Laying Down the Law: top lawyers who shape the skyline

Seven top attorneys who shape the city's skyline

When Bruce Ratner recently decided he wanted to build an arena in Brooklyn, he called on Stephen Lefkowitz. When Larry Silverstein set out to buy the World Trade Center, he got in touch with Leonard Boxer.

They are not the big names you usually hear about in New York real estate, but they are the ones that get the big projects done.

They are New York City s top real estate lawyers, and their sometimes arcane craft has helped shape and reshape the city skyline time and time again. The Real Deal looks at the city s top real estate attorneys in this month s issue.

Take Sandy Lindenbaum (pictured on cover page), considered by many to be the finest land use practitioner in the state. When Donald Trump wanted to find out how high he could build on a property on the East Side next to the United Nations, he went to the legendary lawyer, whose father had worked for Trump s father.

“I represented Donald since he was in short pants,” said Lindenbaum, though the two have had a falling out in recent years.

For the project, Lindenbaum calculated air-rights transfers, plaza bonuses and other zoning-code magic – and told Trump he could build the largest residential tower in the world, 90 stories tall, which later became Trump World Tower.

When Larry Silverstein bought the World Trade Center for $3.2 billion in 2001, six weeks before Sept. 11, Leonard Boxer headed up a team of 19 attorneys working on the deal, some at Silverstein s bedside, after the developer was hit by a car five days before final bids were due.

“Without him, the deal wouldn t have happened,” said Silverstein of Boxer. “With him, it did. He was totally focused on the deal in an excruciating time framework.”

When MetroTech and the Atlantic Center were built in Brooklyn by Forest City Ratner, Ratner called on Stephen Lefkowitz to do the land use work, and now is calling on him again for the Nets project.

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James Stuckey, director of commercial and residential development for Forest City Ratner, called Lefkowitz “brilliant.”

“He has a way of simplifying the most complex issues we confront in our business,” Stuckey said. “It permits us to take on projects that others would normally avoid.”

What else makes for a top real estate lawyer?

Jonathan Mechanic, often viewed as the top leasing lawyer in New York, said one of the key qualities is a good sense for business.

“You can bring up all the arcane points you want, but it s about what is a sensible resolution of things,” he said. “Having spent time on the business side, I have a sense of what all the parties to a transaction are looking for.”

“Lawyers are seen either as a deal makers or deal breakers,” he said. “I m a deal maker.”

Some top lawyers thrive be being specialists, while others are generalists.

Lindenbaum has achieved prominence by honing in on city zoning laws, as part of what he calls “a provincial type of business.”

Joseph Shenker, another top real estate lawyer who is more focused on capital markets, values being a generalist.

“When I speak to an incoming classes of lawyers, I tell them a good or great lawyer doesn t blank out when another real estate topic comes up that s not their job,” he said. “They should be broad-based, and able to provide wise advice on any topic.”