Seymour Durst’s vision of Midtown’s potential continues to unfold

<i>Developer's shadow looms over newly vibrant Times Square and Bryant Park</i>

With all of the discussion about how environmentally efficient the new Bank of America skyscraper will be, one fact has gotten little attention.

The groundwork for the structure the Durst Organization is erecting at One Bryant Park, which could be the second tallest building in the city on completion in 2009, was actually laid 50 years ago by the development company’s second-generation paterfamilias, Seymour Durst.

Durst, who died in 1995 at age 81, brought a chess-like vision to New York City real estate and garnered a reputation for his ability to think many acquisitions and decades ahead. In the ’60s, when businesses were clustered on the East Side, Durst, whose presence in the city extended beyond his real estate holdings, began adding buildings on the West Side to his portfolio.

Durst joined his father, Joseph, a garment manufacturer who immigrated to the United States in 1902 from Austria, at his New York City real estate development firm in 1940. He became president of the Durst Organization following Joseph’s death in 1974.

During his time with the company, Durst devoted resources to assembling sites in Midtown — first on Third Avenue, and then on or near Sixth Avenue and Times Square — and played a vital role in turning those areas into what they look like today.

“My father had a vision for Third Avenue as a place for offices,” said Durst’s son, Douglas, now the president of the Durst Organization. “Sixth Avenue as another office center, and Times Square as a mixed-use community.”

Durst’s dead-on foresight was particularly acute when it came to investing in Times Square in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the area epitomized the city’s decline. At one time, the Durst Organization had stakes in 10 acres of Midtown, which seemed doomed to everyone but Durst.

“Once, during a meeting my father attended with Times Square business owners, a man with a hat store complained about how seedy the area had become,” Douglas told The Real Deal. “And my father responded, ‘In the ’50s, women stopped wearing hats. In the ’60s, men stopped using hats. And in the ’70s, people stopped using their heads altogether.'”

Durst’s confidence about the fate of Midtown and Times Square perfectly positioned his company for its future, signature developments, including the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square and the Bank of America Tower. And while those buildings were constructed after his death, they have his vision written all over them and are trailblazers in the New York City development world. Douglas Durst said, “My father started the assemblage at One Bryant Park in 1957,” when he first began buying up the lots required to build there.

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“Four Times Square was the first development out of the box after 10 years of delays in the area,” said Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins. “To build a major office space in Times Square and to bring a unique company like Condé Nast in was a huge vote of confidence for Times Square. The building was one of the most significant factors in Times Square’s turnaround.”

In the late ’80s, when other developers poured money into huge office towers on the West Side before they had tenants lined up, Durst waited to begin building at the 114 West 47th Street site until a tenant had signed on to occupy at least half the space. He then insisted he would halt development if the tenant, the United States Trust, exited the agreement. While many sites became fiscal liabilities for their backers, Durst’s buildings paid for themselves.

During his 40 years of real estate work, Durst developed 655 Third Avenue, 675 Third Avenue, 733 Third Avenue and 825 Third Avenue on the East Side. All but 825 are still owned by his company. In addition to the Condé Nast Building and the Bank of America Tower, the Durst Organization developed 1133 Sixth Avenue, 1155 Sixth Avenue and 114 West 47th Street, which are all still Durst holdings.

“The Dursts have always been unique,” said Tompkins. “Seymour brought a really different perspective to how to do real estate.”

Seymour Durst, who in addition to Douglas had two other sons and a daughter, had an idiosyncratic style and broke the stereotypical mold of a New York developer in myriad ways that were well-chronicled in the New York Times and other publications. He established a reputation for his vocal positions on government policy, ranging from the national debt to zoning to housing policy. According to the Times’ 1995 obituary, he “tirelessly wrote articles and letters to the editor and took out pithy newspaper advertisements criticizing or poking fun at governmental intervention in the real estate market.”

But the Durst name has also had to endure being associated with a shocking murder case. After Seymour’s death, one of his sons, Robert, thrust the family name into the headlines when he was accused of murdering his neighbor in Texas and chopping up the body.

He was acquitted of the murder in 2003 after claiming he did it in self-defense. The headlines about Robert, who was also known for disguising himself in women’s clothes, are still a regular staple in the tabloids. In 2006, the New York Post ran a story about him under the headline, “Durst-Case Scenario: Cross-Dress Killer Totally Free.”

Meanwhile, on the business side, Douglas and his co-executives — a group that includes his cousins Jodi and Kris, son Alexander and daughter Helena — have adopted Seymour’s “buy local” mantra. (“Only buy buildings you can walk to,” he was known to say.)

And the Bank of America Tower’s greenness has roots in the family history. “My grandmother was a very active environmentalist,” Douglas Durst said. “The Durst Organization has always been very committed to respecting the environment.”

It wasn’t just the environment that the Dursts have wanted to clean up. Seymour Durst raised awareness of government spending, too. The iconic “Debt Clock” erected near Times Square that tallied the growing size of the national debt was his idea. The clock was stopped in 2000 when the numbers started ticking backwards, despite being in the trillions.

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