The Good Earth


Vol. 3 No. 3

October- December 2006/ January-March 2007

by Tess Taylor

The Good Earth:

Douglas Durst: Inheritor of a real-estate dynasty, he’s also one of the greenest developers in the world

These days the collection of I beams rising at the corner of 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas hangs with a red banner, reading “Bank of America. New York’s Most Environmentally Friendly Office Tower. Higher Standards in Architecture. Coming 2008.” West of the construction site is the glut of Times Square traffic. East are the benches and pigeons of Bryant Park. For now the building doesn’t look like much: twenty or so stories of bare steeland  chambers lined with cloudy glass. Still, when the building opens in 2008, it will become the most environmentally friendly very large high-rise in the world.

            In the process, it’s replacing the other most environmentally friendly structure in Times Square: the Condé Nast Building. The Conde Nast building’s groundbreaking made news:  Its developer Douglas Durst planned it during an extended economic downturn, but spent more money to make it one of the first green skyscrapers in the world. It pioneered technologies for large-scale green design— (photovoltaic cells in curtain walls, for instance)—and made news because it took risks that worked. When the building opened in 1999, it had sold out every floor.

         Douglas Durst, the businessman behind both green buildings, is heir to the Durst Organization—his family’s 92-year-old development corporation. He works around the corner from Times Square, at 1166 Avenue of the Americas in a building his father Seymour Durst, built in 197K.

The building also holds TK, TK AND TK. Durst is a Manhattan real estate mogul: He owns pockets of the west side, strips of the east side. He’s developing properties in South Street Seaport and Harlem. He has also spent the past ten years helping to make the emergence of green design possible. One Bryant Park— the Bank of America Tower, Durst’s second major Times Square Building— shows how far environmental building has come in the past decade.

         Even to those for whom environmental development is old hat, the tower is remarkable. This is partly due to its size:  It will be the second tallest building in the city, the 15th tallest building in the country, and the biggest building ever to receive a platinum rating. from LEED, the organization that accredits the environmental success of buildings.  It will occupy a 2-acre site, the biggest lot in midtown. In addition to 2.2 million square feet of office space, it will contain a major theater, a public thoroughfare, a high-end restaurant, and a trading floor the size of one- and-a-half football fields.

         It was common enough- at least in the early days of green design- to think of environmental buildings as somehow less lovely or rich than their not-as-green contemporaries. The choice of materials certainly restricts the palate.  But this building will also be beautiful. One Bryant Park will have a swirling, gently torqued crystalline structure. It will offer one of the most dramatic additions to New York’s silhouette since the twin towers fell.  Its spire will glitter on the skyline.

         But the sheer efficiency of the building’s inner workings also make it amazing—its systems of consumption and disposal are more efficient than any skyscraper New York has seen. Its design process began with observing movements of wind and light. The site’s demolition focused on reuse, recycling, and salvage.  If the building isn’t quite a Chez Panisse of architecture, the lion’s share of its materials will be recycled, and gathered from companies located within a 500-mile radius. Some, like re-used glass counters from TK IN Red Hook, support local industries.  Others are simply efficient innovations whose time has come: Fly ash, a waste product of steel manufacturing, replaces 45 percent of building cement. Because the production of every ton of cement releases a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the building spares the air 56,000 tons of CO2.



On its roof, Bryant Park has its own $12 million onsite energy generator. It recaptures heat lost in generation and saves enough energy each day to supply 57,000 homes. It’s generator, is 300 percent more efficient than the grid. The building acts as its own water storage and treatment plant. A tank on the roof can collect up to 330,000 gallons of water on for reuse in toilets and cooling systems. Meanwwhile, 100 feet beneath Manhattan’s schist crust, the foundation allows 58-degree water to seep into a sub-floor cooling system. Top-tier air purifiers strain 90-percent of particulates away: Air leaves the building cleaner than it came in. Each floor is flooded with natural daylight:  Glass coated with an semi-invisible ceramic frit pattern allows light in while protecting internal temperature.  And  while many buildings in New York are either too cold or too hot, the building is designed to make sure that the people that work there are comfortable:  each section of offices has its own responsive lighting, heating and cooling systems, each of which is projected to save energy and help boost the health and productivity of workers.

            According to the LEED system of rating buildings, 1 Bryant Park also gains environmental points by being pleasant for people who don’t work there: Its lobby will open onto Bryant Park, creating a new public corridor linking the 7th and 6th Avenue subway lines, completing a network of underground tunnels that will make it entirely possible to walk from Madison Avenue to Seventh Avenue underground. Above ground, art-filled public spaces offer gracious urban amenities.  Inside, after breathing the clean air, and sharing the sensitive lighting systems, people who work inside the building will have the option to take part in its environmental mission.  Bank of America will establish amenities for an extensive building-wide recycling program. In addition, the bank will construct an offsite anaerobic digester to consume food scraps, not only for the building, but for Bank of America branches around the New York metropolitan area. It is probably the first time that a building of this size—or a  major American bank —has decided that it is part of its work plan to compost employee lunches. 

            Douglas Durst, who doesn’t yet compost his own lunch scraps at work, works on the 9th floor of 1166 6TH Ave, at the intersection of 42ndStreet. Although he owns the entire building, his suite doesn’t have many sweeping views. It offers little of the natural daylight green buildings recommend. It does have smoky polished granite counters, blond wood paneling, leather couches, and a few orchids. 

            In addition to being headed by Douglas, the Durst organization is run by a bevy of Dursts, including Kristoffer, Durst’s son, Helena, his daughter, and Jody, his nephew. Durst’s daughter, Anita, runs Chashama, an organization for artists seeking low-cost studio space. On a recent afternoon, Anita had stopped by the office in scruffy jeans and a pink sweatshirt. Her son, Victor Durst, age 3, 5th generation of the Durst dynasty, had his face deeply sunk into a large apple.

            The Durst office pays close attention to representing the family, and to telling its family story. Just inside the Durst office, in the Founder’s Room, walls are display Durst dynasty makers: developer Seymour, Douglas Durst’s father; who died in 1995, and Joseph Durst, Seymour’s father, who arrived in America from Poland in 1902. Joseph got his start selling clothes from a horse-drawn cart on the Lower East Side. The story goes that Joseph, who offered neighbors and friends canny advice about how to buy real estate, finally decided to take his own. It must have been worth taking. By the mid-teens, the family had accumulated enough to buy a building on 34th Street, which they tended until they built their first high-rise in 1957. The foundersroom holds a framed yellow typescript of an original company’s contract to Joseph Durst and someone named Rubin, promising each, in 1915, stock profits of $8 a week.

With real estate holdings now worth upwards of $2 billion, the Durst family is in no small way responsible for making Times Square what it is today. They own all of 42nd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway; 1133 and 1155 6th Avenue; and 114 W. 47th Street. The fact that one family controls so much of midtown is a product of a vision that has spanned the two full generations since Seymour Durst began buying parcels in Manhattan. Apparently Seymour Durst had his eye on Times Square, and had a dream of building it up as early as the 50s.  He began assembling sites along 3rd Avenue in the 50s, and added parcels of 9th and 10th Aves in the 1960s, when, Douglas says, “the West Side could be had for a song.”  He bought his first piece of Times Square in 1967. “It was awful then,” said Douglas, “but he could see it. Some people can see it. There is a development bone, and he had it.”  The implication is that this is a bone that Douglas Durst has as well. “We built Four Times Square when the market was dead,” he likes to say. “People laughed. But we knew it was time. And it has done very, very well.”

If Seymour Durst—pictured in the Durst photos as a lean man with a hawkish profile—might have been happy to see his generation-old dream for building at Times Square realized, he wasn’t particularly concerned with anything resembling environmental building. “It was a generation with different concerns, like building up the family business,” says Douglas.  According to family legend, Seymour Durst had a practical man’s gritty instincts: Douglas likes to say that he didn’t own an overcoat, and didn’t build anywhere he couldn’t walk. He was concerned about replacing housing stock lost through office development, and about the national debt. In 1989 he invented and bankrolled billboard-clock at Times Square and 42nd in 1989. The 1500pound  clock hung until 2000, tracking the movement of the nation’s financial liability. It was stopped in 2000, but Douglas restarted it in 2004 with a new model, The figure on the clock goes up $20,000 every second. As debt mounts towards $10 trillion, the clock may a whole new place-holder. “I think,” said Douglas Durst, “we’re safe for a year or so.”

In his business practices, Seymour Durst stressed continuity. He preferred to work with one architect across time, and  developed all his 1970s high-rises with Emory Roth.  For the past 30 years, Douglas has worked with Fox+ Fowle, (and now works with both Cook+Fox and FxFowle). Durst explains this pattern: “We’re a family business. We find it easier to develop out of a relationship, out of having confidence and trust in a relationship.” He also works closely with Dan Tishman, inheritor of another old family business, the Tishman Corporation, which has also been around since the turn of the century.



In person, Douglas Durst is wry, reserved, laconic, and gently humorous. He comes to the office dressed in an elegantly tailored blue suit. He walks with a very slight limp. He is 62, and has a quiet but dignified self-presentation, a gravelly voice, and a somewhat unnerving stare. He’s a bit like Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina—dark, neat, and just in from Westchester, but on the desk in his office is a picture of him with a long beard and scruffy hair. Bob Fox, his architect, says of the picture, “you can barely see his face.”  When I visited him, I could see his face, but it wasn’t readily apparent what was going on behind it.  I told him that I had heard that he was as taciturn in an interview as Andy Warhol. He didn’t crack a smile. He nodded slightly. “I liked Andy,” he said.

            After growing up in Scarsdale and attending Fieldston, Durst graduated in 1966 from University of California, Berkeley with a degree in economics. He describes pursuing this degree as “ an unmemorable experience.”   Durst won’t go into detail about the ways that coming of age in Berkeley affected him, although he’s written in one brief online biography that he spent his time there “studying economics and revolution.” 

“I was a hippie,” he says, with a lidded half-blink. “Kesey and anti-war demonstrations, free speech and full moon parties and all that. Grooving.”He says this without elaborating. After college, he traveled and went to Ibiza, the end of the road, “where, other than Vermont, hippies went.” He wasn’t going to run the family business. He had a desire to get away from it all. He liked the coast of Spain. “Everything seemed reused,” he said. “There was no garbage. All the trees were taken care of.”

Somewhere during these travels, Douglas met his wife Suzanne, who is Danish, at a New Year’s Eve Party. Suzanne’s father is a landscape architect in Copenhagen, whose work Durst admires. After marrying, the couple followed some of their friends to a deserted coast in Newfoundland, where they spent 8 months. They went intending to stay. They lived in a rustic cottage in a building heated by fire in a hot water boiler. They lived off the land.  They lived off the grid.  And one day, the water boiler explored and piece of wood shot out of it and sliced all the way through Douglas Durst’s leg. He was very far from any hospital. His father set out to fly north to pick him up, and happened to run into one of the Bronfman heirs. The Bronfman offered to loan Seymour Durst the company jet. Telling the story now, Douglas said, “I went to be away from everything and ended up being flown home to New York in the Seagram jet. That was something of a learning experience.”  

He put his leg up on the table and rolled up his suit leg to reveal a long and elaborate scar. “They said I would never walk again.” It was 1972. 

After returning to the city and healing, then fighting off a round of infections that followed, during which, it seemed for the second time that he would die, Douglas Durst did settle into the family business, taking care of development properties. He calls these years an education in building systems, in maintaining land, and  “in managing properties and tenants until you are ready to tear their building down.” He watched the city go through the ugly bankruptcy and economic stalls of the seventies, when the Dursts were forced to sell many of their holdings, including several Seymour had collected in Times Square.

A colleague from that time remembers Douglas Durst sitting intently in meetings, not speaking, but absorbing interactions between developers and clients.  The time affirmed his commitment to the family business while confirming his suspicion of markets. “Most of the economics I learned were thrown out the window,” he says. “They didn’t make sense –or we wouldn’t have seen the stagflation of the seventies. A lot of what we learned proved to be false– the classical or Keynesian models.”



            To hear him tell it, Durst himself didn’t think about anything TK buildings until the early 90s, when he worked with Tishman on a major retrofit of building systems. For one thing, it wasn’t yet clear that he was going to inherit the family business.  “I don’t think he had a program back then,” says Tishman. “He’s just interested in the better mousetrap. And he sees that this is one the way to get it.”

            Nevertheless, there are inklings that this might be a way he’d lean. In 1987, Durst bought a 500-acre farm in the Hudson Valley, near a town called Pine Plains. He began running it as an organic farm in the late 1980s. It is still the largest organic farm in New York, and is farmed by a man named Ray McEnroe, who says it runs at a modest profit some years, and loses money others. It sells tomatoes and endive to Whole Foods and Agatha at the highest prices it can command, and is known for selling very good grass fed beef from a stand off the road. “The beef is a lot of our profits,” says Durst. “People seem to know about it.”

            1987 might have been an early moment to get into the organic food market. Durst is practical about this as well.  He says that the inspiration for the farm came from watching his horses in Westchester excrete. “I began wondering what to do with the manure,” he said.  “And I thought of a farm.” The farm now creates 20,000 cubic yards of compost a year. According to McEnroe, “people drive from miles around to buy it.”  Compost has become the farm’s other biggest moneymaker.

            As one of the last projects he worked on before his father died, Douglas Durst worked with Dan Tishman on a major retrofit of Durst building systems. He helped  calculate new ways of tracking long term money that could be saved  up front through efficient lights and heating and cooling systems.  “I wouldn’t say he had a big agenda,” Tishman says. “But he cares about the environment, and he saw this opening where by building more efficiently you can make money for the long term. And he is in it not for himself, but for his family, as well. It’s that continuity he is after.”

During the years since he’s become a green developer, Durst has also gathered his own following of architects and people about town who hope to shape projects with him. He has time and resources to follow ideas that suit him, whether or not it’s immediately clear what his interest in them will be. “He’s known for being incredibly progressive,” says Meta Brunzema, a mid-town architect who worked with Durst on developing a sustainable use for the Hudson Yards in the west 30s. Three years ago, Brunzema approached Durst at a function for the Friends of Hudson River Park, which Durst co-chairs. She asked him to help her put together options for developing the west side that didn’t include adding a stadium, which was then-governor Pataki’s favored plan. Brunzema and Durst envisioned a park of residential and office towers with a lightweight public deck above rail yards.

The area was conceived as mixed-use: 6.5 million square feet of office and residential space and 280,000 square feet of retail meandered through an 11-acre park, integrating staggered flowing gardens throughout. On the edge of the Hudson, it used the parks to create a 200,000-gallon watershed for gray-water management.  “Durst understands architects, and he understands the benefits of this kind of design,” says Brunzema. “He knows that when you have a gigantic project like this that is so resource-intensive, you have to find something that works and is sustainable on the urban design level.”Brunzema was quick to note that Durst owns a fair amount of west-side property, and could always benefit from owning more. “But while Governor Pataki was rushing to get his shovel in the ground, Durst was trying to convince both state and transit authority agencies that controlled the west side sites to use sustainable systems,” she says.

When it seemed clear that stadium plans were stalling, Durst showed his plan to as many people as possible. It received favorable press. He made allies. “Other developers make enemies and then spend years digging themselves out, “ said Brunzema. “They get tied up with people suing for affordable housing. Douglas considers a lot of needs first. And then he makes friends and waits.”



Sometimes, one feels, Durst doesn’t merely wait, but plays cards with quirky sensibility. Another of Durst’s  projects is to develop the West Side’s transportation links.  In 2002, in what he calls a response to 9/11, Durst backed the New York Water Taxi, a fleet of TK # 53-foot yellow and black passenger boats that ferry commuters and tourists around New York’s waterways. They are cheerful and fast. One is called the Seymour B. Durst. They go up the west side and parts of the east side, and out to Brooklyn. Tom Fox, their president hopes to develop water-taxi routes betweenGreenpoint and Brooklyn Heights, and more routes into Queens. The taxi is a half-commuter, half-tourist kind of amenity: As well as offering taxi services it offers sunset cruises and Audubon jaunts for urban birdwatchers. In the summer— also thanks to Durst-- the taxi goes to a place called Water Taxi Beach, a spit of sandy land in Long Island, which, if not quite Ibiza, is a sandy open pace where people can get and have a hamburger and a beer and lie around by the river.  The taxis demand infrastructure other than manmade beaches, and in order to support them, Durst has constructed a new dock at W. 43rd Street. It’s grassy spar is, for most of the year, a pleasant place to wait for a boat.

 With low-wake hulls and low-emission engines, the taxis are pretty efficient, and bill themselves as the first “green operators,” on the Hudson. If they work, they’ll also build west-side waterfront access—a boon for Durst’s west side holdings. Still, the project remains speculative. The Water Taxi has grown from serving 10,000 passengers its first year to serving 1.5 million riders in 2006, although according to its president Tom Fox, (a friend ofDurst’s, and a Vietnam navy gunner turned green guerilla) it has yet to break even.    

            And not all of Durst’s schemes garner favor. He’s known in Pine Plains, the Hudson River valley village adjacent to his farm, as being the man trying to develop 950 homes on the former Carvel property.  According to residents, the homes will stretch village resources, adding sprawl and population growth in ways the town can’t support.  Durst defends himself:  he’s plotting environmentally-friendly second homes among corridors for passing wildlife. He plans to use recycled water on a 27-acre golf course. Asked about the development recently, he cast it as an experiment in developing greenfieldssustainably. He told the Wall Street Journal:  “I don’t need to develop at all.  I just do it because I want to show how it should be done.”

 It’s unclear what will happen in Pine Plains, where neighbors have been fighting Durst for years.  For now, as far as showing how a downtownbrownfield should be done, Durst has more than made his mark.  In his presentation of One Bryant Park, Serge Appel of Cook + Fox says the building takes its form from the Crystal Palace, the first glass and steel building in America, which was completed in 1851.  Another interpretation is that the building’s form comes from Suzanne Durst’s crystal collection.  Cook + Fox note that the building will stand across from the space where, also in 1851, atan Exhibition for the Industry of All Nations, Elijah Otis first tested the emergency brake on the elevator, making the high-rise possible. Cook + Fox like to remember that, as the building takes is place along 6th Avenue, it is among a cross section of the greatest New York landmarks, one that includes the Daily News Building, Ford, Paramount, McGraw Hill, and the New York Public Library, as well as the graceful open space of Bryant Park.

            It’s also not clear whether Douglas Durst is a real estate tycoon turned environmentalist, or an environmentalist who just happens to be a real estate tycoon.

Talking about his time in the wilderness, he’ll shrug. “All that back to the land stuff, that seventies environmentalism, is kind of selfish.”  When asked why he thinks he went to get away from it all, he says, quizzically, “I ask myself that sometimes.”            

            As for going green now, Durst acts sometimes as if he hasn’t been the driver for this achievement.  He says maybe he’s been following DanTishman’s lead. Tishman, who recently made his own timber and vegetable farm in Maine organic, sees it differently. “He came to the table in the early ’90s and was ready to build this way,” he says. “And he built on the idea that green would be a money maker. He just saw it.”  The architects atCook+Fox agree. “We bring a lot of innovations to the table and he’s always three or four steps ahead of us,” says Appel. “He’s the kind of guy who will call you from his vacation in Europe because he’s seen the foundation of some building and he wants to talk about how it might work,” says Bob Fox. Appel adds, “Douglas is not building for himself: He’s building for his family.  That is, because the Dursts have the long view, because it’s a multigenerational kind of thing, he can really see how the future matters. For him all of this is a way of investing for the long term.”

And apparently others agree with his vision. One Bryant 50 percent owned by Bank of America, a sign that it sits squarely at the intersection of environmentalism and commerce.  According to green building studies, its cutting edge systems will save the building significant money in operating costs. According to one LEED study, platinum green features are projected to save the building $64 per square foot per year over conventional construction.  At that rate the building saves $132 million dollars in operating costs every year.

            Still, when asked if he’s projected how much the Bank of America Building will make him, Durst shrugs.  “Well, we’re not going to get rich on either the farm or the water taxi,” he says. “The buildings, they stand a tolerable chance of making us wealthy.”   Asked if he’s been meaning to make drive the building industry while getting rich, he also shrugs.  He waves his hand in a gesture that is half sweeping and half impatient. “Of course we are driving the market,” he says. “Of course by buying things we buy, we’re buying the kinds of things we want people to buy.”



One Bryant Park: Cook + Fox Architects

West Side Plan: Meta Brunzema

Meta Brunzema Architects P.C.

Tess Taylor’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic online, and The New Yorker.