NYC’s elite land-use attorneys

<i>A look at the top planning and zoning lawyers in NYC</i>

Stephen Lefkowitz of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson
Stephen Lefkowitz of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson
Chances are you won’t see the name of a land-use attorney on the side of a building anytime soon. Though these experts often appear at public hearings, their work usually takes place in the background.

And yet, these legal guides often play a pivotal role in shepherding projects through the byzantine New York City planning process — particularly for projects that involve novel uses and special approvals.

The land-use attorneys profiled below are at the top of their field, all helping shape the height of skyscrapers, the use of public space, and what types of projects go where in New York.

Samuel “Sandy” Lindenbaum and Paul Selver
Firm: Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

If any name is synonymous with land-use lawyering in New York City, it’s Samuel “Sandy” Lindenbaum, of counsel at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

Lindenbaum has spent nearly 50 years wrangling with the city’s zoning laws, recently advising Columbia University on rezoning the 17-acre site earmarked for its Manhattanville campus, as well as the Museum of Modern Art on its 1,050-foot, Jean Nouvel-designed tower. Currently, Lindenbaum is representing Stanford University in its bid to develop an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island (see related story on page 64).

But Lindenbaum’s colleagues are no slouches either.

Paul Selver, cochair of the firm’s land-use department, is representing Extell Development Company at Riverside Center, the last parcel of the massive Riverside South development started by Donald Trump on the Upper West Side in the early 1990s. Extell received city approval for a 3.1 million-square-foot, mixed-use project last December, and is now helping build a school at 61st Street and West End Avenue — a pledge that won the developer an extra 20 percent of floor area, Selver said.

Selver is also advising the Howard Hughes Corp. on transforming a three-story building at the South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 into a retail center, although that project is in its earliest stages.

“It’s about as interesting a job as you can have,” Selver said of his profession, “if you really love New York City and you care about architecture and urban design and planning — and if you enjoy a little bit of politics and a little bit of theater.”

Jesse Masyr
Firm: Wachtel & Masyr

As one of the Related Companies’ go-to land-use specialists and an attorney for Thor Equities’ Joseph Sitt, Jesse Masyr has plenty to occupy his time.

The founder of Wachtel & Masyr’s land-use department, Masyr has worked with Related’s Stephen Ross for 25 years. He is currently working on the developer’s 21-acre Gateway II site in East New York, which was rezoned in 2009 to allow for a new, 630,000-square-foot mall.

Though the greatest hurdle was securing the city’s approval, Masyr said, the project is a challenge because it needs completely new infrastructure, including streets and power lines, all of which require further approvals. “We’re building a new part of the city,” he said.

Meanwhile, Masyr is working with Sitt on a range of projects, including devising a plan for the four acres the developer still owns at Coney Island (he sold six acres to the city), a Red Hook property once home to the Revere Sugar Refinery, and a recently approved rezoning in Bensonhurst that paves the way for a BJ’s Wholesale Club.

Stephen Lefkowitz

Firm: Fried Frank Harris
Shriver & Jacobson

Oftentimes, the client will consult us with respect to strategy, with respect to what is possible to achieve, what’s feasible, what’s not,” said land-use heavyweight Stephen Lefkowitz.

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A number of clients are counting on Lefkowitz’s expertise: Cornell University, which submitted a bid for the applied sciences campus, as well as two real estate investment trusts — California-based Macerich Co. and the Virginia-based Avalon Bay Communities — which submitted a joint proposal to develop the 61-acre site at Willets Point in Queens.

Lefkowitz and his colleagues at Fried Frank are also working for Related on several aspects of the $15 billion overhaul of Hudson Yards.

At the moment, he’s hashing out an agreement with the city for the refurbishment of the High Line’s northward extension around the West Side Yards, after Related inked a deal to lease a plot of land that will house a 51-story office tower and the luxury goods retailer Coach.

Lefkowitz is also acting as Forest City Ratner’s transactional attorney for the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn — “a project that never stops giving,” he joked.

Bob Davis

Firm: Bryan Cave

Bob Davis’s land-use experience dates back to 1980, when his then-boss, Herb Sturz, the deputy mayor for criminal justice, was appointed chair of the City Planning Commission. Davis followed him to the new department and never looked back. “Other than parking garages,” he said, “I’ve never done the same thing twice.”

Davis is now assisting the Gotham Organization with a $520 million residential development, billed as the largest new construction project in Manhattan. Slated for completion in 2014, the 1 million-square-foot development will bring 1,238 new rental units to West 45th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

Further south, Davis is advising New York University on its 6 million-square-foot expansion, which includes a proposal to add new academic buildings near Washington Square Park, as well as a public school and student housing within the Silver Towers residences, the landmarked three-building complex designed by I. M. Pei. (Davis declined to discuss details because the project is still in flux.)

Additionally, the New York City Economic Development Corp. recently retained Davis to work on an undisclosed project at the Lower East Side’s Seward Park.

Howard Goldman and Caroline Harris

Firm: Goldman Harris

Unlike the other attorneys on this list, Howard Goldman and Caroline Harris are not members of a real estate department within a larger firm. As the founders of the land-use boutique Goldman Harris, the husband-and-wife team focuses exclusively on zoning, preservation and environmental review.

In 2008, several years after they married, Harris decided to leave her position at the law firm Troutman Sanders and join Goldman at his eponymous firm. In 2010, they rechristened the business.

Recently, the duo assisted the Archdiocese of New York in a deal to protect 80,000 square feet of unused (but expiring) building rights at a low-income housing development in the Bronx’s West Farms urban renewal area.

“They put them in the bank for future use,” Goldman said.

In addition to preserving the rights — so a developer can use them down the road to create an additional 150 to 200 affordable units — the transaction represents a creative way of generating more affordable housing at urban renewal projects that are set to lose the protections of the 1960s-era program, they said.

The Archdiocese deal “is a model that can be used in many of the former urban renewal area districts in the city,” added Goldman, “because many of them are expiring.”