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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sandy Lindenbaum

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-06

Sandy Lindenbaum is a master of maximizing the possible.

"When I see a piece of property, the first thing that comes to mind is what that investment can achieve for the developer," Mr. Lindenbaum said yesterday. "So when developers want big projects or tall buildings to go up in New York City, they call me."

They call him because Mr. Lindenbaum is one of the most successful land use, or zoning, lawyers in the city.

He is, in fact, a legend in the real-estate industry. As examples of his work, he can point not only to scores of high-rise buildings in midtown Manhattan but also New York icons such as the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

He offers counsel to both commercial and not-for-profit organizations. They include Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, the Guggenheim Museum, the Archdiocese of New York, Yeshiva University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Bear Stearns, Tishman Speyer Properties, Vornado Realty Trust, Glenwood Management, Millennium Partners, and the Macklowe, Resnick, Silverstein and Solow Organizations.

Mr. Lindenbaum's current projects include the expansion of the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Whitney Museum, a new tower atop the Hearst headquarters building on Eighth Avenue, redevelopment of the former Alexander's site into the Bloomberg building on Lexington Avenue and East 59th Street, redevelopment of the Con Edison properties at First Avenue and East 40th Street, and Sheldon Solow's new residential towers on York Avenue and 60th Street.

Mr. Lindenbaum can also point to Donald Trump's skyscrapers - including the controversial 90-story residential tower near the United Nations - where his expertise was successfully employed.

His association with Mr. Trump was a payback of sorts because his father Abraham, a lawyer, used to work for Mr. Trump's father, Fred.

"I could even say that Fred Trump's fees for my father's work helped pay my tuition through Harvard College and Harvard School of Law," Mr. Lindenbaum said, with his characteristic chuckle.

His affable demeanor belies the fact that he's in a tough business. New York's complex zoning codes, which were reorganized in 1961 by Mayor Wagner and city planner Robert Moses, run to three thick books. In contrast, the original zoning code, written in 1916, took up only 35 pages.

"I figure out how to obtain the necessary administrative approvals for maximizing the developer's investment," Mr. Lindenbaum said.

That means handling special permits, zoning changes, variances, landmark proceedings, air rights transfers, tax abatements and economic development incentives. It also means advising clients on how best to take into account community views about a neighborhood project.

And it means, most of all, shepherding his client's zoning application through the Planning Commission, and the City Council.

Success in every case is by no means assured for the half-dozen or lawyers in New York who mainly practice land use law. They need to cultivate politicians and bureaucrats.

"The easiest thing for a public servant is to do nothing," Mr. Lindenbaum said, with another chuckle. "It's far easier to say 'no' to a zoning application than to say 'yes.' My job is to convince officials of the merits of my clients' application."

He has been convincing them successfully for more than four decades.

But he didn't start out as a real-estate lawyer.

"I came from a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section where great emphasis was put on education by my father, who was always known as Bunny, and my mother, Belle," Mr. Lindenbaum said. "I was an only child, and I had a fire in my belly. I had little doubt that I would follow in my father's footsteps and practice law."

His first job was on Wall Street as a taxation lawyer. But scarcely had he gotten his feet wet than he was asked to help out in the firm's real-estate department because it did not have enough attorneys on hand because of vacation time.

He flourished. He was then persuaded by his father to move his real-estate practice to Brooklyn, where both the Lindenbaums befriended a number of important politicians. He began representing blue-chip New York names such as the Hemsleys and the Zeckendorfs.

And as often happens in New York's interlinked worlds of politics, business and culture where connections count, the young Mr. Lindenbaum was referred to heavyweight real-estate figures by some of his heavyweight clients.

For example, Robert and Lawrence Tisch, for whom Mr. Lindenbaum had eased the way for expansion of their hotels, opened the door to New York's hotel and hospitality industry. Kinney Parking opened the door to the parking industry. His friendship with the late Steven Ross won Mr. Lindenbaum steady assignments with Time Warner.

Some of those associations led to his involvement in philanthropic and cultural activities. Mr. Lindenbaum is a founder, director and vice president of the Association for a Better New York. He's an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's also chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Friends of the Israel Museum, a member of the board of overseers of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and chair of the executive committee of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged.

So how does he maintain such a packed schedule?

"I work out, I pay attention to my diet - and I walk a lot," the athletic-looking Mr. Lindenbaum said.

He multitasks even while walking. If he's waiting for a traffic light to change, he reads a book.

And what would it take for a young lawyer today to emulate Sandy Lindenbaum?

There was a long pause, a chuckle, then another long pause.

"You have to be smart," he said presently. "You have to have integrity. Law tests your character as much as it does your skills."

A significant test for Mr. Lindenbaum has not only been interpreting New York's zoning laws. It has also meant monitoring the predilections of various mayors, not all of whom were committed to pushing growth in a planned manner.

His favorite mayors?

Another chuckle.

"I suppose Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg," Mr. Lindenbaum said. "They showed serious interest in planned development of the city."

Then he chuckled again.

"Mayors come and mayors go, but I'm still here," he said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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