Industry  ·  Legal

What Commercial Real Estate’s Top Lawyers Were up to in 2022 

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Possession might be nine-tenths of the law, but in New York you need a really good lawyer to keep it. 

The most powerful players in real estate tend to be the companies that own it. But there are thousands of lawyers in New York City who help those landlords keep their property, extract rent from tenants, advise on major transactions, and even advocate politically for their interests. 

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And in a time of incredible market stress — when landlords are handing back the keys on properties, when bankruptcies loom, when the housing shortage is practically crying out for zoning changes — we have the feeling that lawyers are going to only get more important.

Here are the names of some of the JDs propping up the real estate industry. Almost any of them could be on Power 100 (and some of them have been in the past). But one should not doubt their importance, their erudition or their power.

Jay Neveloff

Partner and chair of real estate for New York
at Kramer Levin

Last year was far from the best of times for real estate, but it was certainly one of the most fascinating times for Jay Neveloff. 

“As the market started to turn in 2022, and certainly where it’s going this year, it’s really asset-by-asset driven,” Neveloff said. “Every deal is different. The needs of the deals are different, the parties are different, the lenders are different, and it requires more creativity. In a sense there’s more here. That’s great for lawyers.” 

The word that best sums up last year’s real estate transactions was “complexity,” said Neveloff. In 2022 alone, Neveloff worked on office-to-residential conversions, handled financings, and represented a handful of clients buying debt from banks in off-market transactions, he said. 

Some of his deals have been simpler, though only Neveloff would describe a $313 million refinancing as “plain vanilla.” Neveloff helped Fortress Investment Group, Bizzi & Partners and the U.S. Immigration Fund secure a new mortgage to complete 125 Greenwich Street, a long-delayed 88-story tower in the Financial District.

And Kramer Levin’s condominium deals charged forward, despite the uncertain economic picture. Kramer Levin closed roughly $1.5 billion in condo sales in 2022 and entered into contract for just over $1 billion worth of transactions. 

Michael Zetlin

Founding and senior partner at Zetlin & De Chiara

Michael Zetlin has been on the executive committee of the New York Building Congress, an advocacy organization for the construction industry, for nearly two decades. But 2022 marked a key year for the organization’s political work.

The New York Building Congress has pushed to get federal and state dollars for the Gateway, a multibillion-dollar project for a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey that scored $292 million in federal grants in January

It’s also advocated for housing initiatives, including easing the conversion of office buildings into housing, lifting the floor-to-area ratio cap (FAR) to produce denser residential towers, and replacing or extending the 421a tax abatement program that benefited affordable housing developers, Zetlin said. 

But with most of these plans missing from New York’s final 2023-24 budget, the future of housing development in New York City remains uncertain, Zetlin said.

“We try to educate legislators on the importance and benefits of programs like 421a, lifting the FAR cap, because developers are in a waiting game,” Zetlin said. “But we don’t dictate the game plan.” 

Outside of his work at the Building Congress, Zetlin has had a hand in some of the city’s biggest construction projects, including renovations to John F. Kennedy Airport, LaGuardia Airport and past work at Pennsylvania Station, Zetlin said. 

Robert Ivanhoe

Vice chair, senior chairman of the global real estate practice, and co-chair of the REIT practice at
Greenberg Traurig

Robert Ivanhoe has had a hand in some of the biggest deals in New York real estate. And despite an all-around tough 2022 for real estate, he’s kept busy.

Out in Long Island, Ivanhoe helped advise Kabro Associates on its $375 million sale of a handful of grocery-anchored shopping centers to Kimco Realty, as the seller wound down its family business in November, The Real Deal reported. 

Ivanhoe also worked on a nearly billion-dollar financing on the Upper West Side last year. He represented Extell Development Company in its acquisition of the final part of the ex-Walt Disney-owned ABC campus — itself a $930 million deal — and in Extell’s $900 million acquisition debt package from Guggenheim Partners and a handful of other lenders, according to Greenberg Traurig. 

Outside of his work on property sales, Ivanhoe helped advise a newly formed real estate investment trust (REIT) investment manager, one created this year by the February merger of two asset managers, Armada ETF Advisors and technology-focused firm Arialgo. The new company will focus on using machine-learning technology to make investment decisions.

Michael Lefkowitz 

Managing member at Rosenberg & Estis

Lefkowitz leads Rosenberg & Estis’s transactional department, and these days he’s spending a good deal of his time on loans. 

“Every down cycle, I have to reinvent myself,” Lefkowitz said. “A lot of my time where I previously would have been putting deals together, working on joint venture agreements, representing the lender or borrower on financing documents, purchases and sales, I find myself spending many more hours looking at forbearance agreements, pre-negotiation agreements [and] modifying loan documents.”

Lefkowitz is no stranger to the debt markets. In 2021, he helped advise Wafra Capital Partners on securing a whopping $500 million acquisition and construction loan on its purchase of 111 Wall Street with partner Nightingale Properties. And, with the recent collapse of three regional banks, including New York-based lender Signature Bank, Lefkowitz expects the loan market to get busy in 2023.

“The regional banking crisis, it is going to be a big deal in the next year — certainly with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s sale of $30 billion worth of loans which were formerly the Signature portfolio,” Lefkowitz said. “There’s many people looking at buying some or all of those assets. And that is going to be a lot of debt to work through, to get refinanced.”

Samantha Sheeber 

Managing partner at Starr Associates

Samantha Sheeber probably knows more about the city’s condominium projects than most people who live in them.

Sheeber has helped get a number of New York City’s biggest condo developments to the finish line in her career at Starr Associates, including the recently completed One Wall Street; Zeckendorf Development’s 520 Park Avenue, which saw its penthouse sell for $34 million last year; and 40 Mercer Street, with its penthouse listed at $22.5 million

The Cardozo School of Law graduate is also working on a major hotel-to-condominium conversion. Sheeber filed plans with the state Real Estate Finance Bureau last year to turn the Excelsior Hotel at 45 West 81st Street into 143 condominiums, according to public records.

That deal would represent a significant transformation for the hotel, which Emmut Properties picked up for nearly $80 million in 2021. —Celia Young