Billionaire developer Sheldon Solow dies at 92

Head of Solow Realty & Development amassed a huge NYC portfolio over his 50-year career

Sheldon Solow (Getty)
Sheldon Solow (Getty)

Sheldon Solow, the billionaire developer known for his litigious tendencies, died at the age of 92.

The cause of death was lymphoma, his wife Mia Fonssagrives Solow told Bloomberg News.

The Brooklyn-born developer, whose estimated net worth was $4.4 billion, according to Forbes, is best known for the swooping skyscraper at 9 West 57th Street. But through his firm, Solow Realty & Development, he amassed an extensive portfolio over his 50-plus year career. His holdings spanned 3.8 million square feet, according to a 2017 analysis by The Real Deal.

Solow dropped out of New York University in the 1950s to enter real estate, doing his first deal with his father, a bricklayer and a Russian immigrant. The two purchased a 72-unit apartment building in Far Rockaway. Solow went on to build one-family homes in Long Island, and eventually began buying up properties along West 57th Street in Manhattan.

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Savills’ Woody Heller, who has known Solow since he was young, said the developer repeatedly ignored warnings that the designs of his buildings wouldn’t sit well with the market. For example, the travertine façade on 9 West 57th Street blocked the view of the buildings’ corner offices, a feature some speculated would stifle leasing.

“Sheldon was an amazing man for many many reasons. He was a man with a clear vision, he was a man who bucked the trends and challenged the industry norms,” Heller said. He added that Solow repeatedly proved the market wrong. “Very few developers accomplish that several times.”

One of his most recent projects was an all-black residential tower at 685 First Avenue, which was designed by Richard Meier and Partners Architects.

“I am proud to have worked with Sheldon on many great projects, some that literally changed the skyline of New York, but more than that, he was a close, personal friend,” Meier said in a statement. “Sheldon was a visionary and the consummate professional with a relentless attention to detail.”

Solow was also famously lawsuit-happy, having reportedly brought more than 200 cases against opponents throughout his career. In 1975, he sued Avon, at the time the anchor tenant of the West 57th Street skyscraper, for referring to the property as the “Avon Building” without paying for naming rights.

And in 2006, he sued Conesco over his failed bid to buy the GM Building in 2003. The insurance company sold the property to Harry Macklowe for $1.4 billion, and in his suit, Solow accused Conseco of bid-rigging. Though he dropped the lawsuit in 2010, he reportedly remained bitter about the outcome for years.

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“I think he fought for what he believed was right, and he did it tirelessly,” Cohen Brothers’ Steven Cherniak, who worked at Solow’s firm for more than two decades, said of his former boss’s frequent litigation. “I don’t think it was frivolous.”

Cherniak was once locked in a legal feud with Solow himself after he was abruptly fired from the firm in 2008, though the two settled the matter amicably and quickly rekindled their friendship. Cherniak described Solow as a father figure, who was full of determination but had a compassionate side not many had the chance to see. He recounted that Solow spent hours with him in the hospital as his wife underwent surgery.

Despite his public court battles, Solow’s peers have described him as a private person, who largely shied away from the limelight. In fact, he used to instruct his secretary to put a cup of coffee on his desk when he was on vacation, so that no one would know where he was.

“He was so private, he didn’t want anyone to know he wasn’t in office,” Cherniak said.

Even quiet run-ins with the developer could prove memorable. Ackman-Ziff’s Simon Ziff told TRD in 2017 that he would periodically find himself alone with Solow as they both admired Japanese maple trees in a private nursery in Westchester.

Heller said that because Solow was shy, not many had the opportunity to know him well.

“He had high and exacting standards, so some thought he was tough,” Heller said. “But he was also a very warm, dear man who I was deeply fond of.”

Solow was an avid art collector, with some of his works displayed in a private gallery on the ground floor of his company’s headquarters on 57th Street. The gallery recently made headlines due to its charitable status, which would allow Solow to reportedly save more than $30 million in capital gains taxes on his planned sale of a 500-plus-year-old painting by Sandro Botticelli.

Solow is survived by his wife, and two sons, Stefan Soloviev and Nikolai Solow. Soloviev has taken an increasingly active role in his father’s firm over the last few years, dividing his time between the company’s Midtown headquarters and his expansive portfolio of cattle ranches in the Southwest.

Most recently, the development company has worked to empty out buildings along 57th Street to make way for new luxury residential towers.

“I don’t believe that Mr. Solow believes that he’ll ever die,” attorney David Rozenholc, whose client was being evicted by Solow, said in 2017. “He’s sitting with empty buildings [on 57th Street]. He’s trying to get rid of all the tenants.”