In the April 19, 2010 NY Magazine issue that listed the most ‘livable neighborhoods’, Dumbo is #19 on the list, as we posted last week. There is also an article about an unbranded neighborhood south of Herald Square, north of Flatiron, and east of Chelsea some are calling NoMad (article title Soho. Nolita. Dumbo. NoMad?). In it describes that while NoMad was a name in search of a neighborhood, but Dumbo was ‘created from scratch’, and David Walentas is the “benevolent dictator with a vision for the whole neighborhood.” Below, an exerpt of how Dumbo, as we know it today, was created.
It’s not impossible, of course, to create a neighborhood from scratch. David Walentas famously did it in Dumbo. “But Dumbo was unique,” he says, “totally different from other neighborhoods that have gone through transformation and gentrification in the last 30 years.”
Walentas, who is 71, started Two Trees Development in 1968. He bought buildings in Soho in the early seventies and Noho shortly after. Then Walentas asked his staff, “Soho, Noho, what’s next?” Someone told him “Dumbo.” Walentas said, “Where the fuck is Dumbo?” He decided to pay it a visit.
What he found was a largely vacant district of warehouses and factories on the Brooklyn waterfront, zoned for industrial use. He bought eight buildings, 2 million square feet, for $12 million, in 1981. “I got lucky. No one else wanted it. I bought the whole neighborhood.” It took seventeen years for him to persuade the city to rezone the area. After that, he assumed the role of “benevolent dictator,” as he says, “with a vision for the whole neighborhood.” He lured stores like Jacques Torres Chocolate and West Elm by offering them a few years’ worth of free rent. “That way, we created the neighborhood. We could give space away because we had so much, it didn’t matter. And it made my other properties more valuable. If you only owned one building, you would never do that. If you own one building, you take care of one building.”
It was a rare experiment in SimCity-style neighborhood building, but it worked, right down to the goofy name. Most people assume Walentas invented the acronym Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), but it predates him. “I loved it, but my lawyers and consultants said, ‘What are you, crazy? No one will ever want to go there.’ So they came up with ‘Fulton Landing.’ I said, ‘Fulton Landing? That sounds like it’s on the Ohio River. That could be fucking anywhere.’?”
Also, read how Dumbo got its name, in our 2007 story.