to say: “I miss my father, too.”

It’s not the first time Mr. Durst has dangled the threat of condemnation to counter his opponents’ refusal to hand over the land. Last spring, state officials indicated they would consider condemning the property if Mr. Durst managed to entice Nasdaq, the electronic stock market that is a subsidiary of the National Association of Securities Dealers, into his planned building. The talks with Nasdaq collapsed when it decided to remain in its lower-Manhattan home.

But now Mr. Durst is in talks with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, both of whom have expressed an interest in moving into the building, according to a source familiar with the ongoing negotiations. Since the Nasdaq talks collapsed, the source added, Mr. Durst has had a number of meetings with the state officials, in which he made the case for condemnation.

Charles Gargano, the state economic development czar, declined to comment on the talks. But he said that the state would consider his request “if it’s something that we think is an important economic development project. But no decision has been made.”

Condemnation is an extremely sensitive issue in the real estate community. Some see it as little more than a state-sponsored land grab. As it happens, Mr. Durst’s late father offered a similar view back in the early 1990’s. At the time, the Dursts had just emerged from a long and victorious battle against a government-sponsored Times Square renewal plan for office towers that would have competed with those owned by the Durst family.

“Condemnation procedures represent the government’s most direct method of stifling the market economy and discouraging entrepreneurs from investing,” Seymour Durst wrote in a 1992 opinion piece for Newsday .

But Durst the younger defended the use of condemnation in the case of his current quest. He pointed out that his father had, at times, supported condemnation of holdouts. The justification in this case? “Economic development,” he said. “[The project] will create jobs and tax revenues for the city and state.”

No Trump Card

Condemnation may be Mr. Durst’s best hope. After all, given the bad blood between Mr. Durst and Mr. Bernstein, it’s not surprising that the latter would torment Mr. Durst with the specter of Mr. Trump’s involvement. Mr. Bernstein said he had had several discussions with Mr. Trump, hoping to interest him in the property.

Mr. Trump apparently isn’t interested. “I’m doing other things that are frankly much more exciting,” he said. He declined comment on the talks, but added: “It’s unlikely that I’d be involved.”

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Mr. Durst almost managed to lay his hands on another long-coveted piece of land: the parcel owned by Mr. Maidman, which is home to a soot-encrusted 19-story building with a Fun City video store on the first floor. According to a source familiar with the situation, Mr. Durst and Mr. Maidman had signed a deal giving Mr. Durst the option to buy the property. In exchange, Mr. Durst would have allowed Mr. Maidman to hang an enormous sign on the building. The signed deal was put in escrow.

But soon after, the source said, Mr. Maidman asked Durst Organization executives to rip up the deal-without warning. Mr. Durst refused. But since the deal is in escrow, Mr. Durst apparently has no way of enforcing it. The property, which the Dursts had been after for 10 years, slipped away. Neither Mr. Durst nor Mr. Maidman would comment.

Despite these apparent setbacks, Mr. Durst remains confident that he will one day launch his dream project, which is to be named “One Bryant Park.” In fact, his assurance is on display on 42nd Street itself, where an enormous banner hangs from a one-story Durst-owned building on the as-yet-undeveloped property.

The banner reads: “The Durst Organization is pleased to announce that the construction of One Bryant Park will begin in the 21st Century.”

Mr. Durst had better hurry-he only has 100 years.