Adam Leitman Bailey Saves Upper East Cooperative From Forced NYU Combination With Neighboring University Building

When a New York resident of an iconic building was faced with a potentially devastating renovation to his beloved home, powerhouse real estate lawyer Adam Leitman Bailey tightened the knot on the loophole others said didn’t exist.

Large brownstone building with blue sky above in New York City

Rebecca Blackwell

February 27, 2023 09:00 AM

To fall in love with where you live is one of life’s grandest gestures, finding peace and passion in the places you call home. For residents of New York, the city that glimmers day and night, it’s hard not to cherish the homes made among the glittering buildings. New York is a place so uniquely other, a city with historical roots that run deep for those already living there and those who seek it out.

Bordering 5th Avenue on the 70s between the towering residences are some of the most prestigious and profitable businesses, organizations and institutions of higher education. These establishments usually usher in significant change—and throngs of people. And while positive enhancement and growth to the cityscape are cherished, unnecessary destruction can be harrowing, especially for those who live there. When big organizations and schools spanning several city blocks threaten the harmony and structural integrity of New York’s most beloved buildings, legal action becomes the primary—sometimes the only—plan of recourse.

Perhaps no one is more acutely aware of just how special New York real estate is than long-time resident and powerhouse real estate lawyer Adam Leitman Bailey. With an office that skims the clouds in a Battery Park high-rise, Bailey has spent the last several decades working for New Yorkers to ensure that they remain defended against those who try to take their peace—and property.

Between the Brownstones

Real estate developer and decades-long resident of New York City Marius Fortelni bought his city apartment in the late 1980s when it was converted from a rental to a condominium. The apartment, situated in one of New York’s most notable Brownstone buildings bordering 5th Avenue on the 70s, was constructed by famed architect C.P.H. Gilbert and bore the signet gargoyles upon its entrance. Its opulence and history were part of its charm, and for that, Fortelni loved living in the building. He even became the cooperative building president upon moving in.

Fortelni’s building resided on one of New York’s most iconic spots—78th Street. Known for its history of luxury, both among the homes themselves and the residents who inhabited them, the Upper East Side’s 78th Street in Manhattan remains among the biggest jewels in America’s crown city. For it’s on this street that some of the country’s most affluent families have called home, and it was here that Fortelni sought to protect his building, both for himself and his fellow residents.

Although Fortelni's building was not landmarked, it resided in a landmark district with its very famous neighbor, the James Duke building, owned and operated by New York University (NYU) for its Institute of Fine Arts. Chartered in 1831, NYU has buildings peppered in and around various blocks of the city. When Fortelni's building was originally converted to condominiums, the fine print of that transaction conceded to several entry points of the building, even granting the institution access to the lower level and basement. Famed Real Estate developer Sheldon Solow has also donated a unit on the ground floor of the cooperative to NYU.

NYU eventually sought to put in a breezeway between Fortelni’s building and the NYU building to create an entrance so that students might pass between them as they traveled around campus. The breezeway would run directly into the building, opening into the building’s basement and creating additional points of entry. This would, essentially, gut a hole into Fortelni’s beautiful, preserved building. It would also allow for several hundred people to walk through the lower level between buildings, herding heavy noise and foot traffic right to the residents’ doorsteps. As Fortelni described it, it would also force the residents to surrender control over who could enter their building, their home. To say the least, it was an unwelcome and unfair intrusion that none had anticipated, threatening the harmony—and property value—of their beloved building.

Fortelni, protective of the building and its residents, sought to rectify this, discussing with several law firms his options. He was told by all that he was “wasting his time” and that “the language is written in such a way that it gives them [NYU] all the rights.” The lawyers with whom he spoke believed he had little chance—less than 1%, in fact—of winning such a litigious case against a powerful institution.

But then, a friend of Fortelni mentioned Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.: “You know what? There’s this one law firm that probably can help you, even though your case seems to be hopeless.” Fortelni took a chance and reached out, and rather than watching a construction crew pave a new path through his building, Fortelni worked with Bailey to pave a different path—to victory.

Bailey’s Brilliant Battle Back

Fortelni describes Bailey as one of those rare people who is simply brilliant and takes different approaches to problem-solving. He says every field has a few of them, those unique minds who can look at a situation, dig into it, turn it on its head and produce an unexpected solution.

Bailey and Fortelni sat down to again pore over the text that originally granted NYU the rights to access the Brownstone. This same text, which several lawyers had declared to be without any loopholes, reminded Bailey of something pivotal to the entire ordeal: the buildings involved were classic, famous, landmark feats of architecture, and NYU was proposing—quite literally—a blight on the foundation.

Bailey knew, from years of living and working in New York real estate, that the historical value was tantamount to the monetary value of these buildings, and NYU’s renovation plans would drastically compromise both.

Bailey got to work doing one of the things he does best—research. He dug through arsenals of paperwork—about New York, the history of the buildings, the Brownstones on 78th Street—and uncovered important facts about each that had long lay dormant.

The Hearings

NYU maintained that the bylaws allowed the owner of the commercial ground floor condominium to make alterations without the board’s consent, according to the New York Times. NYU representatives appeared before the area’s Community Board 8 and presented the plans, which were met with a hostile reception by building residents and the community. NYU representatives continued that, “The addition of the breezeway was included in large part to reduce the traffic in the main entrance in order to minimize impact to the condo residents.” Bailey appeared before Community Board 8, demonstrating how NYU had falsely represented itself in the application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and never received permission from the cooperative to sign its name to any application.

As a result, Landmarks formally withdrew NYU’s application until NYU followed the proper protocols in receiving permission to do the exterior construction and sign the appropriate name on the application. To this day this has never been achieved. “NYU knows this will ruin the value of the building and then they can capture the rest of it cheap, which is what they really want. How can you take the Mona Lisa and edit it, so it fits in with a Picasso?” Bailey expressed to the Community Board. He then discussed the effect of those changes on the small cooperative next door and introduced expert studies on the foot traffic and potential sound implications of such an instruction. The Community Board sided with Adam Leitman Bailey and the small cooperative. About this case, The New York Times noted:

The community board voted 41-1 to disapprove the plans. ‘The presentation information did not fully illustrate the proposed changes,’ the board stated in a letter to the LPC dated May 22. The letter notes that ‘the materials are not appropriate to the existing buildings’ and that the construction would disturb ‘the original fabric’ of the two buildings.”

Bailey achieved the similar results in State Supreme Court. Before the Community Board, the Landmark Association, a well-known judge and a large, competitive law firm with some of the best landmark attorneys in the world, Bailey presented his findings. Language from corporate documents supported his case. Bailey gave them all powerful examples, outlining why we have these landmark buildings and how vital they are not only to the city held so dear but to its residents and organizations who represent New Yorkers. The Landmark Association and the Community Board realized what a detriment NYU’s plans were to the buildings, to the city, to the people who lived there and to the legacy of 78th Street. Bailey’s representation was, as Fortelni described it, “a simple and powerful approach” that won their case.

Tenacity and Triumph

Adam Leitman Bailey has built his career, his law firm and his reputation on his fearlessness. Where others back down, he steps up, forging creative solutions and keeping his focus on the success of his clients. Fortelni attests to this strength after working with him on this case. “Honestly, I don’t think he has any weaknesses. You know, I think that man is made to do what he’s supposed to do, and he’s just set apart. There’re always some people in some fields, in sports, whatever it is, that are extraordinary. I think he really gets into the case, thinks outside the box, finds a path no matter what, does not give up, has a tenacity that is amazing. I think he doesn’t sleep at night because I think he works seven days a week, 24/7 for you. If you really have a difficult case, any case really, you want to make sure that you’re on the winning side, and the way Adam approaches any kind of deals that I’ve seen, any kind of agreements, he finds a path. I think if he would have lived a long time ago, he would have been Caesar in an army because he doesn’t give up, he’s the only one I would recommend.”

Indeed, Bailey is cut from a different cloth, with a knack for pulling back the veil and defeating what others deem unbeatable. “He doesn’t give up. That tenacity to say no matter what, I’m going to find a path to victory. That is something that is rare.”

Headline Image: iStock/OlegAlbinsky

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