Barry Diller Shows Off His Big Beautiful Baby, Little Island

Barry Diller, under the concrete pods supporting the new park, May 18, 2020.
Photo: Dean Kaufman

As the city wakes up and the masks come off, here’s the news that something else happened while we were on lockdown: Construction is complete on Barry Diller. long gestation, once-declared-dead-but-soon resurrected “Floating Island” on the west side, and officially open to the public today. For eight years now, the media mogul has been planning, pushing, and paying for most of it, and is so closely associated with it that, for a while, many people dubbed it Diller Island. It’s officially called Little Island, and Diller, who is 79, is so proud of it that last week he cycled down the Upper East Side – he still rides there if he can, he said, noting that “the last days, freezing and windy, I thought I was going to be thrown into the river” – to show it.

Connecting the catwalk and under the planted arch, he clearly appreciates the attention. “When you work on something like this,” Diller says, “you can never figure it all out. Not that I have it. My tour came right after the one he gave to Gayle King. “Oddly, she’s a friend,” he tells me, though it doesn’t sound weird at all. “She didn’t know why she was coming here. But she liked it. Other well-connected supporters have stopped by in recent days to see what Diller has been up to; all, said the media mogul, left duly impressed, although he refused to name them by name. “I do not want pimp them, ”he said.

Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, helped redo the once abandoned area. In 2007, she built her company’s headquarters – with that distinctive semi-pyramid at the top, in which she lives – in the Meatpacking District, and in the same year it opened its IAC headquarters, a series of glass sails undulating designed by Frank Gehry, a few blocks north. (“Initially I tried to get one of the piles and turn it into an office building, but it was hopeless”, Diller once said.) Both donated money and support for the High Line, which now appears to be a gentrification heavyweight, but which had almost been demolished in the 1990s. “But we weren’t engaged in the process,” he says. Not like this. “That’s all us,” he said. “Our foundation is 100% supportive.”

Photo: Dean Kaufman

It all started with a request. “Hudson River Park Trust approached me and told me the pier was collapsing after Sandy, asked if I wanted to help rebuild it. I said, “Not really,” Diller said. “But, I said, ‘The boats were along the piers, so could I be ambitious about the space?’ And they said, “Yeah, it’s your money!” So, since I can’t help myself – I love public spaces – we started to dream. Could we build something that would make people happy, entertain them, maybe become an icon of the city. That’s it. I know this sounds crazy.

And that hardly happened. Three years after its announcement, and before it was even ready to be built, the floating park has sunk on a series of lawsuits brought by a small civic group, the City Club of New York – would have been funded by the real estate big hit Douglas Durst – who claimed it lacked a proper environmental review. To be more precise, Durst withdrew the plug, telling the Time: “Due to the huge escalation in costs and the fact that this would have been an ongoing controversy over the next three years, I decided that it was no longer viable for us to continue.”

Photo: Dean Kaufman

As Diller now remembers: “We entered a big fight with this real estate guy, Durst. He had a dispute with the Hudson Park Trust, ”he recalls. “Things were blocked in court. So I went to him and said, “I know you don’t like these people, but don’t you find another nasty project?” And he looked up at me – he’s sitting at his desk – and said, ‘You have my sympathy.’ Not another word. Then the project died. We had already invested $ 40 million in it. And then Cuomo, about a month later, called and said, “If I can sort this out and get rid of him, would you?” My family said, “Go where you want, don’t do that”. I still had that big yen, so we started over and here we are.

Little Island has served as a cornerstone of the region’s transformation for years, hovering over the wooden stakes of the long-lost pillars that once shaped a very different crowd. “It was very doubtful,” Diller said, adding, “I was not a practitioner.”

The function of the floating island has evolved over time. “First of all, it was a park. Then I thought, Let’s do performances. We decided to have the amphitheater. We wanted to have a festival. So by the time we looked up, we had 500 performances. It will be a huge mess, but I want to make it a mess, ”he said. Stephen Daldry, George Wolfe and Scott Rudin were his brains about it. (Diller told The City last month that Rudin, who had lived an “exceptional creative life,” would continue to serve on an advisory board for the island.) “I think we’re doing something with City Ballet. I could show you the book. I don’t know if they let me do it. Every day, every week, three to five things happen. “

Photo: Dean Kaufman

As for the food, “We interviewed Danny Meyer’s company,” Diller says. “But we chose this little company called Savory. I think they are fantastic. As we walk around, Savory’s food and beverage staff are in the middle of a training session, sitting in a large, socially distant circle in the shade. Diller, heading towards one of Little Island’s man-made hills, makes his way waving excitedly.

“Thomas is charming – like the Wizard of Oz,” says Diller. It would be Thomas Heatherwick, the responsible architect (with landscape architect Signe Nielsen) for the design of the park: a 2.4 acre false mound, mixing green spaces, squares, performance areas and panoramic viewpoints, raised above the Hudson on a group of pod-shaped concrete plinths. It also reminds me of a very glamorous oil rig.

Photo: Dean Kaufman

“I always knew it would be Heatherwick,” he says. “I called him coldly. The first thing he somehow designed was completely unbuildable – Noah’s ark made of stainless steel. And then he came up with this little sketch of pods and tulips. Not that it’s easy. “These geometries took a year and a half of value engineering. And of course, we thought we could build it for x… ”He walks away. It cost a lot more than he thought, of course: $ 260 million in the end. And that doesn’t count maintaining such a spectacularly artificial nature, but Diller has pledged his family foundation will pay for maintenance and programming costs for the next 20 years, which he says will amount to $ 380 million. dollars.

Heatherwick is not in the same favor as she once was. Its proposed Garden bridge in London, which might remind you of Little Island, never happened, and its Ship at Hudson Yards had to be closed after a series of (possibly predictable) suicides. Diller assured me that Little Island was safe. “I got so drunk here the other night,” he says, before pointing to a row of steel protection rods that line the perimeter of the park. “I hope you don’t fall in. It’s our barrier.” He then gives a playful turn to a spinning reel, installed on one of the sloping paths.

But there are other things to worry about, like sea level rise. “We’re 15 feet above the floodplain,” he says. “My wife said, ‘Please don’t do this. You are crazy – it will sink“. But we made a thousand year scenario. I think we are doing fine.

Photo: Dean Kaufman

As optimistic as he is about Little Island’s prospects, Diller doesn’t necessarily sell. “Look, that doesn’t cure cancer,” he says. “But it will make people happy.” And, inevitably, a rich man of nearly 80 thinks about what he leaves behind. “I ran into things in various cities 100 years ago, and I’m thinking, how the hell did they do that? And so I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but hopefully people will come and say, ‘It’s good to have.’ “

Gayle King set off in a limousine, but Barry Diller cycled back to the Upper East Side, stopping at his headquarters along the way. As long as he has a long drive why not spend it thinking about his next project – maybe something do not adjacent to an already overpriced Manhattan neighborhood? Diller is open to ideas. “Just send them,” he said.

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