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The Son Rises Over The East River

The Son Rises Over The East River

The Observer 5/6/2008

by Dana Rubinstein

Jed Walentas, 33-year-old heir to father David’s real estate empire, is leading the family back to Manhattan, after 20 years in Brooklyn, with the West Side mega-project Clinton Park.

Location: How long have you been working with your father, David?

Mr. Walentas: Since ’97.

And before that you were with Donald Trump?

For a year.

Who is the better developer?

They couldn’t be more different. Donald is one of the world’s best promoters; does super-high-profile, big-picture, flashy projects; is a great boss; runs a great organization; and is much less involved in a lot of the details, at least different details than we’re involved with here. And Donald had a much bigger head start. His father was in the business. He started with entree into money. David started with nothing.

You refer to your father as David?

I do. I always have. Since I was 2.

How come?

I don’t know. It’s what everyone else called him.

Is it true that you’ve sort of taken over the reins here at Two Trees?

Yeah, I certainly run most of the people here.

How many people work for you?

I think our annual payroll is up to about $7 or $8 million. … But in terms of people I perceive working for me, maybe 15 or so. … I’m friendly with most of them outside of here.

Is it true that your dad now refers to you as his boss?

Probably depends on the day or who he’s talking to. But, generally, I don’t think that’s quite so accurate in terms of spirit. I think I certainly run the business here, in terms of running all the people. … On the one hand, Amish and I can talk David into almost anything if we feel strongly enough about it. And on the other hand, there’s nobody here with better real estate judgment than he has. And I’m certainly not doing anything that he doesn’t want us to be doing.

Who is Amish?

Amish [Patel] is my sort of partner here, and my best friend from college.

You’re taking the reins during an uncertain time economically. Does that give you pause? Could Dumbo have happened in a time like this?

You know, real estate is a super-long-term business. David’s had this company 40 years now. Most of our projects are pretty-long-term projects. So, to be successful in this business, you’ve got to prosper in good times and survive in bad times. We’re in a really good position to do that. Our basic structure here is pretty smart. We’re not overleveraged; we use our own money; we don’t rely on partners and syndications. We only do one or two things at a time, and we take them super seriously. … Dumbo happened over 25 years, so it went through good cycles and bad.

Why are you returning to Manhattan?

I don’t think it’s a philosophical thing. I think we’re always interested in value. Our project at 54th Street was something that we thought was a great way for us to add value, a good fit for our organization.

It must have been a big decision. You left Soho in the ’80s and then you come to Brooklyn, and you’re so entrenched here.

Listen, if you buy a piece of property for $130 million, it’s a big decision, whether it’s on 54th Street or on Pluto.

I’d say Pluto would be a bigger decision.

You know, I lived in Manhattan my whole childhood. I always thought we were New York City developers, not Brooklyn developers or Manhattan developers. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re leaving Brooklyn and going to Manhattan.’ … We’re doing things in Brooklyn as well. We found an opportunity that we thought made a lot of sense to us.

So what are you going to build there?

We hope to build a big mixed-use development. We have been working on it for a year and a half now, and we think we’re very close to having our ULURP application certified.

It has to be rezoned to residential, right?

Well, we like to own housing, and we would like to build close to 900 residential rental apartments on top of a commercial base. The commercial base will be interesting.

How so?

The 11th Avenue corridor is full of car dealerships. So we’re quite close to a deal with a major car dealership … and we think that’s consistent, and we think it’s tremendously important in terms of retaining jobs. If these people couldn’t find a facility, they probably would have gone elsewhere. … And, we have an enormous space—100,000-square-foot site with 1,200 feet of perimeter, more or less. So you need big uses. … The alternatives would have been to stack up three big-box retailers on top of each other, to do a Target and a Home Depot and Costco or whatever it was.

And there will be affordable housing?

Absolutely … I think we’re going to do 80/20. And the community really wanted green. So we’re going to do a LEED building. … And then the biggest sort of out-of the-box request that everybody had was that the NYPD mounted unit is being kicked out of Hudson River Park and they need a home and asked us what we thought of putting a horse stable for the cops in there.

Where will that go?

It will go on 53rd Street, hopefully. We will hopefully build the cops a state-of the art, 30,000-to-35,000-foot facility for that, and I think it’s great. …

Would you say you or your father was the bigger force behind this development?

I probably pushed it more at the beginning than he did. But, it would not have had the traction that it had if he wasn’t genuinely interested.

What is his role now? How old is he?

He’ll be 70 in August. His role is whatever he wants it to be.

Does he come into the office?

He’s in the office every day, unless he’s out of town. Generally, he’s involved in the biggest-picture things and the smallest-picture things and not so much in the middle. He cares about the real estate we’re buying, but he doesn’t really like to deal with headaches. He has a better time on the [construction] site, so he goes up there and tools around with the excavating guys and stands around and watches them blow up the rock.

Your dad is known to be rather idiosyncratic. I used to work in Dumbo, and I once saw him signing some sort of important-looking document leaning against a garbage can. He’s always around and about in his white sneakers.

That’s what he is. He can spend three hours with Laura, an architect here, looking at carpet samples. I’m like, ‘David, don’t you have anything better to do with your fucking time? Like, are you serious?’ And he loves it. He’s totally into it, and it shows. That’s why the details in our buildings are as good as they are. He has a real sensibility for it.

Your father is known to dislike chain stores, at least in Dumbo. Do you share those leanings?

He felt it was really important in Dumbo [contextually] to have a unique blend of entrepreneurial operators. … But, if you look at our project on Court Street, we’re going to have a LensCrafters and Sovereign Bank. We’re putting Trader Joe’s across the street.

Yeah, when is that going to open?

I don’t know. Probably in the summer. They’re very slow. …

Is your arts-friendliness going to play some role in the Manhattan project?

The biggest artistic statement or contribution we’re making there is the architecture, the building [by Enrique Norten]. The architecture that we’re building is staggering. … One of our objectives there is to demonstrate to people that great architecture is possible in a rental housing project. A lot of people have figured out that starchitects work for condo projects, but I don’t think there’s been an 80-20 building with this sort of architectural distinction.