“Everything has to spread west,” said Jed Walentas, 36, describing livable Manhattan’s ever-expanding front line while striding through the construction site that is his family’s 11th Avenue gamble, Clinton Park.
It was a foggy Tuesday morning, early in October, and Mr. Walentas wore jeans, a hoodie and black New Balance sneakers, his face covered in at least a day’s worth of reddish stubble.
In an industry where reliance on other people’s money is so routine that the commodity is referred to as simply OPM, the Walentases have invested upward of $100 million of their personal wealth in the $600 million, 921-apartment project in the still underdeveloped edges of Hell’s Kitchen, three long blocks from the nearest subway.
‘To be really honest, he’s so polite.’ —Doreen Gallo of the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance
“It is very rare for developers to contribute tens of millions of their own funds–there are only a handful of developers I know of in this era who can and do reach that deep,” said David Schechtman, a principal at Eastern Consolidated. “But they are the exception.”
And so it is that Jed Walentas spends his days in a bare-bones office about 100 feet east of the intersection of 53rd Street and 11th Avenue, a workplace drowning in sheaves of building plans, illuminated by fluorescent lights hung by chains from the concrete ceiling.
Clinton Park is noteworthy for more than its size and financial risk. Because of its unusually large, 100,000-square-foot lot, the Walentases had a freer hand than most to be creative. Hence an Enrique Norten-designed building resembling the letter Z, with the lower limb extending along 11th Avenue, rising upward, terrace by landscaped terrace, until reaching the end of the top limb, in the middle of the block, at nearly 30 stories. At the base of the Z, a Mercedes Benz dealership will take up residence in May; the NYPD’s mounted unit will follow in a few years (complete with a plate-glass wall so pedestrians can gaze at the horses).
On the third floor, in the interstices of the Z, there will be luxury amenities, including a pool, a room for sunbathing and, possibly, a tennis bubble and bocce court.
“Twenty-five years ago, people thought Sixth Avenue was way west,” Mr. Walentas said. “Morgan Stanley went to Times Square 15 years ago, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
IN AN INDUSTRY where players compete in macho games of one-upmanship over everything from the prices of their wristwatches to the heights of their skyscrapers, the Walentas family is something of an anomaly. They show little regard for personal appearance–David Walentas, Jed’s dad, can frequently be spotted pacing the streets of Dumbo, which he basically birthed, in jeans, white hair madly tussled, demeanor distinctly absentminded. Walentas the Younger shows up to work in similar dress and is even said to attend real estate events without a tie.
The family’s laid-back image jibes with their reputation in big real estate: as relatively civilized actors in what is generally understood to be a Hobbesian industry. Writer Kurt Andersen has called David Walentas Dumbo’s “enlightened despot.”
That descriptor is apt. After arriving in what would be called Dumbo in the 1980s, David Walentas began subsidizing some artists’ rents, making the ultimately correct calculation that they would attract wealthier gentrifiers.
Now Jed has largely taken control of the operations of the empire. And while he seems to share his father’s development ethos, he has also brought to their firm, Two Trees Management, something of a more down-to-earth bent.
“I started from zero, so getting in the game was tough,” said David Walentas, whose Horatio Alger rise took him from Rochester to a Navy scholarship at the University of Virginia. “He started at a different place and had a lot of experience growing up, so the reality is, he’s really better and smarter at almost everything than I am, because he should be.”
“Jed is more the day-to-day operations of the business, whereas David’s got the grand vision and is highly creative,” said Asher Abehsera, who has worked at the firm for five years. “So it’s kind of a perfect combination.”
With that creativity comes a certain kookiness. For his part, Jed, educated at Trinity, Andover and UPenn, has more polish.
“To be really honest, he’s so polite,” said Doreen Gallo, who, as a leader of the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance, has locked horns with Jed on countless issues, from his Dock Street project adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge (now in litigation) to questions of historic preservation. “I’ve kind of always been glad that he’ll hold the door for me and says hello.”
Jed expects the first phase of the 11th Avenue development, all 222 apartments, to be occupied by May at a price point of $50 per square foot. The second phase, including nearly 700 apartments, is slated to start construction this summer, pending external financing.
“The far West Side is going to be great,” said Mr. Walentas, whose first post-college apartment was a studio he shared with a friend at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. “We’ve seen over the last 15, 20, 25 years midtown spreading west, and I think that continuation is sort of inevitable.”