Inside the home of David Walentas, the man who tamed Dumbo

David Walentas led the seedy-to-chic transformation of the industrial area

Feb.February 05, 2008 05:01 PM

In 1985, well before developer David Walentas and his wife moved in, their 15th-floor penthouse was used to shoot scenes for “Year of the Dragon,” a movie about the world of organized crime in Chinatown. It was the perfect place to connote seediness and crime.

But much about the apartment—and the neighborhood around it—has changed drastically since then, largely because of Walentas’ vision for the area. The apartment of Walentas, owner of Two Trees Management, now offers a stark contrast to the crime movie. The space is filled with art, including two large cast-iron lions paying tribute to Leo, the zodiac sign that Walentas and his son, Jed (who is also his business partner), share.

From the bedroom window, Walentas can see J Condominium and Beacon Tower, two gleaming, luxury high-rises that are the newest additions to the area skyline. He didn’t build them, but his presence in Dumbo is one of the primary reasons they exist.

A once-derelict 20-block industrial area that fans out between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, Dumbo was once dark and silent at night. Today, it’s a high-end residential enclave, where cafe lights spill onto lively streets. Walentas’ empire, stitched together over three decades, consists today of 12 residential and commercial buildings, totaling 8 million square feet.

“I used to say I had done a lot of things, but unlike most of them, Dumbo will be here in 100 years,” he said. “Not that many people have a chance to make that big an impact.”

Walentas began piecing together his Dumbo properties in 1978 with the purchase of the iconic Clock Tower Building for $6 a square foot—$1.5 million for the 250,000-square-foot structure. At the time, it housed a tape business whose trucks had a hard time navigating Dumbo’s narrow, stone-covered streets.

But when the city rezoned a number of key blocks in 1998, the building was converted into apartments. It now includes the 3,000-square-foot light-soaked unit he shares with his wife, Jane.

The apartment is in the Walentas Building—his name is spelled out in small, un-Trump-like letters on the awning—and its western windows have sweeping views from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building, with a Manhattan skyline that seems close enough to touch. In a sense, that proximity helped Walentas secure financing for the project before anybody lived in Dumbo or could imagine doing so.

“When I first needed loans to buy here, bankers would say, ‘Where are the comps?’ So I would bring them up here and point to Manhattan and say, ‘Those are the comps,'” he said. “There needed to be people here first.”

The one-bedroom apartment has 12-foot ceilings and columns as thick as oaks. Oriental carpets set off its polished floors, and slate covers the kitchen counters; the absence of traditional cabinets intentionally recalls the Soho loft where the Walentases once lived.

In the living room, one large wall is dominated by 10 original Andy Warhol silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe in splashy, vibrant colors. Walentas said they were purchased directly from Warhol for $100 apiece, in a deal between “friends.”

In the one bathroom, basket-weave inlays jazz up the marble floors, while the wainscoting around the large bathtub seems like another referential touch, recalling the beachside cottages of the Hamptons, where the couple also owns a home.

Buyers who got in early paid $300 a square foot in the Clock Tower, which has 125 units. The Walentas family moved in the year after it opened. In a sign of how values have ballooned, the units now command more than $1,500 per square foot, Walentas said.

Not only did he carve multi-million-dollar lofts out of drafty spice warehouses in the neighborhood, and handpick retail tenants like the Smack Mellon Gallery, Jacques Torres Chocolate and others, Walentas personally insisted that Callery pear trees line the sidewalks to give the neighborhood a uniform appearance.

The city helped keep the neighborhood’s preserved-in-amber look. In December, the Landmarks Preservation Commission named Dumbo a historic district roughly bounded by Main, York, Bridge and John streets, ensuring that the exterior skin of the 91 buildings there won’t change much going forward.

Not all city-sponsored changes in Dumbo, however, were universally loved. Many Brooklyn residents felt that the city should have encouraged businesses to stay in Dumbo to maintain its manufacturing base, said Robert Perris, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board No. 2, which includes Dumbo, Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights.

Those residents were worried about “the loss of good-paying jobs for people who didn’t have a great education,” Perris says.

Of course, not all employment options vanished; 111 Front Street is still commercial, and the Water Street corridor today is heavy with retail, including art galleries, markets and boutiques. Walentas’ own building features Bubby’s Pie Co., an offshoot of the popular Tribeca eatery, where $900 baby strollers are typically lined up near the door. But it’s not all kid-centric; the rock club Galapagos, formerly in Williamsburg, is converting a Walentas-owned onetime stable on Main Street and will open by summer.

The only thing that’s really missing, residents said, is a quality supermarket, though for now the gourmet grocery Peas and Pickles suffices.

Presently, there are so many businesses in Dumbo—110 in 2007, up from 60 the previous year—that the neighborhood now has its own business improvement district, formed in 2005 to focus on infrastructure shortcomings like those bumpy stone streets.

“There may not be much foot traffic yet, but there’s lots of potential and promise for the neighborhood,” said Tucker Reed, the BID’s executive director.

Convincing vendors to take a leap of faith in a work-in-progress area, Walentas continues to offer generous concessions to tenants, like two years of free rent. Even if that means a short-term loss, it fits Walentas’ long-range vision.

Last summer, Daniel Power, owner of the PowerHouse Arena, a publisher and performance space, relocated from Manhattan to a 10,200-square-foot, two-floor space in a Walentas building on Main Street. For his 10-year lease, he pays a “discount” relative to Brooklyn market retail rents, which are $40 a square foot; he also received a complimentary HVAC system to sweeten the deal, though he declined to specify his rent.

“Having a civic-minded landlord is unheard of in New York, and it’s a savvy business move on their part so ground-floor spaces don’t turn into Duane Reade,” Power said.

But other decisions seem to have less public support, like Walentas’ proposal to build a $200 million complex with 400 units, a 17-story tower and a school on Dock Street.

In the meantime, he’s focused on Clinton Green, a 30-story mixed-use tower with 1,000 rentals to rise on Eleventh Avenue and West 53rd Street in Manhattan.

Should tea leaf readers assume, then, that Hell’s Kitchen will be the next hot address?

No, said Walentas. “I’m too old to be early again.”

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