Got problems? Call the Fixer

Lawyer Ken Fisher is point guy for troubled builders

Sep.September 15, 2007 01:34 PM

To find Kenneth Fisher, look into the eye of a real estate storm. A former City Councilman, Fisher is a fixer who has emerged as a go-to guy for real estate clients embroiled in contentious projects or public relations problems.

It’s a role he clearly relishes. “Real estate is to New York what oil is to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “It permeates the culture.”

In July, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer backed a lawsuit against the Pinnacle Group, one of the fastest growing landlords in the city, which charges the company with harassing thousands of tenants as part of an effort to evict them and raise rents.

“I have never seen the mere mention of a landlord create so much fear,” said Stringer.

As Pinnacle’s lawyer and spokesman, Fisher deflected the suit’s charges by portraying it as a vendetta carried out by a disgruntled tenant whose mother had vandalized an elevator. He tried to engender sympathy for his client, claiming that the legal action blindsided him, since he and the two officials had been engaged in what he characterized as fruitful negotiations, but “they filed a lawsuit without telling us that those discussions had ended.”

In addition to his work muting negative press mentions for clients, Fisher has had uncanny success lobbying the City Council. In 2005, for example, he provoked the preservation lobby by helping to maneuver a vote that reversed a decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to bestow a historic designation on the Austin, Nichols & Co. warehouse at 184 Kent Street in Williamsburg.

“While in the Council, he was a great friend to the cause of preservation in the city, but he’s crossed over to the dark side now,” said Paul Graziano, co-principal of Associated Cultural Resource Consultants, which works with several Council members. “He had a big hand in lobbying the Council, and 184 Kent was the beginning of the latest onslaught against landmarks, setting a precedent that started off five denials in a row.”

Though he said that Fisher helped landmark parts of the Fieldston neighborhood in the Bronx, Graziano said that was his only recent pro-preservation stance.

Last May, Fisher quietly steered a new condominium at 224 Fifth Avenue through the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Proposed by Pennsylvania-based Brandolini Company, the 20-story glass and steel building will replace a six-story, mid-19th century townhouse in the Madison Square Historic District.

In addition to the legal work, he helped make presentations to the local City Council member and the community board, which opposed the project. The neighborhood’s councilwoman, Christine Quinn, had come out in opposition to the modern buildings, but architect Fred Bland at Beyer Blinder Belle created a sympathetic design with enough masonry touches to help the building blend with the block’s context, a key factor in winning approval from the commission.

Eventually, Quinn refused to oppose the project, which passed without much fuss. “No one is going to put baby carriages in front of bulldozers,” said Fisher.

Fisher also represents new projects. In Downtown Brooklyn, Fisher’s client Ron Hershco picked at the wound created by nearby Atlantic Yards when he proposed the Oro Condominiums, which will eventually become the borough’s tallest new construction tower.

Last year, Fisher helped broker an agreement between Hershco and the city to expand the planned 35-story condominium tower to 40 stories by buying the air rights from a nearby police and fire station for $9 million.

Though the 309-unit condominium is ineligible for subsidies, the project will include at least 13 middle-income affordable units. Local Councilwoman Letitia James tried to increase the affordable housing component, but Hershco played hardball and announced that he would scrap the entire air rights deal. When a Council subcommittee moved to vote on the issue, the mayor’s office stepped in and worked out a deal to provide subsidized housing elsewhere in the district.

Fisher is in the middle of another Brooklyn donnybrook that will end up before the Department of City Planning and, ultimately, the City Council. Last month, community opposition began to swell against the second go-round of a Two Trees project in Dumbo. The new proposal would build a recessed 400-unit residential tower that would reach 16 stories and overlook the road that traverses the Brooklyn Bridge. The developer proposes a public school along with the residential component.

“This is going to be a battle,” said Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, who is a friend of Fisher’s, even though they sometimes end up on opposite sides of the fence. “You don’t want to take on Ken. He can pick up the phone and summon a meeting with big players; no one in our community groups has the ability to do that.”

Performing the roles of press agent, litigation pit bull and puller of strings behind the scenes, Fisher works to keep reporters at bay or to say the right thing if anonymity is unavoidable.

Born into this kind of work, Fisher practiced with his father, Harold L. Fisher, a onetime chairman of the MTA who served as the personal attorney for high-level politicians, including former governor Hugh Carey.

Early on, Fisher specialized in low-level matters. “We had an unusual collection of clients, so we did everything from Trump’s liquor license work to community relations for the Related Companies.”

He and his brother Andy dabbled in real estate in the late 1970s — when they put some sweat equity into an upstate housing development that garnered mixed results — though he never got the bug. He owned a co-op until he and his wife traded up to a house in Brooklyn Heights about 15 years ago.

After working with his father, Fisher decided to enter the real “family business” — politics — and represented northwest Brooklyn in the City Council from 1991 to 2001, when term limits forced him to either seek higher office or enter the private sphere. A drubbing in the 2001 Brooklyn borough president’s race, where he received 4 percent of the vote, led him to take a spin in the revolving door.

“Ken knows his stuff, and when you go up against him, you have to bring your best game,” said Roger Lang, director of community programs and services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “His pro-preservation record in the City Council was exemplary, and he has represented several prominent cases that are contrary to his former position, but he’s entitled to earn his living.”

Randy Mastro, deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani, also left public life to serve in private legal practice as a problem-solver. He worked closely with the City Council during his tenure and praised Fisher’s “keen intellect and sharp tongue.”

Former public officials “understand how the system works,” Mastro said. “We’ve been on the inside, so who better to explain a case in the court of public opinion or in a court of law?”

Fisher insists that to be successful for his clients, he must appeal to the public interest in addition to satisfying his clients.

Mastro agrees, citing the credibility factor. “The most effective advocacy is to convince people that what the client wants is in the public interest,” he said.

Now that Fisher represents many controversial real estate interests citywide, he stands behind his clients, including one that he can’t hide. Embattled landlord Pinnacle is accused of illegally hiking rents and intimidating tenants through the legal system in a heavy-handed attempt to take its $1 billion real estate portfolio out of rent stabilization strictures.

Despite Pinnacle’s bad rap, Fisher contends that the company “runs a top-notch operation and has done a remarkable job rehabilitating slum housing.”

Pinnacle is unfairly blamed for gentrification in Harlem and other neighborhoods by grandstanding politicians, he said, pointing to the 550-unit Dunbar complex at 149th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, which occupies an entire block. Pinnacle bought the buildings in 2005, even though they had been in arrears at three times the rent roll. The previous owners had also racked up 2,000 violations.

“Con Ed refused to read the meters because the basement was so dangerous,” he said. “Today, there are less than 120 violations and it’s fully rented, which has considerably improved the life of the surrounding community. There were 30 vacancies in the complex, which are now rented. That’s the equivalent of a new building, but it’s been difficult to get that reported.”

In these boom times, developers are often tarred with a black brush, but Fisher recalls the lean years of the 1970s and 1980s, when construction workers demonstrated in the streets demanding jobs. Now that the city is overrun with projects, Fisher artfully dodges the slings and arrows of his opponents by presenting the public policy benefits of development.

“No matter how benign a proposal, nothing in this town is without controversy,” he said. “How you anticipate and manage that controversy is the question.”

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