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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Jed Walentas

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-07

Jed Walentas is betting big on Brooklyn.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "It's a sensational opportunity. Brooklyn is going to explode."

The Walentas bet began 24 years ago as a relatively small wager - at least as far as real-estate deals go - when Jed's father, veteran developer David, bought 2.5 million square feet in a largely decrepit industrial area known as Dumbo, or Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. He paid $12 million.

Mr. Walentas is, of course, pleased that his only child now manages Dumbo. Jed Walentas also runs their privately-held company, Two Trees Management, on a day to day basis. By the time Jed - who's in his early 30's - completes Dumbo's revival, and also the regeneration of large parts of nearby downtown Brooklyn - in about five years - the Walentases will have spent some $500 million.

It's a safe guess that David Walentas' original investment - in which Leonard and Ronald Lauder were partners - has already been recouped, probably several times over. Many of the 1,000 or so apartments that Jed is creating in the converted industrial buildings command more than $800 a square foot. Some of those buildings date back to the late 19th century, when Dumbo was bustling with commercial and industrial activity.

"Any great neighborhood in the world always has intersections of lots of forces, tastes, cultures, and preferences," Jed Walentas said. "My father invented the modern Dumbo, and I'm building on what he started. This is an evolving neighborhood - but our imprint will be here for a very long time."

That imprint - which has already transformed Dumbo into one of the city's most vibrant localities - was forged in much frustration and anxiety. David Walentas spent 17 years in trying to convince the city to rezone the area so that it could be put to use for residential purposes. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was instrumental in pushing through the rezoning in 1997.

By that time Jed Walentas had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in economics. But economics nor real estate wasn't where his true interest lay. It was in sports writing. He'd served as sports editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. A job as a sportswriter awaited him at the New York Post.

"I decided to go with Donald instead," Mr. Walentas said.

"Donald," of course, was Donald Trump, who was so taken with Mr. Walentas' enthusiasm and ability to learn fast that he assigned him to a prime property that The Trump Organization was developing. The building was 40 Wall Street, which eventually became the first commercial edifice in New York to be fully wired for the Internet. Jed Walentas supervised much of the construction.

Then came a call from his father. David Walentas thought that he was now in a position to carry out his plans for Dumbo, a waterfront area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. A Scottish immigrant businessman named Robert Gair had originally built industrial structures there, including one containing a cardboard box factory which made a fortune for him. Indeed, the area was often referred to as Gairville.

But the neighborhood had deteriorated since Gair's time. There were artists who squatted in abandoned units. Dumbo's dark and winding streets were sometimes used by mobsters to dump bodies of the people they didn't get along with.

The Walentas' first conversion project in Dumbo was the Clock Tower Building, at One Main Street. They created 124 luxury condominiums in the 250,000 square foot structure in under a year. They raised a new 12-story building containing 54 apartments. They assembled 200 high-class apartments in three vacant loft buildings. And they upgraded 500,000 square feet for artist studios and commercial offices.

A lucky streak came along. Stratospheric prices in Manhattan were forcing New Yorkers to look elsewhere; Dumbo's neighbor, Brooklyn Heights, had already regained its residential glory of a long-ago era - but property prices were edging upward to Manhattan levels. A buzz developed about Dumbo. The celebrated chocolatier Jacques Torres opened a store-cum-factory. Laudatory articles appeared in trade publications.

And Dumbo was on its way to becoming an urban legend.

That status most certainly will be burnished as a waterfront park opens. Mr. Walentas is convinced that through the peculiar but intangible process by which people from different parts of the city relate to one another, Dumbo will "connect" to downtown Manhattan, which officials also want to develop further.

So what's it been like to generate that connection, beyond the long hours and the daily administrative burdens of running a real-estate company in New York?

"It takes patience," Mr. Walentas said. "It takes long-term commitment to revive a neighborhood. Of course, it takes capital - and here we've been fortunate. And it takes a certain kind of dedication to the belief that the architecture of a historic neighborhood should be preserved in all its variety. I think we've done that. There's a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in that."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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