Thursday, April 2, 2009

Transform your own neighborhood - lessons from DUMBO's David Walentas

I've been thinking about how to use this economic downturn to galvanize the artists who have been squeezed out of their studios and performance spaces by high rents and greedy developers. Seems the best place to look is DUMBO.

David Walentas is a visionary developer, who transformed the neighborhood almost singlehandedly. In 1981, he bought a number of buildings in the then-bleak area and, over time, managed to rezone the neighborhood. His company, Two Trees, still owns a number of commercial and residential rental buildings, and he rode the crest of the wave he created to sold-out condos in One Main, 30 Main, and 70 Washington (in addition to 110 Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn).

His strategy to bring in high-end buyers seems to have worked in this way: while awaiting rezoning, he made space available to artists and arts organizations at a discounted rate. The artists transformed the neighborhood by creating a demand for services in the area (seriously, in the 1980's you couldn't get a cup of coffee in Dumbo). Coffee shops, delis and bars emerged to serve the artist population. "Destination" restaurants like Superfine (which sprang from the backside of a divey bar before moving to its current location) began to bring in people from outside the neighborhood. Walentas used the vast lobby spaces in his buildings as galleries, and large-scale art events spilled out into the cobbled streets. People were enchanted by the river, the bridges, the sense that something cool was happening. By the time the buildings had been reclassified as residential properties, there was enough pent-up demand to sell some very pricey (albeit extraordinary) apartments. People were willing to pay more for the views, the high ceilings, the massive pre-war masonry and steel construction - especially because there was little condominium stock in the surrounding neighborhoods. Most of Brooklyn Heights was/is co-op, much of it with very high maintenance. Walentas didn't overdo it with in-building amenities, and his timing was brilliant. I have friends who lost their studios/offices/illegal homes as these buildings were converted, and saw some great art spaces transformed into high-end appliance stores and children's boutiques. But most people in Dumbo (even those who lost their cheap rentals) don't begrudge Two Trees their systematic transformation of the neighborhood. Like a brilliant card player who lays down a straight flush, you just shake your head and hand him your money. He outplayed you, fair and square.

We're seeing something similar happen in Bushwick, but again, the artists are truffling pigs, not landlords. As prices decline, perhaps we're approaching a moment in which artists and arts organizations can finally afford to buy their own property and reap the rewards of their own ability to transform a neighborhood. It'll take time, organization, political chutzpah, and vision.

Sunset Park, anyone?

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