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In land of Walentas, Mom & Pop are still king

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That damn Starbucks still burns at David Walentas. The Starbucks is on the corner of Main Street and Front Street, in the heart of DUMBO.

DUMBO, as in Walentasville.

Walentas controls close to 75 percent of this former industrial neighborhood that he started buying up piece-by-piece decades ago — but he doesn’t own the new condo building that rented its ground floor to the caffiend from Seattle.

“I hate that Starbucks,” Walentas told me just the other day, even though the joint has been open for more than a year.

“We already have the DUMBO General Store [which sells a similarly expensive, but far-superior, brew, in a quirky, uncorporate way] and the Coffee Box [another caffeine dealer two blocks away],” Walentas said of his tenants. “We don’t need that Starbucks.”

Like the summertime weather (“it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”), Walentas’s problem with Starbucks could be boiled down to this: “It’s not the competition, it’s the ubiquity.” And David Walentas doesn’t like chain stores.

And that’s why he’s inviting — begging, actually — a suitably entrepreneurial Mom-and-Pop to come to DUMBO and open a pharmacy. Despite DUMBO’s nearly 10,000 residents and workers, the closest place to get a prescription filled is in Brooklyn Heights.




David Walentas

“Duane Reade would love to come in here, but we won’t have them,” Walentas said. “They’d pay whatever we ask, but we don’t need another place that sells Cokes and chips. We need a real pharmacy where they know you.”

Love him or hate him, you at least have to appreciate Walentas for vision. He’s been criticized for owning too much of DUMBO, and running the neighborhood in a manner that suggests that he, well, runs the neighborhood, but other developers are only interested in getting a high-paying tenant for a single ground-floor retail space in a single building — and not caring if there’s two of the exact same stores within three blocks.

“Most landlords own a building, they don’t own a neighborho­od,” he said. “I’m not a do-gooder. I want to increase the value of the entire neighborhood, not just one space.”

As such, he’ll take far-below-market rate for the vacant space, knowing fully well that the better the mix of stores — a mix that currently includes the upscale Jacques Torres chocolate shop and Almondine bakery, an old-style hardware store, and a wonderfully blue-collar pizzeria and bagel store — the more money he’ll get for his condos and the better the neighborhood will retain its value.

And who needs another bank?

“Chase wanted to open in one of my buildings,” Walentas said. “I said, ‘We already have a bank [Sovereign], so why do we need another?”

It’s too early to say whether Mom-and-Pop will answer Walentas’s call. Even with a reduced rent, it’s still not easy for sole proprietors to branch out.

“Opening your own business is a real struggle every day,” said Robert Pollina, who opened Pollina Pharmacy in Dyker Heights two years ago after doing duty at an Eckerd drugstore.

Like Walentas, Pollina appreciates the neighborhood feel of a local pharmacy, but thinks Walentas is fooling himself if he thinks he can land a Mom and Pop store.

“Three or four years ago, I went down to DUMBO and talked about opening a drugstore,” he said. “And some people I know in Park Slope looked, too. But it’s too hard to make it work. To get your opening merchandise you have to spend $100,000. The shelving alone for a 1,000-square-foot store is $18,000 and the computer system was $10,000. For Eckerd, that’s a drop in the bucket.”

But Walentas said he’s not giving up. “I’m not bringing Duane Reade down here,” he said.



Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at gkuntzman@cnglocal.com
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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