Like an elementary classroom, it was a compare and contrast, and show-and-tell for Brooklyn’s top developers last week.
At the “Make it in Brooklyn” summit June 25 in Downtown Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner CEO and president MaryAnne Gilmartin, chairman Bruce Ratner, Two Trees Management’s founder David Walentas and son Jed Walentas sat down and got personal about their success in Brooklyn through the years, in a free-flowing conversation that saw the executives opening up about their early struggles and more recent success.
David, the outspoken 76-year-old who has been credited with bringing new life to the once-desolate neighborhood of DUMBO, recalled the first time he ever heard about the area. Forty years ago, he was a small-time developer in the Soho area and asked a “young kid” what the next frontier was, to which the kid told him DUMBO. “I said, where the (expletive) is DUMBO?” said David.
Anyone who lives in New York City doesn’t have to ask that question anymore. David purchased his first property in DUMBO from Helmsley Spear, which sold him two million square feet of property at $6 psf.
“Everyone thought I was the DUMB in DUMBO,” he quipped.
Now his company, Two Trees Management, which he founded in 1968, owns, manages and has developed a real estate portfolio valued at more than $3 billion, including more than 6,000 apartment units and over three million s/f of office and retail space.
The company owns 12 properties in DUMBO, which has seen explosive growth in the last decade, with tourist attractions like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the restored historic carousel called “Jane’s Carousel” (after David’s wife, who spent years hand restoring the original wood horses) and countless popular retailers and restaurants.
But despite the neighborhood’s success, Walentas touched on the hard times he went through to get where he is now, with 47 years in the real estate business — including pushback from the city, struggling through a recession, and keeping the faith alive when his partners wanted to quit.
“Real estate is a long term business,” he said. The turning point was when the city changed the zoning for the area in 1997. “Once we got the zoning change, I knew we’d won,” said David.
Though they do business very close to one another, Ratner and Gilmartin, whose firm Forest City Ratner has transformed Downtown Brooklyn, said they “never compete” with fellow developers the Walentasʼ.
Gilmartin, who met Ratner when she was an urban fellow working under Mayor Ed Koch, said she “hit the career lottery, accidentally.”
She characterized her longtime business partner and friend Ratner as a “paternal” figure in her life, having never known her father.
“We function through great dysfunction,” she said.
Ratner talked about his journey from working for the City as the commissioner of consumer affairs, which often pitted him against big business and being “embarrassed” to be working in real estate to now being an executive at Forest City Ratner.
Describing himself as a “very liberal” progressive as a young person in the Vietnam era, Ratner struggled with his identity in real estate.
“My voice would squeak when I would say ‘I’m a real estate developer,” said Ratner. “I was almost embarrassed. When I went into real estate, I realized anything I was going to do had to have a social impact.”
David countered Ratner’s statement, saying “we couldn’t be more different.”
“The government wanted to protect manufacturing, I said, ‘Jesus couldn’t protect manufacturing,’” said David. “The government and politics opposed everything we did. They never got it.”
It wasn’t until the Bloomberg administration that “they finally got it,” said David.
For the younger Walentas, Jed, following in his father’s footsteps was not exactly clear-cut. Jed said he “had no idea” he would be in real estate.
“I had interest in the business, but I interviewed for a lot of jobs in finance,” he said. He ended up working for Donald Trump, after a memorable interview with Trump himself and 30 other people in the room.
In 1997, after Mayor Giuiliani’s administration agreed to rezone DUMBO, he began working with his father at Two Trees, where he has been ever since. As principal of the firm, he handles the day-to-day operations.
“We spar about a few things once in a while, but it’s great,” said Jed. David admitted that he’s “not a people person” and that he only knows half a dozen people’s names that work for the company, but that Jed balances him out.
Forest City Ratner’s crown jewel, the Barclays Center, which opened in 2012 after years of lawsuits and roadblocks, became the highest-grossing entertainment and sports venue in the U.S. in its first year, bypassing Madison Square Garden, according to Billboard magazine.
“My God, we did this, we really did this,” he recalled of his thoughts on the opening night of Barclays Center. “I was in awe, I actually cried.”