Standing Tall: Douglas Durst and the New World Trade Center

The World Trade Center site has been closed off from lower Manhattan and the rest of the city for 12 long years. But by this time next year, the site will be fully reintegrated back into the streetscape, and New Yorkers will reclaim the Downtown they once knew. It’s no coincidence that major developments at the World Trade Center site have accompanied Downtown’s broader real estate rebirth: 1 World Trade Center is complete and officially the country’s tallest building, and 4 World Trade Center is open, as is the underground concourse that passes underneath the site, to name a few. Meanwhile, a string of high-end retailers are slated for neighboring Brookfield Place, and rumors swirl that Westfield will bring an equally impressive roster to the World Trade Center. “We thought that Downtown’s time had finally come again,” Douglas Durst said last week about The Durst Organization’s $100 million decision to join forces with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey at 1 World Trade Center. When the fences come down, as Mr. Durst put it, he’s confident that more tenants will have committed to join Condé Nast at his gleaming tower and that lower Manhattan will not only rival its past but outshine it. Mr. Durst spoke with The Commercial Observer about recent developments at the site and Downtown’s rebirth, as well as the past, present and future of The Durst Organization and New York. 

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ruled that the mast atop 1 World Trade Center is a spire, officially making it the tallest building in the country, at 1,776 feet. What did that mean to you and the organization? 

We were always very confident that they would find that it is one structure and that the official height is 1,776 feet, but we’re glad for the validation that it gave. 

Douglass Durst

Douglass Durst Stands Tall at his 1 Bryant Park Offices (Photo: Michael Nagle)

Why was the symbolic 1,776 feet important?

That was something that was decided—a political decision made to demonstrate our resilience—and we’re thrilled that it was recognized as such by the council. 

The underground concourse at the site is open for the first time since 9/11. What’s the significance?

That’s completely Westfield, so we have really nothing to do with it. It’s going to be great retail, but it may take a little while to get there. But they’re planning on having events, and as an event space it’s incredible.

What’s the most exciting part of the process at 1 World Trade Center been?

Working with a superior organization like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is very exciting.

How important was Condé Nast’s commitment, and which tenants will follow?

Everybody has referred to the Condé Nast deal as a game changer, and it really was. It really showed that 1 World Trade Center was an office building—it was an office building that someone besides the government would want to rent space in, and it showed that there was a tremendous vitality to Downtown Manhattan. So it was very exciting for everybody downtown that this actually happened. Every single competitor of ours was thrilled that this took place.   

We’re already in discussions with a number of other tenants in the design business and its ancillary to Condé Nast. I’ll have something to announce shortly.  

How has the completion of the tower and progress at the site impacted the rebirth of Downtown?

The tower is being completed at the same time that the site is being finished, the roads are being opened, 4 World Trade Center just opened, the fences around the site will be coming down shortly, and it will be just a completely different appearance.  

I believe we’ve seen a tremendous amount of activity downtown since Condé Nast signed the lease—Brookfield Place, on the east side, and, of course, GroupM and 3 World Trade Center—so there’s tremendous activity taking place in the wake of the Condé Nast deal.

Do you view Brookfield Place as a competitor?

For some of our space, they certainly are a competitor, but [on] the upper floors of 1 World Trade Center, you really have to crane your neck down to see their building, so in the upper part of the building, there is no competitor. There is no comparable space to that.  

Are you surprised by all the activity going on downtown?

That’s why we made a $100 million investment in the World Trade Center, because we thought that Downtown’s time had finally come again. 

You once called the city’s property tax system “dysfunctional, irrational and unfair.” Will this change with Bill de Blasio in office?

From what I’ve heard him say, he is well aware of the problem—well aware that the real estate tax system is unsustainable—and he is going to try and correct it.

Will Mr. de Blasio be as pro-development as Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

No, I don’t think anybody thinks that. But I think obviously he is focused on housing, and we’ll have to wait and see what his approach to market-rate housing and office development is.

How do you feel about the failure of the east Midtown rezoning?

It was a total of 3 million square feet, which in the overall scheme of things is really a drop in the bucket. Everybody was treating it as if it was a game-changing solution when, really, it would help, but it really was not the big deal that it was being made out to be. Maybe that’s why it failed. 

Some viewed that rezoning as a way to compete with London and Asia. How can New York stay competitive?

There’s plenty of new construction taking place. There’s 7 Bryant Park, there’s the Hudson Yards, Larry’s [Silverstein] buildings downtown. I think it’s important to see buildings progress around Grand Central, and [the east Midtown rezoning] certainly would have helped, but I still think you’ll still see some new buildings started. I believe David Levinson said that he’s still on board. We’ll still see development; it might not be as big as people had hoped, but there will still be new buildings.

There was a report based on city data that criticized the energy efficiency at 1 Bryant Park, despite all the praise it has attracted. What did you think about that?   

What that study did was just look at gross energy consumption, and it compared occupied buildings against partially occupied buildings. Obviously, a building like 1 Bryant Park that’s 100 percent occupied is going to consume more energy than a building like the Empire State Building that’s 60 or 70 percent occupied. Beyond that, this building is a lot denser in terms of the electrical use. We have five trading floors, and an older building typically has 200 to 250 square feet per person. Newer buildings are closer to 150 [square feet per person], so you have a lot more people using a lot more energy.

You can’t just take one building and say it is energy efficient because it doesn’t use as much power as another building. You have to look at a lot of other factors.    

Will 1 World Trade Center be energy efficient?

One World Trade Center was designed and partially built before we got involved. We made some energy saving changes by reducing the lighting loads, using LED lighting and making it operationally more efficient. So we are using things we learned [at 1 Bryant Park] there.

What’s the best thing that happened at the Durst Organization in 2013?

I celebrated my 46th wedding anniversary. My three grandsons come to the office. It’s a family business. They’re 6 months, 1 year and 8 years [old].

We started construction on West 57th Street and 855 Avenue of the Americas. The New York Water Taxi turned a record profit.

What are you looking forward to most in 2014? 

Celebrating my 47th wedding anniversary, moving Condé Nast into 1 World Trade Center, starting the construction of the China Center and the General Services Administration and signing a couple more big leases at 1 World Trade Center. 

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