Attorney Michael T. Sillerman Discusses Current Issues in Land Use

Michael T. Sillerman

Land use attorney Michael T. Sillerman is often teased by his co-workers that he won’t work on a project unless there is a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner onboard. Although Sillerman doesn’t think that’s entirely true, he admits that his favorite part of being a land use attorney is how it overlaps with his love of architecture. As co-chair of Kramer Levin’s land use department, Sillerman typically spends as much time talking to architects and city planners as he does with other attorneys.

While Sillerman believes that there was “a certain serendipity” to becoming a land use attorney, the lifelong resident of the Upper West Side credits the influence of his mother, a former civic campaigner, and his early exposure to issues of public welfare and its intersection with City government. After studying reform movements in New York City politics at Cornell University and then teaching junior high school, Sillerman attended Columbia Law School. He started his legal career as a litigator at Paul,Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. A major turning point in Sillerman’s career occurred when he became the executive assistant to then- City Council President Carol Bellamy and learned the finer details of the City’s complicated land use process.

Land use practice. Sillerman distinguishes land use practice from other fields of law because of its multidimensional qualities. In addition to meeting legal standards, land use law includes urban planning, dealing with economic realities, navigating the political process, reaching out to the community at large, and a variety of psychological dimensions. Many projects involve knowing the right architect or code consultant with whom to talk or how best to approach a particular elected official or community board. This is why, according to Sillerman, Kramer Levin was one of the first firms to hire urban planners and engineers to work alongside its attorneys, many of whom had previously worked in the public sector or for the City.

The City’s dynamic scale. Sillerman notes that his perspective on land use has been heavily influenced by his work with the Real Estate Board of New York, where he is chair of the landmarks committee and vice chair of the zoning committee. Sillerman is critical of the use of contextual zoning districts and the proliferation of landmarked historic districts, which he believes can disrupt the City’s energetic and unpredictable vitality. In his view, contextual rezonings create a rigid zoning envelope that can stifle dynamic new development, and historic districts have been an increasing impediment to creative development in the City. Sillerman believes “there’s a kind of nostalgia and resistance to transforming certain neighborhoods that I think we shouldn’t have.” Paraphrasing former Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Harmon Goldstone, Sillerman said a City historic district “is not Colonial Williamsburg or a museum village. It needs to change over time.”

Sillerman points to the “quirky” architecture around the High Line as the type of positive development that can result from a well-tailored rezoning. He cites the Jean Nouvel-designed MoMA/Hines project on West 53rd Street, a project with which Sillerman is still involved, as the ultimate example of preserving the City’s “special verticality.” It is evident that Sillerman believes Nouvel’s tower has a place on an east/west corridor that already includes a host of “world class” architecture, including the Seagram Building, Lever House, Lord Norman Foster’s project at 610 Lexington Avenue, and Eero Saarinen’s Black Rock.

Hard economic times. Using his department’s workload as an indicator of development, Sillerman does not believe that the City has completely recovered from the economic downturn. Although his firm is currently representing the developers of large projects at 15 Penn Plaza and Riverside Center, there is relatively little ground-up development at the moment, and clients are focusing more on the “ledger side” of things, such as figuring out how an asset can be repriced and whether credit is available to develop it.

Charter revision. Sillerman describes the City’s ULURP process as a “challenging marathon.” He thinks it would be difficult for the current Charter Revision Commission to recommend any fundamental changes to the structure of the ULURP process, and that making it more efficient depends upon effective City leadership and creating an environment where there is less hostility between developers and communities. He says there have at times been less of a City perspective on individual projects and more deference given to individual council members, which changes the balance of how projects are approached. Sillerman recognizes the difficulty in reaching a consensus to allow a project to move forward. “This is not Baron Haussmann and Paris, where you can just redraw the map from the central government down. You have to factor in all these things, and that’s what makes [the work] so fascinating, challenging, and ultimately satisfying.” — Matthew Windman

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