Taking the Helm to Change City Landscape


While many of New York's old real-estate dynasties have become passive participants in the real-estate market, the Durst family continues to develop new towers. The key family player behind this strategy: Douglas Durst.


At a time when private development has greatly slowed, Mr. Durst, 65 years old, is once again displaying his willingness to take risks by planning to launch a new $350 million mixed use tower on Sixth Avenue.


But this is just one of his many high-profile projects. He recently completed the Bank of America Tower, a 2.35 million-square-foot cloud-buster, at 1 Bryant Park. Mr. Durst also was tapped last year by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to become a partner in One World Trade Center, the largest new office tower rising at Ground Zero.


Mr. Durst and his cousin Jody, 54, president of the Durst Organization, represent the third generation of Dursts in New York real estate. In New York City, the company owns 10 million square feet of commercial space, and under the aegis of Durst Fetner Residential, two million square feet of apartments.


Their grandfather, Joseph Durst, an Austrian-Jewish immigrant, founded the firm in 1915 with the purchase of the Century Building at One West 34th Street. He became an active investor in buildings and in development sites that would be sold to others.


But it wasn't until his son, Seymour, took over that the family branched into development.


According to the book "Skyscraper Dreams" by Tom Shachtman, this happened in the 1950s when competitors were starting to build office buildings in anticipation of the Third Avenue elevated train being dismantled. "The Dursts had bought up many properties. If these were not developed immediately, they might prove worthless," the book says.


Seymour Durst, who died in 1995, went on to develop numerous office buildings designed by Emery Roth and Sons on Third and Sixth Avenues.


He also gained renown for his massive collection of New York documents, books and memorabilia and the national debt clock he installed at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1989. In 2008, after the national debt hit $10 trillion, the family added another digit to the clock.


Like his father, Douglas Durst became skilled at assembling development sites. He also became known for criticizing public subsidies for development but then taking advantage of such subsidies if he could.


For example, Mr. Durst spoke out against public subsidies of proposed office tower developments in Times Square. But, after he took control of one of these sites, he benefited from subsidies when he developed the Conde Nast Building. He also was critical of subsidies for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site until he was selected by the Port Authority as a partner on the project.


The family has been plagued by tragedy. Douglas Durst's mother died in an apparent suicide when he was a child. His brother, Robert Durst, was targeted as a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, although never charged in connection with that. In 2001, Robert Durst was charged with murdering a neighbor and dismembering his body in Galveston, Texas. He said it was an act of self-defense, and he was acquitted of the murder charge.


Douglas Durst's children, Helena and Alexander, now work for the family firm, as does Jody's half-brother Kristoffer.


Publication The Wall Street Journal
Date 2011-01-10
Author Dana Rubinstein