This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 17, 2014.
A Father and Son’s Land-use Legacy
Sheldon and Richard Lobel Work to Secure Changes to Properties’ Permitted Use or Size
By DOUGLAS FEIDEN
Aug. 17, 2014 8:41 p.m. ET
The currency of many of New York’s real estate dynasties is steel and concrete, and their calling card is the skyscraper that defines the city skyline.
But land-use lawyers Sheldon and Richard Lobel have helped to transform the urban streetscape in a less dramatic fashion: by winning far-reaching changes in the permitted use or size of thousands of properties.
Instead of jackhammers and cement mixers, the 77-year-old founder of Sheldon Lobel P.C. and his 44-year-old son make their mark by quietly getting zoning variances and special permits from the city’s influential but little-understood Board of Standards and Appeals. Founded in 1916, the BSA has the power to grant the exceptions after applicants have been turned down by the Department of Buildings or other city enforcement agencies.
Through their expertise, the Lobels have ushered residents and retailers into manufacturing areas, altered the allowable heights and setbacks of towers and shoehorned churches and homes into irregularly shaped lots that might otherwise have gone unused.
The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan, for instance, wanted to add a floor to its five-story townhouse at 345 E. 43rd St. opposite the United Nations. The expansion was rejected—the structure was already built out, at the limit of the Special U.N. Development District’s zoning—until the Bhutanese hired the Lobels. The firm convinced the BSA that the building’s first level, 50% below grade, was really a cellar, which freed up more floor area and allowed construction of the extra story.
In 2012 and 2013, the Lobels won 101 favorable decisions from the BSA—more than any other firm. Their closest competitor, Eric Palatnik P.C., run by a Lobel alumni, obtained 79 decisions, according to data from New York Law School’s CityAdmin website.
“We never have a calendar without a Lobel item on the table,” said Christopher Collins, the longtime BSA vice chairman who stepped down Aug. 1 to tackle land-use issues for Capalino+Company.
The Lobel family has a BSA pedigree that dates to 1951, when the elder Mr. Lobel’s father-in-law, the late Samuel Becker, joined the board. For the next 22 years, the lawyer-engineer served as the BSA’s executive director, commissioner, vice chairman and chairman before retiring in 1973.
“He inspired me to go into land-use law,” Mr. Lobel said of Mr. Becker.
The son of a pharmacist-turned-drugstore owner, the elder Mr. Lobel was raised in the East New York and Flatbush sections of Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1960. He opened his first office in 1969 as a storefront practice in Crown Heights and did income tax returns, landlord-tenant work—even a murder case.
“Whatever came in the door,” he said.
Mr. Lobel’s big break came in 1971 when he was retained by Peter Kalikow, then an ambitious 27-year-old developer expanding his family’s Queens-based real-estate business into Manhattan. When the builder turned his sights on 101 Park Ave., which became his 49-story signature tower, he said Mr. Lobel handled the “10,000 things you don’t think about, the millions of documents and permits you need.”
Now, Richard Lobel is stepping up. A 1998 graduate of New York University Law School, he joined his father in 2003 and became the firm’s managing partner in 2008.
Besides taking on BSA cases, the younger Lobel is nudging the six-attorney firm into a slightly different direction. He is carving out a new niche market representing a handful of the privately run charter schools that multiplied during the Bloomberg administration.
“Since Richard has come in, we’ve been doing more Manhattan-oriented work,” Sheldon Lobel said. “And I don’t do the heavy lifting anymore.”
Big-name new clients include Spitzer Enterprises. Steered by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the family-run firm retained the younger Mr. Lobel late last year after buying a site at 511 W. 35th St. The development rights for the property are 172,000 square feet; Mr. Lobel is handling the approval process for the acquisition of additional development rights that could let the Spitzers build up to 415,000 square feet.
“He knows what can and cannot be built, and he’s meticulous, responsive, quick and funny,” Mr. Spitzer said.
The younger Mr. Lobel has shown that a land-use lawyer indeed can have a sense of humor. He is an amateur stand-up comedian who has snagged top honors in “funniest lawyer” competitions and performed at the Gotham Comedy Club and Stand UP NY.
“You prepare for your audience, but you also ad-lib…you speak from the gut,” he said.
There is a third lawyer in the Lobel family, Sheldon’s daughter, Marci Lobel-Esrig, the associate general counsel of Sterling Equities, the real-estate investment firm whose principals also own the New York Mets.
Ms. Lobel-Esrig, who worked at the family firm from 1996 to 2005, said she “off-ramped” for three years when her third child was born, before “on-ramping” in 2008 at Sterling, where she enjoys a diverse, in-house practice handling real estate financing, management and transactions. As for any future plans, “I live one day at a time,” she said.