The Rebirth of DUMBO

Class of ’96 | “When we started in DUMBO, nobody wanted to know about it,” Jed Walentas C’96 remembers, referring to the section of Brooklyn known as Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass in 1996. “You couldn’t even get a quart of milk over there. Nobody had any imagination. There was no neighborhood, no idea of what the market would be.”

Fast-forward to the present. DUMBO, according to an article in The New York Times, has “leapfrogged from being a gritty manufacturing district to a hot residential outpost, largely under the guidance of the developer David Walentas.”

That would be Jed Walentas’ father, the semi-retired head of Two Trees Management, which owns approximately 2.5 million square feet of the funky, arts-infused residential district. The younger Walentas has been running Two Trees’ day-to-day operations for the past 7 years, and in doing so, he has all but created modern DUMBO. Along the way he’s made both friends and enemies, as many artists squatting in abandoned warehouses had to make way for the Walentases’ vision. “We were making the market,” he points out, “and wanted to do a high-quality job.” Today the property is valued at several hundred million dollars.

“Certainly, there are people who were there before we were—the neighborhood has a long history,” he notes. “And certainly we are proponents of gentrification. We’ve dramatically increased everyone’s property value, including ours. Through that process, what some people refer to as ‘character’ can get destroyed.

“But we go out of our way to protect the character of the neighborhood,” he continues. “We got quality retail operators that became partners with us in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t just out of generosity of spirit—in the long term, we’ve all become better off. We have the luxury of taking a big-picture, long-term view, having a plan.”

In formulating a long-term vision for DUMBO, Walentas realized that he had to tread very carefully on New Yorkers’ self-conceptualizations.

“There’s nothing more anathema to New York City and its residents than the notion of a planned community,” he points out. “New York neighborhoods are a coalescence of millions of people and tastes. You never feel, in New York, that Walt Disney was there in the back room making a master plan. Master plans feel suburban—they’re not what New York should be.”

In order to plan a community that doesn’t look like a planned community, Walentas and his firm have gone out of their way to hire multiple architects with differing styles. They also encourage retailers to put up their own individual signage. Two Trees is well known for its support for the arts in DUMBO, having given away thousands of square feet of space to artists and artistic organizations.

“We have a lot of working artists in the neighborhood—painters, sculptors, graphic designers, metalworkers—and arts organizations, like avant-garde theater, galleries, and show spaces for the public,” Walentas says. “We feel it’s really important to create something different, not to make it feel like it’s just one idiot somewhere making all the decisions.”

If Walentas’ experience as an undergraduate at Penn prepared him to go into real estate and to be one of the owners of all of DUMBO, it was very, very indirectly. He spent most of his time at The Daily Pennsylvanian, first as a sportswriter and then as sports editor. By graduation in 1996, he had two job offers: one to write on sports for the New York Post, and the other to work for a low-profile, understated real-estate mogul named Donald Trump W’68.

“You couldn’t really ask for two better job offers,” Walentas acknowledges now with a laugh. “I would have taken the Post offer more seriously if I hadn’t been so burnt out from being a sports editor at the DP. To have that existence again for another couple years was sort of hard to deal with.” So off he went to the relaxing world of Trump.

Though working for Trump was a trial by fire, Walentas did know a thing or two about real estate. From the time he was 10 years old, his father—one of the preeminent developers in New York—would bring him to construction sites and to the offices of Two Trees.

Still, working for your dad over the summer is a very different story from sitting in the now-infamous Trump boardroom. Walentas recounts the story of his job interview with Trump: “I told him I was looking for a full-time job. He said, ‘There are no real full-time jobs here—if you’re not doing a good job, we’ll get rid of you. Let’s start you the day after your graduation. Do a good job.’”

Walentas did. Trump had recently acquired 40 Wall Street, a 1.3 million-square-foot office project, and within weeks, Walentas was singlehandedly running construction, coordinating between Trump management and the on-site leasing office, and creating one of New York’s first fully wired buildings.

“There was so much responsibility—it was a great learning experience,” Walentas recounts. “The real-estate market down there was really depressed in 1996. No retail, no residential. Donald is very involved, but doesn’t micromanage. If you take care of business, they take care of you—he couldn’t have been a better boss for me.”

Walentas worked for Trump for just under a year when his father called him to tell him that he, through Two Trees Management, had acquired virtually all of DUMBO. The elder Walentas was pretty much retired by then, with a skeleton office. But, he told his son, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had expressed interest in rezoning DUMBO.

Walentas summarizes his father’s reasoning: “If we’re going to do this—converting buildings, building condos—I gotta hire somebody. I’ve been training Jed for this for 21 years, so I might as well start in with him rather than some other asshole.”

Walentas readily acknowledges that, thanks to his father, his success came with “an overwhelming head start—we were given a great hand to play.”

But he is well aware of the responsibilities that come with that territory.

“Managing growth is a huge challenge,” Walentas says. “Finishing up with DUMBO is something that will matter to New York a hundred years from now. Having that kind of impact on a city is intensely gratifying.”

—Jordana Horn Marinoff C’95 L’99

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

Rapid responder Richard Walden
Evocative architect Lyman Perry
DUMBO developer Jed Walentas
Rare collector Jay Kislak
Lawyer and activist Donyale Reavis

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