Coveted Counsel: Real Estate Lawyer Meredith Kane Talks About Her Deals Reshaping the City
Danielle Schlanger Jan. 28, 2015, 1:10 p.m.
In 1990, Times Square’s West 42nd Street was in bad shape. The real estate market was in the tank and the blighted corridor, running from Broadway to Eighth Avenue, boasted little activity aside from adult video stores, peep shows and the occasional dive bar.
As part of the 42nd Street Development Project, a city-state economic initiative designed to kick-start the area’s revitalization, a not-for-profit organization called the New 42nd Street was given the task of restoring the area’s abandoned theaters. Over time, tenants were found for each theater and leases were written, breathing new life into these architectural gems.
Today, West 42nd Street is a vibrant tourist destination. And the counsel responsible for negotiating complex leases for the organization over the past near quarter-century is Meredith Kane, a partner in the real estate department at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
“I don’t think we would have succeeded to the extent we did, or have had a shot of surviving in the way that we had over the years, if it had not been for Meredith,” said Cora Cahan, the president of the New 42nd Street. “She brings to the table her knowledge, her experience, her wisdom, her humanity, her ebullient spirit and garners the respect of all who deal with her … whether on the same side or the opposite side of the table.”
Ms. Kane’s resume reads like a recent history of New York City real estate. Working with developers, equity investors, institutional owners and government agencies, the 60-year-old mother of two has been an integral player on countless projects, including Cornell Tech, the new engineering school slated for Roosevelt Island, and the New York Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel planned for Staten Island.
“Meredith is passionate about shaping the city’s economy and its skyline and is fiercely devoted both to the city and her clients’ interests,” said Brad Karp, the chair of Paul, Weiss. “[She] is blessed with many wonderful traits as a lawyer and strategist, but perhaps her most helpful is her innate ability to bring diverse interests together to find common ground to close complex deals.”
Ms. Cahan and Mr. Karp are not alone in their sentiments. New York City Council Member Dan Garodnick worked closely with Ms. Kane when she represented the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village tenants association in its efforts to preserve the long-term affordability of the community and to devise a conversion plan. “Meredith Kane is a force of nature,” Mr. Garodnick said. “When Meredith is on your team, you feel in your gut that your chances of success just got stronger. Not only is she incredibly creative in her approach, but she also knows how to engage gracefully with varying constituencies.” Ms. Kane’s representation at the mega-complex ranged from engaging with potential capital partners to answering questions from hundreds of tenants at town hall meetings. Indeed, not everyone can make mortgage-backed securities understandable to a room of 300 community members.
Ms. Kane said she hadn’t planned on being a real estate lawyer. During an extended conversation with Commercial Observer at Paul, Weiss’ headquarters at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, she shared that after graduating from Yale University, where she had taken one urban planning class, she “literally fell into a job” working as a city planner for New Haven, Conn. Ms. Kane said she fell in love with the subject matter.
“I was so fascinated by the issues of cities,” she said. “This was the late ’70s when everything was [in] the post-urban renewal era. And New Haven had been a fascinating laboratory.” New Haven had experienced a steep economic decline in the post-war era, and it ultimately received large sums of financial aid to spur the city’s revival. Afterwards, Ms. Kane knew she wanted to work with real estate, regardless of whether she went to law school, business school or a city planning graduate program.
Following her graduation from Harvard Law School, Ms. Kane joined Paul, Weiss in January 1983. Aside from a two-year stint in the 1980s working for the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development under New York City’s then-mayor Ed Koch, she has spent her entire career at the firm.
“We have a fabulous broad real estate practice that covers every aspect of buying, building, owning, operating, selling [and] financing real estate throughout New York, throughout the country and even throughout the world,” Ms. Kane said. “It really is everything you could want from a practice.”
While there is no shortage of real estate attorneys in New York, associates of Ms. Kane say what sets her apart is her ability to truly understand all facets of a deal and the priorities of both parties, as well as her congenial personality that fosters collaboration when the stakes are high.
Gerald Blume, the general counsel of Rockefeller Group Development Corporation, has worked closely with Ms. Kane for the past 10 years on the Flushing Commons mixed-use development project in Queens, where she has been the primary outside counsel for the developer. Mr. Blume said Ms. Kane’s “enormous experience” with public-private deals proved to be vital. Unlike with a private seller that simply sells a parcel to a developer, the city tries to boost the surrounding community when selling land. The city is concerned about what will be built on the land, as well as how and when a project will be constructed. Mr. Blume said Ms. Kane brings sensitivity to these issues while still achieving the goals of her clients.
“An important part of the Flushing Commons deal was acquiring land from the City of New York,” Mr. Blume explained. “And Meredith’s understanding of what’s important to the city and how we can make a deal that can work for the city was essential to completing the deal.”
Colleagues have repeatedly cited the sheer complexity of the deals that Ms. Kane has undertaken during her career. The projects she has tackled, including those for not-for-profit organizations, present unique challenges that require real legal acumen.
Ira Schuman, the executive vice president at Savills Studley who has known Ms. Kane for the past 25 years, stressed the importance in recognizing that doing real estate deals in the not-for-profit sector is far more complex than executing commercial deals. The space requirements, deal structures and financing sources available to an organization are generally more complex than a standard commercial transaction.
“There are many more skills you need as a lawyer to bring deals together smoothly in the not-for-profit sector,” Mr. Schuman said. “And in my experience, Meredith has both the intelligence and temperament, both of which are important, to doing large, complex deals in the not-for-profit sector.”
Mr. Schuman said that the most remarkable deal he has worked on with Ms. Kane was the transaction with the American Civil Liberties Union at 125 Broad Street, where she crafted a leasehold condominium for the legal advocacy group more than 20 years ago. The tax-efficient strategy allows a not-for-profit organization to control real estate on a long-term basis and not pay real estate taxes. At the time, the building was on a land lease, which would not have ordinarily permitted the tenant to be exempt from real estate taxes. However, by crafting the leasehold condo, Mr. Schuman and Ms. Kane achieved that goal.
“Meredith is the mother of the leasehold condominium,” said Mr. Schuman, “and I was attending the birth.” Since then, the two have crafted these structures for universities, social services agencies, foundations and other not-for-profit organizations.
Of all of the deals she has worked on, Ms. Kane said representing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the Hudson Yards project has been the most memorable.
“I think for me, the Hudson Yards deal will be the deal that I look at and feel that I have seen it from its very beginning stages to now, where it’s just becoming the most enormous, important development in the city,” she said.
Ms. Kane has been the MTA’s primary outside counsel on the Hudson Yards project and has worked on the deal since 2000. She stressed that the amount of press attention and praise Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history, has received is well deserved.
“It really is the creation of not just a new neighborhood, but a creation of an entire new business district in Manhattan,” she said. “It has had an impact on shaping all of the development in the surrounding area in a way that has gone faster than anyone expected.”
Jeff Rosen, the MTA’s director of real estate, worked closely with Ms. Kane on the project and said that “the legal documentation underlying the West Side Yards is almost as complex in its architecture as the buildings that can now be seen rising above our rail yard, and Meredith has been its primary architect.” He added, “her service to the MTA has been invaluable.”
Part of what makes Hudson Yards remarkable, Ms. Kane said, is the transformation of underutilized, underdeveloped land in Manhattan through the use of public incentives, public infrastructure funding and private development initiatives all put into place.
“It’s an example of the government cooperation with the private sector that was really well thought through and has just worked really well,” she said.