Shortly before 10 a.m. on a late-winter Monday, Jed Walentas, the 39-year-old principal of the Two Trees Management Company, took a seat at the wide, U-shaped table in the ornate second-floor conference room at City Hall known as “the Cow,” shorthand left over from its original use as a meeting place of “the Committee of the Whole.” Across the table sat Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top emissaries to the real-estate industry: Carl Weisbrod, the newly appointed planning commissioner, and Alicia Glen, a former Goldman Sachs executive who was de Blasio’s pick to be deputy mayor for housing and economic development.
In a few days, the New York City Planning Commission was set to vote on Walentas’s $1.5 billion proposal to transform the shuttered Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg riverfront into a Xanadu of parks, tech offices, shops, and—controversially—sleek apartment towers rising as high as 600 feet. The 3 million-square-foot project had been a locus of fevered community debate since 2004, when Domino ceased operations there after 148 years.
Walentas paid $185 million for the Domino site in 2012, after the previous owner, the Community Preservation Corporation, defaulted on its loans. It was the biggest deal of his career and one that heralded the next chapter for a New York real-estate clan. David Walentas, Jed’s father, had minted a billion-dollar fortune by transforming Dumbo, once a favored dumping ground for mob hit men, into a postindustrial playground, where a Walentas penthouse listing for $19 million drew interest from Jay Z and Ralph Lauren. Unlike Soho and Tribeca, where the classic city progression from decaying industrial buildings to artists’ lofts to condos for the superrich happened more or less organically, creating many fortunes along the way, Dumbo was the vision of one man. It was a planned community in the heart of Brooklyn, bohemia by the numbers. A self-described dictator, David organized everything, providing free rent to galleries, restaurants, and chic shops like Jacques Torres. And he defended his little enclave fiercely. “If you were with me, we were friends. And if you were against me, you were my enemy,” David tells me. His many feuds over the years with city officials, community groups, rival developers, and even his buildings’ tenants were legendary. In 2006, he threatened to erect a steel barrier blocking windows in a condo building owned by Shaya Boymelgreen if Boymelgreen went forward with the purchase of a building Walentas coveted. Perhaps David Walentas’s most notorious eruption occurred at a public meeting at Borough Hall, where he called Marianna Koval, then-president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, “a cunt” to her face. “Truth is my best defense: I did call her a cunt!” he tells me.
“He is a gross, rude man who’s used to having a lot of power,” Koval says. “His nasty personality has worked to his detriment.”
It was Jed, rather than David, who was at the table at City Hall, which was a blessing, even in his father’s eyes. “Jed is much more personable; he schmoozes with people. I hate ’em all,” David says. Jed’s political instincts became crucial assets in the Walentas’s drive to develop Domino. When they bought the site, the land-review board had already approved the previous owner’s master plan, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. But Jed pressed ahead with his own vision, a politically risky move that would require city approval. He hired architects from SHoP, the Manhattan firm, to do a redesign, adding green space and improving access to the waterfront esplanade. He answered hundreds of questions at community meetings and vowed to set aside 660 out of 2,300 apartments for affordable housing, more than the 460 the existing zoning required. “He took the time to show the respect of the community,” says Rob Solano, executive director of Churches United for Fair Housing, a Williamsburg advocacy group. “When we bought the thing, I didn’t know a fucking thing about the neighborhood,” Jed says. “Those folks have lived there their whole life. We’re arrogant, but we’re not that arrogant.”
But there was one crucial constituency that Jed hadn’t converted: Bill de Blasio. Which is why Weisbrod and Glen had summoned him to City Hall that morning. From the moment the meeting opened, the de Blasio officials made it clear that the mayor intended to act on his campaign pledge to hit RESET on the city’s relationship with developers. Domino would be the first public test of the mayor’s campaign promise to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. “They were like, ‘The landscape has totally changed, the rules have changed,’ ” Jed recalls. If he hoped to secure the necessary approvals to build 50-story towers on the site, he would need to add more affordable housing to the plan. A lot more.