Jed Walentas caught in ‘racial mess’

Jed Walentas caught in ‘racial mess’

DUMBO developer Jed Walentas admitted that it was good that his supporters from “the projects” — and their political backers — didn’t show up and make a “total racial mess” at a 2009 hearing on his controversial Dock Street project.

That cynical assessment, contained in an e-mail between Walentas and the top official at Brooklyn Bridge Park who supported the Dock Street high-rise project, offers a rare glimpse how developers and their allies see local politicians and their constituents.

In this case, Walentas was specifically referring to his controversial Dock Street proposal, which was still moving through the public approval process when the developer wrote his Jan. 28, 2009 e-mail to Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myer.

Walentas wrote to recap a public hearing held the night before by Borough President Markowitz, whose support Walentas and Myer were both eager to win.

“The opposition is clearly panicked and turned out 75 or so folks,” Walentas wrote. “[Fort Greene Councilwoman] Tish [James] and Marty [Markowitz] agreed to not turn out dozens from the projects and make it a total racial mess. … I got very good vibes from Marty and his staff.”

The 17-story residential project, which includes a public middle school as a sweetener, ultimately did win Markowitz’s support — and went on to earn final approval from the City Council.

The leaked e-mail certainly won’t change that fact. But it may tarnish Walentas — and remind the general public of the ugly, raw and usually hidden side of public policy, where politicians threaten to use human beings as bargaining chips and developers bring in high-priced lobbyists, typically former government officials, to ward off the threat.

“It’s disgusting,” said Gus Sheha, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Foundation, which is suing Two Trees to stop the project. “This [e-mail] highlights what we’ve been saying all along: the public review process is nothing but a sham. It clearly indicates that political and development tentacles are highly intertwined with this project.”

As evidence of collusion between the city and Walentas, opponents pointed out that the city moved ahead with the Dock Street school, even after determining that that the Walentas middle school doesn’t meet some of the city’s own standards.

In a statement, Two Trees said the memo was being misinterpreted.

Walentas, a spokeswoman said, used the term “racial mess” to describe how Markowitz and James had rightly decided to focus on the size and scale issues related to the development itself, not the ever-contentious subject of whether a new public middle school would attract minority students from outside DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.

“Some of the opposition was well meaning, but there was an undercurrent that was particularly opposed to the school if it was open to students from throughout District 13, and not just Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO,” said the statement. “I think the elected officials wanted to keep the focus on the merits of the land-use issues.”

Both Markowitz and James support the project, but James denied on Tuesday that she agreed with Walentas’s suggestion in the e-mail that James could start a “racial mess” if she wanted to.

In fact, she said that she and her constituents always supported the project — then again, those constituents and their public school kids don’t live in tony DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, where opposition to the project was centered.

Developer Jed Walentas listened during a 2009 hearing at Borough Hall — then expressed his pleasure that people from “the projects” didn't make the hearing a “racial mess.”
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan