Jonathan Mechanic knows New York better than you do
Published in 2007 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 17, 2007
Updated on June 1, 2016
The panoramic windows on the 37th-floor offices of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson look out over blocks of buildings from Park Avenue to the East River and beyond. For Jonathan Mechanic, the view is like a curriculum vitae. Look out, and you will see at least one building he helped sell, lease or purchase; walk in any direction, and every few blocks, you’ll pass another. These aren’t just any buildings, either. They’re the ones that define New York City—including, in midtown, the MetLife Building, the Time Warner Center and Radio City Music Hall—while the clients Mechanic represents are New York real estate royalty: Tishman Speyer Properties, Morgan Stanley and Jack Resnick & Sons.
Mechanic is chairman of Fried Frank’s real estate department, one of the most highly regarded in the country, and he has negotiated some of the city’s biggest real estate deals, including, according to The New York Times, the biggest ever: the $5.4 billion sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village to Tishman Speyer. He worked on the purchase of Chicago’s Sears Tower and is heralded by clients for closing deals in a matter of hours that might take his counterparts days.
“I call Jon ‘His Excellency,’” says Burt Resnick, chairman and CEO of Jack Resnick & Sons, one of New York’s best-known property owners. “He’s a great lawyer and a good man, not just on the business side, but on a personal and social level as well.”
Arthur Skelskie, vice president of Global Real Estate at Moody’s, one of Fried Frank’s clients, jokes that he stopped being a lawyer and took up the business side of real estate because he couldn’t compete with Mechanic. “Most lawyers excel at one thing or another,” he says, “but Jon has a lot of different skills and excels at them all.”
What are the secrets to his success?
The first is a love of his practice area, real estate, which he inherited from his father. A dentist by trade, Mechanic’s father “dabbled” in real estate, according to his son. When Jon was 10, his father bought a defunct supermarket in New Jersey and decided to turn it into an office building. Mechanic still remembers the day a man stopped by to inquire about the build-out time and lease rates, as he represented a major company that needed space in the area. “That company turned out to be IBM and they leased the whole building,” says Mechanic. “I remember on Saturdays, walking through the building with my dad, watching the construction workers putting in beams and cooling towers and watching them change the façade.”
Despite this early introduction to the business, Mechanic went to law school with the intention of becoming a litigator. He graduated from New York University in 1977 and clerked for Judge Robert Carter, former general counsel to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, who, along with Thurgood Marshall, argued Brown v. Board of Education. “Judge Carter was a mentor and a friend, and is just a fabulous human being,” says Mechanic. “After a year with him, I was certain I wanted to become a litigator and came to Fried Frank with that as my ultimate goal.”
Then he ran into Hal Rosen. During a six-month rotation in Fried Frank’s real estate division, Mechanic worked closely with Rosen, the head of the division. “I was 25, and getting to work on deals most people my age weren’t,” says Mechanic. Toward the end of his rotation, Fried Frank moved its office to One New York Plaza, and, as contractors were building out the space, Rosen took Mechanic into an office with a plum view. “You should do whatever you want,” Rosen told him. “But you could continue working on all these transactions with me—you could be sitting in this office, looking out over the Statue of Liberty—or you could be working as a litigator in Nebraska. I’ll let you decide.”
“After giving it much deep thought,” says Mechanic with a chuckle, “I decided I would stick around in real estate for another six months. It’s now 30 years later, and I guess I never became a litigator.”
He did, however, leave Fried Frank to work for developer Howard Ronson of HRO International from 1981 to 1986. While there, he helped Ronson amass a 2.5-million-square-foot portfolio of office space. When he returned to Fried Frank in 1987, it was as a mid-level partner. Ever since, he has used the second secret to his success—a network of close relationships with most of the major players in the New York real estate industry—to close several billion-dollar deals.
“Jon has the ability to reach out to just about anyone in the real estate industry and talk with them in a pragmatic way to resolve things,” says Skelskie. “He is so well respected that he can cut through the issues in a way very few people are able to do.”
“There’s no magic to it,” Mechanic says. “I like the people I work with.” He recalls working on a major deal with Scott Resnick, former president and COO of Jack Resnick & Sons, that went late into the night. “At 2 a.m., I went out and got ice cream for everyone so that we could make it through,” says Mechanic. “At 4:30 a.m., we signed the deal. Scott remembers those details.”
These days Mechanic also finds himself sitting across the table from former Fried Frank associates. “I have a bunch of alumni who work in different places,” he says. “The deal I’m working on now, I have an alumnus and former client working for the seller, and the buyer used to work for me as well.”
Which brings us to Mechanic’s third major skill: negotiation. In a Real Estate New York article, Adam Hochfelder, president of Max Capital Management, quipped: “Jon is so creative that I have been on the tennis court playing doubles and he has been able to structure a transaction with all four people on the court at the same time.”
Mechanic says he honed his negotiating skills as a child at the dinner table. “My father was a debater at the University of Michigan, my mother was exceptionally bright, and I was the youngest of three children. In order to get anything in that house, I had to be able to negotiate.”
“He’s appropriately aggressive,” says Skelskie. “It never gets personal, but he will defend his clients’ positions. And when he believes in something, he’s like a bulldog. He just never lets it get to a point where things become acrimonious or counterproductive.”
Mechanic also persuades clients to put aside smaller issues to get to the ultimate goal of closing a deal. Robert Tishman, chairman of Tishman Speyer, recalls working with Mechanic on a large lease deal with a major client early in his career. “We had dug in on our position,” says Tishman. “Jon pulled me out of the room and said, ‘I think we’re being unreasonable, and this issue is not that significant.’ It was great advice, I agreed and we closed the deal. The signature of a great lawyer is that he knows when to drop a legal issue and consider the bigger business agenda.”
Mechanic seems to remember every single one of the hundreds of deals he has brokered over the years. “I’ve never run across anyone who has that same ability to summon up all of this data about what’s going on with every single building in the city,” says Skelskie.
Mechanic once struck up a conversation at a dinner party with the owner of a small arbitrage firm. “He told me the name of the firm and I said, ‘Oh, you used to be at 30 Broad Street. Then, when the building went up next door, you relocated to 40 Broad Street, and then to Third Avenue,” says Mechanic. “I knew all this because I’d worked on deals for each of those buildings. The man looked at me like I was from Mars.”
This love of real estate runs so deep that Mechanic’s wife does not let him drive through Manhattan, since he prefers to take in the architecture—some of his favorites include the GM Building, the Seagram Building, Time Warner Center and the World Financial Center—rather than watch the road. “I love every part of the city,” he says. “I like having the sun roof open so that I can look around at the buildings.”
He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and two sons, and if real estate takes a back seat to anything, it’s family. “He can’t get enough of talking about his kids,” Tishman says. “It’s interesting when you see him one way in a transactional environment, and then he’s a pussycat around his wife and kids.”
Mechanic’s 16-year-old son, a junior at a Manhattan prep school, is poised to follow in his footsteps, and even wants to be a litigator, as Mechanic did early in his career. “He’s participating in a moot court through his school, and I just went to hear him try his first case,” says Mechanic. “I loved it. He’s very good. He’s going to be working for the Legal Aid Society this summer.”
Though the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village deal would be an obvious choice for Mechanic’s favorite, he knows each deal can top the last. The same day he closed the deal on Stuyvesant Town, Mechanic gave a presentation at his alma mater. The topic: “Why it’s exciting to be a real estate lawyer.” Mechanic began by telling the story of a double townhouse on 44th Street he closed on during his early years at Fried Frank. “It was 1978, the townhouse cost $1.4 million and I thought that was the most extraordinary amount of money. And earlier today, we just closed a deal on a property for $5.4 billion,” he told the class.
As Mechanic looks out the conference room window of Fried Frank’s midtown Manhattan offices, he points out other deals, past and present. To the left is the Lipstick Building (he advised Tishman Speyer in its purchase in 2004). To the right, the YMCA building (he currently represents RFR Realty, which plans to turn it into a hotel after its purchase). Despite the accolades, his encyclopedic memory and negotiating savvy, Mechanic says that simply loving what he does is the foundation upon which everything else is built. “I love my work, I love the people,” he says. “And I love the fact that this business is so tangible. You look around and can see the actual buildings that represent the work you’ve done.”