Walentas is the developer responsible for turning Dumbo from an industrial wasteland into one of Brooklyn's chicest neighborhoods.
These days Walentas controls more than half a billion dollars' worth of property, but he grew up decidedly less loaded: The home in Rochester he grew up in lacked indoor plumbing, and he had to forgo the architecture program at UVA because his ROTC scholarship wouldn't foot the bill. Following a stint in the Navy that took him to Morocco and Denmark, Walentas returned to the U.S. to attend business school before teaming up with a partner to launch Two Trees. During the '70s, the firm was a fairly minor New York landlord, buying and managing residential buildings like Alwyn Court on West 58th Street, a housing complex in Inwood, and a few buildings on Greene and Broome Streets. But in 1981 Walentas made his career-defining deal: Using $12 million he'd cobbled together from Ron Lauder and Leonard Lauder (who knew his wife, Jane, from her days working at the family cosmetics company), he bought 11 rotting warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront from Helmsley-Spear. He immediately made plans to turn the warehouses into condos and transform the 'hood into a latter-day SoHo. His plans, though, were repeatedly foiled by then-Mayor Ed Koch and his deputy mayor for economic development Ken Lipper.
In 1997, the city finally relented and Walentas immediately set into motion a plan to convert the iconic Clock Tower Building into posh condo development 1 Main. To encourage gentrification in the then-desolate neighborhood, Walentas started offering free (or sharply discounted) retail space to creative types, like artists, gallerists, architects, and chefs such as Jacques Torres, who opened his chocolate boutique there. The scheme worked—Dumbo is now one of the most sought-after residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn—and Walentas has continued to roll out residential developments in the area.
Walentas now controls 13 buildings and about 1,000 residential units in Brooklyn—more than any other private developer in the borough. In 2006, Two Trees finished up work on 70 Washington, a warehouse-turned-condo next to the Manhattan Bridge; a year later, it finished transforming 110 Livingston, the former Board of Education building in downtown Brooklyn, into 299 condos. (As is his custom, he's allowing a theater company to occupy the building's ground floor rent-free.) Elsewhere, he recently unveiled a proposal for a mixed-use development called Dock Street Dumbo, which if approved, would feature 400 residential units, a middle school, a marina, and a 1902 carousel that Jane Walentas painstakingly restored over 22 years. Other Two Trees assets in Brooklyn include 66 Water Street, the Sweeney Building, Court House in Brooklyn Heights, and 130 Court. But although his name is now synonymous with Brooklyn, Walentas owns some non-718 assets, too: He bought two towers in the J.P. Morgan Chase International Plaza in Dallas in 2006, and later that year he paid $130 million for a parcel on West 53rd Street, where he intends to put up 1,000 residential units.
Walentas has a longstanding feud with fellow Brooklyn-based developer Shaya Boymelgreen. After tangling over adjacent properties in January 2006, Walentas threatened to erect a giant, light-obstructing (and deliberately hideous) sculpture next to Boymelgreen's development 57 Front.
Quite possibly the most powerful figure in the New York polo world this side of Peter Brant, Walentas owns a 115-acre equestrian center/polo grounds in Bridgehampton, Two Trees Farm. In the summer of 2007, he recruited Argentine mallet man Adolfo Cambiaso—widely regarded as the best polo player on Earth—to play on the polo team he owns named, of course, Two Trees.
Walentas met his wife, Jane, in 1968. (They were introduced because he had instructed his real estate agent to have all pretty girls interested in living in his buildings interview with him directly.) Their son, Jed Walentas, handles much of the deal-making and day-to-day work at Two Trees these days and is poised to take over for David upon his not-too-distant retirement. David and Jane split their time between their farm in Bridgehampton and a penthouse at 1 Main, which is filled with Warhols and other pieces from their formidable art collection.
Frighteningly, Walentas has the phrase "NO GUTS, NO GLORY" embroidered on the left cuff of all of his dress shirts.