On a balmy summer afternoon in 1991, Shelly Friedman was strolling the boardwalk in Brighton Beach with New York Times reporter Joyce Purnick when they came upon three elderly women.
Mr. Friedman, an attorney, was in the midst of a contentious battle with local residents who were dead set against demolishing the historic Brighton Beach Baths to make way for a luxury high-rise apartment complex. In a show of confidence, he had invited Ms. Purnick to walk the site with him, hoping to drum up some positive press for himself and his developer client.
But as they strolled, Mr. Friedman said, the three elderly women club members, all in their bathing suits, recognized him and approached. “Shame on you,” they hissed, and spat on the startled attorney before stalking off in the direction of the soon-to-be-demolished pool.
“At least Joyce Purnick got a good laugh,” Mr. Friedman said over a recent lunch at Balthazar, one of a string of high-profile Soho restaurants he represents. (Contacted by The Observer , Ms. Purnick’s memory was foggier on the material appurtenances of the event.)
A decade later, Mr. Friedman has moved on to the tonier precincts of the city, where the rebukes are subtler, but his clients stronger. He likes to tell the Brighton Beach story, perhaps to remind people of his roots, most likely to show he’s no stranger to resistance and outright abuse-which he still attracts representing some of the city’s richest and most powerful institutions on the Upper East Side.
These days, the ability to withstand a neighborhood’s scorn is the most powerful credential he can flash. Having drawn commissions in recent years from major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he’s served as a surrogate for their expansion-minded boards, standing at the podium and facing preservation-minded neighbors.
Behind the scenes, he shepherds his clients’ projects through the byzantine and often tedious bureaucratic channels of the city’s public-review process, from community boards to the final arbiter, often the Landmarks Preservation Commission or the City Planning Commission. Along the way, he has appeared at countless public hearings, with architects like Kevin Roche, Jack Beyer and Jim Polshek in tow.
Dressed in Armani, he sits at these meetings with folded arms, his smile two degrees short of a smirk. Residents call him a “scoundrel” and “unscrupulous.”
“His attitude was, ‘Why are you even here?’” said Anne Camuto, an Upper East Side resident who faced Mr. Friedman in meetings earlier this year to voice opposition to the latest planned expansion by the Metropolitan Museum. “His body language and the looks he gave us were condescending. He told us after one of the meetings that the [neighborhood] coalition would never be successful because we would never have enough money to buck them [the Met].”
“I certainly never said that,” Mr. Friedman told The Observer .
But he’s also seen as formidable, the highest compliment for a man who makes his living blocking opposition.
“Of course we’re not happy with him; he’s a very formidable opponent,” said Joyce Matz, chairwoman of Board 5′s landmarks committee. “He’s the hired gun for everybody …. I have asked Shelly for a meeting and said we would be willing to compromise, and he refused to have any discussion.”
“It’s not a game for wimps,” Mr. Friedman said, over a rare burger with Gouda cheese at that Balthazar lunch.
Every generation has one: the lawyer who moves and shakes-or who stops the moving and shaking-and who makes himself indispensable to the task of getting development done.
With a near monopoly on Upper East Side private schools-Spence, Dalton, Buckley,MarymountandCollegiate among them-as well as a brand-name roster of Madison Avenue clients like Valentino, Max Mara, Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan, Mr. Friedman’s boutique law firm, Friedman & Gotbaum (opened in 1994 with Irving Gotbaum, stepson of the newly minted Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum), has gained a bulldog reputation among his clients for effectively pursuing projects in the face of bitter neighborhood opposition.
“Shelly has represented this institution for 15 years,” said Avice Meehan, spokeswoman for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which is currently battling the neighborhood over a proposed 440-foot laboratory tower and a significant zoning increase for the entire institution. “I talk to him almost every day.”
“He’s got a niche up there, there’s no question about that,” said Sandy Lindenbaum, a Manhattan zoning attorney who represented Donald Trump in his bid for the Trump World Tower on East 47th Street. “We’ve seen a lot of institutional growth in the last years based on the extraordinary growth of the economy. And I know some of the neighbors are not happy about it.”
Indeed, while Upper East Side institutions have been eager to place their multimillion-dollar projects in Mr. Friedman’s hands, residents see him as the itch they can’t scratch. “He is very sharp, and he knows the ins and outs of the zoning,” said Teri Slater, a longtime Upper East Side preservationist. “If there’s an arcane interpretation, Shelly will make it.”
The 51-year-old, Buffalo-born Mr. Friedman has not always sat on the institutional side of the fence. In 1977, a diploma from the University of Buffalo law school in his hands, Mr. Friedman went to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the Carter administration, he was a policy analyst on subsidized housing and eventually became regional administrator in Boston.
“I had every intention of serving my time in Boston and coming back for a second Carter term,” Mr. Friedman said. But when the second Carter term failed to materialize, Mr. Friedman’s civil-service career was ignominiously cut short, and in 1982 he moved to New York to join former Deputy Mayor John Zuccotti’s renowned land-use boutique, Tufo & Zuccotti.
There, he continued working on subsidized housing, zoning and land-use cases until the firm merged with Brown & Wood, the white-shoe Manhattan securities firm, in 1986. At Brown & Wood, Mr. Friedman dabbled in setting up a mortgage market in China and was ultimately instrumental in setting up the firm’s China branch. Then in 1992 came a call from the Chinese foreign ministry.
The foreign ministry, trying to relocate from its headquarters in an old hotel on West 66th Street, had run up $12 million in overdue property taxes on a building valued at $9 million. Mr. Friedman convinced the city to forgive the back taxes and engineered a swap deal with Millennium Partners, a prominent real-estate firm, which agreed to build a permanent Chinese mission near the United Nations in exchange for the West 66th Street property. The final deal took six years and a bit of mediating by Henry Kissinger. By 1998, when it was done, Mr. Friedman had tired of the corporate atmosphere at Brown & Wood and had been ensconced at his own law firm for four years.
Now, with clients like the Met and Memorial Sloan-Kettering-both in the midst of highly contested expansion plans-Mr. Friedman has come to symbolizeunwelcomeencroachmentsin largely residential neighborhoods. Residents said that the tables have turned, and the grassroots power they had used so effectively for so long to block projects or protect landmarks has been dissipated.
“There was a time when institutions didn’t have the money they have today, and they really needed to be helped along by the city,” said Lo Van der Valk, president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, a community group. “But now the balance of power has strongly shifted. Institutions are like corporations; they’re far more well-endowed, and fund-raising has become a whole profession. Institutions are no longer the sleeping giants; they’ve applied all the right business practices.”
Some see it as hardball. “It’s the nature of institutions to expand,” said Norman Marcus, an attorney. “I think Shelly promises them a painful but ultimately successful
solution to their growth problems.”
Mr. Marcus, former general counsel for the City Planning Commission and now an attorney for Civitas, the neighborhood organization, has found himself across the table from Mr. Friedman on several hard-fought projects: in 1999, the 92nd Street Y’s plan for a five-story adult-teaching facility in the middle of a landmarked block in Carnegie Hill, and the Spence School’s current plan to build out the sixth-story penthouse of the landmarked Smithers Mansion it occupies on East 93rd Street. “Shelly’s role here was basically to support the full extent of the institution’s request. No attempt was really made to develop this proposal in a collaborative way with the community,” Mr. Marcus said.
In both battles, Mr. Friedman ultimately proved the victor, though not without some compromise; the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved both the Spence and 92nd Street Y applications (the Y building has yet to be built). “Shelly’s tactics do not endear the institutions to the community in which they exist,” Mr. Marcus said.
At a public hearing earlier this year, Mr. Friedman played it cool before a fuming crowd of several hundred residents who had rallied to protest Memorial Sloan-
Kettering’s latest expansion plan, a proposed laboratory tower and an institution-wide zoning increase. Hunched in a corner of the packed auditorium, his trademark red-frame reading glasses perched atop his head, he watched silently as residents railed at the cancer center’s president, Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, before stepping to the microphone and stating firmly that there would be no compromises. For Memorial to be forced to go through a public-review process every time it needed so much as a new conference room, he said, was unacceptable.
“If they insist on wasting most of the time we have together to discuss a project on issues which play to the anti-development bent, which play to the barroom-brawl mentality, there’s really nothing I can do,” Mr. Friedman later told The Observer .
Mr. Friedman is unapologetic in his approach, saying residents often fail to view expansion projects with an open mind, and instead waste time squabbling over concerns that have nothing to do with the proposals at hand. “The detail you hear at the community board is often irrelevant to the subject of the application. I have had to listen to complaints that a school moving onto a block is going to be overrun by nannies,” he said. “Preservation was never meant to be that you can’t change anything; it’s a question of how you change things. This is not missionary work-I get paid to come up with the best strategy for my clients.”
But for veteran preservationists, who have not seen any extensive overhaul of the city’s zoning regulations since 1961, Mr. Friedman’s no-compromise stance constitutes a serious threat to the delicate balance they have fought for decades to preserve.
“‘Win at any cost’ is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood where people have their homes,” Ms. Slater said. “We used to live pretty much happily together with the institutions. That’s not happening anymore. Businesses are buying for the area rather than the building, and the buildings are being eroded.”
It’s not a tension that is likely to be easily resolved. “When the amount of land is limited and everyone is living in a dense environment, that can often lead to a difficult process,” said City Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose, whose agency has the final vote on most zoning issues. Mr. Rose-who introduced, with great fanfare, his own comprehensive zoning plan last year, only to see it fall victim to developer interests-agrees that in recent years, institutions have become more savvy: “Institutions have become more sophisticated about the public-review process, and one of the things they’re doing is paying much more attention to their professional consultants and their attorneys.”
For attorneys like Mr. Friedman who thrive on this tension, that means more business. “One of the signals of success is that on some issues, everyone is genuinely unhappy,” Mr. Friedman said. “The client regrets he had to make a concession, and the community doesn’t believe it got enough. That means something in the middle took place and the project went forward.”
Regardless of what they say about Mr. Friedman, though, not even his detractors can deny that he’s been effective for his clients. Admitted one Upper East Side resident, “If I wanted to build in New York City and I had enough money, I’d probably hire Shelly Friedman. If my neighbors knew that, they’d really hate me.”