David Walentas, the 67-year-old developer credited with putting Dumbo on the map, is planning to bid on land that will be opened by the state and city for residential condo development, right next to the park planned by officials to stretch along the Brooklyn waterfront.
He’s twice before attempted to extend his shadow empire all the way to the East River from the windswept, cobblestone spider web of streets under the Manhattan Bridge. And Mr. Walentas has twice been stymied by the locals. This time, his neighbors suggest that they may be more welcoming.
“I’m certainly interested; that’s what we do,” Mr. Walentas told The Observer. “I think I have a better feel for it than anybody.”
About 20 years ago, Mr. Walentas was just beginning his huge conversion of the warehouses between the anchorages of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges as well.
He made a pitch to develop the shoreline and got some city officials on his side. But citing his lack of financing, they ended up blocking him.
In 1999, enriched by his many successful conversions, Mr. Walentas tried again, unveiling such a Xanadu of entertainment, shopping and lodging that he inspired a rare moment of community camaraderie stretching from the august brownstones of Brooklyn Heights to the chic lofts of Dumbo: They hated it.
The current park plan for the 85-acre shorefront between Atlantic Avenue and John Street has gotten farther along than any proposal has before. By the end of the year, officials hope to have final approval from the Empire State Development Corporation (which won’t be hard, considering that it has been overseeing the process all along) and the Public Authorities Control Board (which won’t be too much harder, despite the reputation that the three-member state panel gained for sinking the West Side stadium).
Shortly thereafter, the park-development corporation will solicit bids for four development opportunities: two condo towers on Atlantic Avenue, a more modest building by the Manhattan Bridge, and a low-slung hotel-apartment complex sprawled at the foot of Old Fulton Street, downhill from Grimaldi’s. Two existing sites—Empire Stores, an old coffee warehouse, and 360 Furman, a massive industrial building slated for residential conversion—have been grandfathered into the footprint to provide enough money to maintain and repair the park without city or state financing.
The views, he said, will be fantastic—but Mr. Walentas being Mr. Walentas, he isn’t entirely happy with the development opportunities that he’ll be able to bid on. Part of the reason why he launched his 1999 plan with such gusto—cantilevering a Jean Nouvel–designed complex out over the East River, moving streets, cutting off pedestrian access—was that it would drive traffic down to an out-of-the-way spot where nobody would ever think to tread. Of course, it was exactly the traffic that neighbors didn’t like and which the latest park plan is supposed to mitigate.
In fact, although he had included a hotel in the Jean Nouvel building, Mr. Walentas sent a letter to the park planners two years ago criticizing the idea of putting a hotel in the center of the park—because there is no longer the traffic.
“I was in Soho 35 years ago, before anybody heard of Soho,” he said. “The boutique hotels didn’t come to Soho until the last five years or so. The reason the hotels are there is because of the galleries and restaurants and shops and all the trendy things happening in Soho. You don’t build a hotel in a wasteland and then build up around it.
“Who’s the market? Business people are going to stay in downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan. Why is someone going to stay in that hotel—other than a pretty view of the waterfront? But where are you going to go from there? Are you on vacation in New York, or are you working in lower Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn? Maybe it’s for honeymooners.”
A spokesman for the park, Lee Silberstein, said: “It’s not going to be a typical hotel like the downtown Marriott. It’s going to cater to different visitors.”
Mr. Walentas is at once revered for his visionary genius and reviled for the more outlandish of those visions. But old foes say they think his excesses will be reined in this time. Indeed, they will have to be reined in—boxed in by height limits and architectural rules that will be prescribed by the park development corporation.
“David has some very imaginative and creative ideas,” said Claude Shostal, co-executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, a park booster group that opposed the Jean Nouvel playground six years ago. “The idea he had before was for a shopping-destination concept, and the traffic and the parking were not compatible with what we had in mind. The present development scenario is largely residential, and we are talking about different parcels. We have some reservations about the height of the buildings, but we generally support the plan by the development corporation.”
Deirdre Carson, the former head of the Brooklyn Heights Association, notes that controversy has continued to surround Mr. Walentas: Community opposition persuaded his company, Two Trees Management, to drop a proposed 16-story tower next to the Brooklyn Bridge last year, although the company also earned good will by building a luxury-rental low-rise on Court Street (albeit with non-union labor) that houses a YMCA. Still, Mr. Walentas is fairly new at new construction.
“He really has more experience working with existing buildings, renovating them,” Ms. Carson said. “What we are really looking for—what I am looking for as a member of the community—is really distinctive modern architecture. If you are going to have development, you had better have distinctive architecture.”
The new park is supposed to be an 85-acre recreation wonderland that will do everything Manhattan’s Hudson River Park did, but do it better. It will be quieter. It will be wider. It will have a swamp. It will provide canals for kayakers and shade for basketball courts.
It will also, thanks to the development, pay its own way. The Hudson River Park is supposed to do this, too—if it ever gets finished.
The park designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh, situated the hotel and condo towers at what he calls “urban junctions,” meaning those points at which the park—much of which will be hidden beneath the cliff of Brooklyn Heights—comes closest to civilization. Yet Mr. Walentas, and other developers as well, want more foot traffic.
“The first one in takes the risk; 360 Furman is there all by itself,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d want to be the first to move into 360 Furman. Where are you going to shop? Where are you going to eat? It’s all by itself. Once the park is done, that’ll be a desirable spot, but it’s the chicken and the egg. If the park doesn’t get built in 10 years, then you don’t want to be living at 360 Furman.”
He added: “I don’t know what the guarantee is that the state builds the park. They’ve been talking about it for 25 years.”
Indeed, if the development rights somehow come with a guaranteed park, Mr. Walentas thinks they would be worth about $200 per square foot.
That’s a significant number, because park planners are anticipating selling upfront rights for the condo parcels at just $70 per square foot and then collecting $3.50 per square foot every year from the residents who buy the apartments. Given that unusual financing, exactly how much the park planners are valuing the property is hard to say, although they say it works out to $135 per square foot for a 99-year lease.
City Councilman David Yassky, whose district includes the park site, held a hearing last week questioning whether the planners weren’t undervaluing the property. The difference is significant: If the park corporation can sell development rights for more, then not as much needs to be built, and the controversial 315-foot condo tower over at Atlantic Avenue can shrink a bit.
Jon McMillan, the planning director at Rockrose Development Corp., told The Observer that the price estimates seem a little low. “Unless there are extraordinary costs involved, you are definitely north of $150 a square foot or even $200. What’s happening in Brooklyn is that it is approaching Manhattan in terms of retail prices—and I’m not sure, but I assume that is true for raw development rights also.”
Another prominent Brooklyn developer who requested anonymity told The Observer, “I wouldn’t think it would be less than $150. But I shouldn’t say that. If a developer offers $150, the state is going to ask for $200.”
Officials say that if the park corporation gets back bids that value the land much higher than anticipated, they would negotiate with the developer to scale back the projects. In fact, they point to a statement from Charles Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, as proof: “We plan to develop only what is necessary to make sure that the park is self-sustaining.”
Such a provision doesn’t appear in the official project proposal that is currently under review, however. And Mr. Yassky, who raised the issue of land values at a hearing last week, doesn’t want to take Mr. Gargano’s word for it.
“If we can get something like that in writing, then I’m happy,” Mr. Yassky told The Observer. “That’s a reasonable way to approach it, but it has to be in writing and ironclad and not just ‘trust us.’”