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07.30.2008
Profile: Jed Walentas
Yoko Inoue

Jed Walentas
Director of Daily Operations
Two Trees Management


Jed Walentas doesn’t get the same degree of media attention that’s been leveled at his father David, the scruffy, tennis shoe-clad founder of Two Trees Management. Walentas père made his fortune in New York real estate through rehabs and conversions, among them such landmarks as One Fifth Avenue, Alywn Court, and the Silk Building. Yet the younger Walentas, 33 and an only child, for the past seven years has been in charge of daily operations of Two Trees, and might well be one of the more intriguing young developers in the city.

In 1981, with Leonard and Ronald Lauder as investing partners, the senior Walentas had bought 11 19th-century factory and warehouse buildings in Fulton Landing, which was then a derelict section of Brooklyn more popular as a dumping ground for hit men than as an industrial zone. Walentas calculated that its zoning would soon change, and the area would gentrify as Soho had done—indeed, artists and artisans were already settling in. His hunch was right, but not his timing; it took 16 years for Dumbo (from Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, as the place was renamed) to get rezoned.

Meanwhile Jed, tutored in the business from the age of ten, graduated from the Penn with a degree in economics and went to work for Donald Trump, converting 40 Wall into one of the city’s first “wired” buildings. Walentas was working for Trump a little less than a year when his father called him to Two Trees to work on Dumbo’s redevelopment.

Low key in his sartorial and management style, much like his father, Jed Walentas controls somewhere between 2.5 to 3 million square feet of real estate in Dumbo. With Amish Patel, his best friend from college and now business partner, the younger Walentas has converted industrial buildings into offices and condos, and constructed a stylishly outfitted rental building, all while carefully cultivating Dumbo’s distinctively genteel but bohemian character. While condos with river views regularly fetch million-dollar-plus prices, there are still artists who pay their rent with artwork. Priced out of Williamsburg last winter, the Galapagos Art Space took up residence in a LEED-certified former stable on Dumbo’s Main Street, paying rent just short of $7 per square foot per year. The experimental theater St. Anne’s Warehouse, housed in an old spice mill, pays no rent at all. Sprinkled into this arty mix are trendy boutiques and design stores, specialty food purveyors, and a few restaurants and cafes. While there’s also a Starbucks, Dumbo still feels more like a gritty urban neighborhood than the posh open-air shopping mall that Soho has become. Nevertheless, many in the community gripe about the control the Walentas family wields over the place.

And there have been missteps, most famously in 1999, when Two Trees proposed a Jean Nouvel-designed steel-and-glass hotel, shopping, and entertainment complex, which would have jutted into the East River like a futuristic pier. The project’s outsized scale raised an uproar in the surrounding community, which was intent on turning the property into a waterfront park. Ultimately, Nouvel’s plan was aborted, and the park secured.

More recently, Jed Walentas has branched into downtown Brooklyn. Two Trees has constructed the Court House, a mixed-use condo/retail building with a fully outfitted YMCA at the corner of Court and Atlantic streets, and converted the old Board of Education building, a McKim, Mead & White landmark at 110 Livingston Street, into trendy condos. Walentas likes to put younger staff in charge of these “night and weekend projects” so “they can learn to solve problems on their own,” much the way he learned himself. “We give them a real ownership interest,” he said. The latest “goofy” project he’s considering is the construction of a small hotel in Williamsburg.

Given that Two Trees finances its own ventures and employs its own construction team, the company is necessarily focused and efficient. “We can only take on one or two big projects at a time,” said Walentas. “We’re looking now at possibilities in the BAM Cultural Zone. But there are a lot of public policy requirements, so there’s only so much economics there. And people want great architecture.”

Great architecture is exactly what he’s promising in his most ambitious project to date in Midtown Manhattan: a dramatic, zig-zagging, mixed-use building with landscaped roof terraces and louvered windows designed by Enrique Norten’s TEN Arquitectos. The massive, 100,000-square-foot site at 11th Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets affords “great opportunity and flexibility,” said Walentas. Not to mention risk, as it’s not yet zoned for residential use. Nevertheless, Walentas spoke confidently about the Clinton Park project. “Enrique’s office is a good fit, very practical, and not too big. The project is super important to them,” he said. “They understand that their design has to be buildable, not just sculpture.” And TEN sends the love right back. “They’re a fantastic client,” said Mark Dwyer, the project’s principal. “You couldn’t get many developers to be this adventurous with a skin on a rental building. But they’re invested in it. They want to know how to clean the facade years down the line. And they’re investigating LEED certification.”

Apparently, Walentas has learned a lot since his previous venture into the world of celebrity architects. He’s also learned a thing or two about community outreach. In addition to the 900-some rental apartments, 20 percent of which will be affordable, the building will house a car dealership, preserving 11th Avenue’s traditional commercial business; a supermarket, sorely needed in the neighborhood; and a state-of-the-art stable facility for the city’s mounted policemen. What’s not to love?

Marisa Bartolucci