In Diller Island’s Demise, a Cautionary Tale of Donor Influence

 Pier 55 would changed the manhattan waterfront. Credit: pisaphotography/shutterstock

Pier 55 would changed the manhattan waterfront. Credit: pisaphotography/shutterstock

Just like that, Pier 55, a $250 million floating park (cultural island? entertainment center? performing arts pier?) to be built over a dilapidated pier on the Hudson River, is no more. 

A lot of people are very upset about its demise, angry at an opposition group that hit the project with costly litigation. But ultimately, it was main backer Barry Diller who pulled the plug, withdrawing his and Diane von Furstenberg’s funding for the project. The costs and controversy had become too much, he said.

To be fair, it had become a messy process with many layers, including multiple lawsuits, dueling billionaires and old grudges that all hamstrung its development. But I would argue that the fundamental failing of what became known as Diller Island was that, as a plan for a public space, it was just far too reliant on and driven by one man's vision and wealth. 

Especially at a time when it seems the city-dwelling public has become more skeptical of deluxe donor-driven projects, both philanthropists and cities can take away some lessons from Diller Island's collapse about navigating public-private partnerships for public spaces. Namely, a billionaire donor with such control over a high-profile parks project, without a great enough level of public participation, is a recipe for trouble. And when trouble comes, that donor can walk away. 

Pier 55’s demise is not a cut-and-dry situation, to be sure. From the standpoint of its supporters—which included Sen. Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo—the failure was caused by a small group of cranks who, with the financial backing from real-estate billionaire Douglas Durst, used the legal system to stymie the project and ruin a good thing. I’m not looking to re-litigate the opponents’ complaints about the planning process or environmental concerns, and it is always troubling when public disputes are fought out by opposing billionaires who can afford to fight them. 

But at the very least, there were some serious red flags about where the project was headed and who was in control. As we said when it was first announced, Pier 55 was private funding for public parks gone too far. 


For me, the saddest and most telling moment of the project’s collapse came from Diller’s relating to the Times his call to Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, telling her he was pulling funding. Wils asked him, “Would you consider building a smaller park?”

In fact, Diller was never very interested in doing something smaller, even though that’s what Hudson River Park Trust leaders initially asked for. When the trust’s leadership first approached him, they wanted nothing nearly as grandiose. But Diller wasn’t excited by it, saying he would only get involved if it were “architecturally ambitious.”

He assembled Hollywood producers, directors and famed architect Thomas Heatherwick to dream up a stunning design that would center on performance spaces. What started as a $35 million ask ballooned into a $250 million project, which would include government contributions. A nonprofit entity created by Diller would maintain the park and program its arts performances, at least half of which would be required to be free or low cost, presumably meaning the rest could be high-cost events.

People were especially rankled by the fact that the project seemed to emerge out of nowhere, surprising many people close to the park, and coming across as a done deal when it was unveiled in 2014 after years of planning. 

Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick had been kept in the dark about it, and became an outspoken critic, “concerned that large private money resulting in the control of design and programming was not a particularly democratic notion,” she told the Times.

The project upset other people, too, and a bitter legal fight followed. Even when Diller withdrew funding last week, the shock expressed by both sides of that fight (and that sad, last-ditch ask for something smaller) shows the extent to which Diller was in the driver’s seat. 

At the end of the day, Diller’s philanthropy has done a lot for the city, and it’s his money to give or not give. There’s also a bigger point, here, that cash-strapped cities shouldn’t be placed in such a hat-in-hand position in the first place. The idea that to design great public spaces means we only get the projects that personally excite our philanthropists is not a great model for city planning. 

Not to mention, as others have pointed out, that city dwellers may be generally losing their appetite for these glitzy urban projects, or “benefactor-led boutique urbanism,” instead demanding more basic infrastructure improvements. In the case of New York City, many low-income neighborhoods suffer from a glaring lack of well-maintained parks and playgrounds, even as wealthy donors have poured a fortune into upgrading parks in Manhattan—or built entirely new ones like the High Line, a park located in West Chelsea and mainly visited by out-of-town tourists. Diller Island, just blocks away from the High Line, would have leveraged public dollars to provide yet another amenity in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. People are naturally going to become very protective if a mogul seems to be steering the fate of their shared spaces, and it felt that way right out of the gate, in this case. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to end like this, and there is certainly a valid place for philanthropy in parks projects. 

For donors with big aspirations, the lesson is that you’ve got to bring the public along with you from the very start, or risk suffering their wrath later. Early on in such a project, a philanthropist or foundation might engage in an open process with city officials and the local conservancy to envision the future of the space. They could offer a matching grant for individual donations, or pay for a public engagement campaign to see what the community wants and anticipate how a new project will impact it. 


That doesn’t mean there won’t always be skeptics and detractors with any project. But if a plan truly reflects the public interest, and it has a base of support in a community demanding it, such segments may be won over, or at least rendered unable to stand in the way as easily. 

Even the High Line, funded largely by donations (including huge support from Diller and von Furstenberg) and fraught with its own set of equity concerns, benefitted from more engagement and community advocacy, including a massive open design competition. 

In the future, big donors will need to do more to bring communities on board (or better yet, ask them what they want), especially if attempting something as big as Pier 55.

For governments, trusts, and conservancies, one clear lesson is to be wary of even the most generous donors, and what their gifts carry with them. Not only that, realize that if things get ugly, or donors start to lose control over the project, they can easily call it quits. Better never to depend so heavily on one person.

Again, I sympathize with the situation that parks fundraisers and city departments often find themselves in, and that’s part of this larger problem of a cash-strapped public sector. Onlookers are understandably worried that the backlash to Diller’s vision will discourage other donors from contributing to parks. And basic upkeep, repairs or a green space with some nice trees can be a much harder pitch to some wealthy donors. It’s very hard to argue with a donation like this. 

But a city should consider that if a donor isn’t eager to ask a community what it wants up front, and then fund it even if the answer is unsexy or unexciting, maybe that’s not the kind of philanthropy it needs. 

After all, planning of public spaces is a messy, expensive process, to a large extent by design. Philanthropy is a powerful tool to accelerate that process and push it to be more ambitious. But go too far, and people get angry. And when donors get tired of taking the heat, they can pack up, leaving the park with nothing.