The Real Deal New York

Walentases’ new battle

Dumbo developers face opposition for project on far West Side

March 31, 2008
By John Tozzi

The developers famous for transforming Dumbo from a seedy industrial area into a hip enclave are joining the stampede of builders who have grand plans for another of the city’s last frontiers — the far West Side.

David Walentas and his son Jed envision an ambitious mixed-used development — which would be one of the largest projects in the neighborhood — on 11th Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets. The 32-story building would have 900 rental units and ground floor retail in a design the Walentases said minimizes the impact on the streetscape. But some in the community oppose the zoning changes needed to allow a building of that scale, and the project faces an uphill battle obtaining city agency approvals.

Neighborhood resistance has thwarted projects by the Walentases’ company, Two Trees Management, in the past. While David Walentas’ early bet on converting vacant industrial buildings in Dumbo paid off, there was opposition more recently over Two Trees’ proposed Dock Street development adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge.

In Clinton, where Two Trees is working for the first time, some neighbors suggested that they overpaid for the land and shouldn’t be granted a larger building just to allow the investment to pay off.

Two Trees paid $130 million for the far West Side site, a former Verizon parking lot, in 2006. The company began excavating the 94,463-square-foot lot in November, but its plan to begin building this year faces plenty of hurdles. The site, zoned for light industrial, needs a raft of agency approvals before the project can move forward. A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said Two Trees’ application is being reviewed but would not comment on when it might be certified, which would begin the formal public review process.

The proposal also needs an environmental impact statement, unusual for a spot rezoning, and aspects of the plan will need approval from the Board of Standards and Appeals, the Housing Finance Agency and ultimately, the City Council and Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the area.

The Walentases declined to be interviewed for this story, but in documents filed with Community Board 4, Two Trees describes its plan for the site. In addition to 900 rental units (including 180 designated affordable), the project would bring a 16,000-square-foot grocery store; 31,000-square-foot health club; a car dealership along 11th Avenue; and 28,000 square feet of horse stables to relocate the Police Department’s mounted unit.

The building, dubbed Clinton Park, has a design created by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos, the architect of the One York condo project in Tribeca. Renderings show a terraced S-shape that rises from seven stories at its base along 11th Avenue to 32 stories at its mid-block peak. The site is across 11th Avenue from DeWitt Clinton Park, and the design evokes a staircase zig-zagging from 11th Avenue to nearly the top of the 457-foot AT & T tower to the east.

According to a proposal filed with the community board, the development would require $120 million in equity from Two Trees, and would be financed with tax-exempt bonds from the Housing Finance Agency in exchange for making 20 percent of the units affordable. That financing may also be in doubt since the HFA announced in January that less money would be available under the 80/20 bond program, which is in high demand by developers.

Neighborhood opponents

There have been few projects of such scale so far west in the neighborhood; if it is approved, Clinton Park could be a sign of things to come.

“This particular section of town at the moment is the last developable land in Manhattan,” said Tom Cayler, a member of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance who opposes the Two Trees project.

The city plans to rezone 11th Avenue from south of the site to 43rd Street, now a strip dominated by auto dealers. And as developments take shape to the north (like the Extell and Trump towers rising along the Hudson above 59th Street) and south (like the planned Hudson Yards redevelopment), interest in the western edge of Clinton is growing.

That’s what the Dermot Company and Archstone (now part of Tishman Speyer) said they believed when they bid to develop city-owned land between 51st and 53rd streets on the west side of 10th Avenue. The partnership acquired the land for $30 million in 2005 with a proposal to build a pair of 24-story towers with 627 rental units and 23,000 square feet of retail. The development, known as Archstone Clinton, includes 20 percent affordable units, performance space for nonprofit theaters, and a public garden and arcade. Construction finished in February, and less than 20 percent of one tower remains to be leased.

Daniel Doern, vice president of development at Archstone, said he believes people and businesses have grown more comfortable moving farther west. “Our project has had a tremendous impact, and I think it’s kind of shifted the balance of the neighborhood to the other side of 10th Avenue,” he said. “For a long time, 10th Avenue was kind of the edge.”

With that shifting interest, the discount on the cost of land has disappeared. “There was a time when the land prices were lower here,” but that’s no longer the case, according to Jeremy Scholl, community manager of the Archstone Clinton. “A lot of people compare this to what Chelsea was eight or 10 years ago.”

But neighbors uneasy about the Two Trees plan fear the consequences of large-scale development in the area. While even critics praise the Walentases for meeting with the community early on and soliciting concerns, they say their proposal is just too big.

Anna Levin, chair of Community Board 4′s Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen land use committee, said the board would be more receptive to a building on the scale of the 24-story Archstone Clinton towers. But Two Trees’ request for a total floor area ratio of 9 — which would require both a zoning map change and text amendment — would set a bad precedent for development along 11th Avenue, Levin said. The board has pushed for a FAR of 7.5.

Some say that Two Trees is pushing for the exception because it needs a larger building to profit on its $130 million investment. “The problem again, the way that we see it, is
because they so overpaid, they can’t get their money unless they get their 900 units,” Cayler, of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance, said.

The Walentases are trying to court the neighborhood, Levin said, noting that “there are aspects of the plan that are very appealing to the community,” including the decision to center the building’s bulk in the middle of the block and keep the façade low on the side facing DeWitt Clinton Park. Two Trees agreed to put affordable units on every floor, not just the lowest floors, and included the Police Department stables at the board’s suggestion.

Two Trees is also appealing to the officials who will ultimately decide the project’s fate. The Walentases recently maxed out their contributions to the Council Speaker’s likely mayoral campaign: David, Jed and Jane Walentas each gave Quinn the maximum $4,950 contribution in January, according to campaign finance records. They have also given a combined $4,300 to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s campaign.

In addition, the company has paid law firm Wachtel & Masyr more than $37,000 in lobbying fees since it bought the site in 2006, according to public records. Because the law firm has worked on other Two Trees projects in Brooklyn, it is not clear how much was allocated for the Manhattan project.

Both the community board and Stringer will weigh in during the public review, but Quinn’s support will likely make or break the plan. A spokesperson for Quinn said it would be unusual for the speaker to comment on the project this early in the process. But she could hold the key to whether Two Trees’ latest bet pays off.

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