Manhattan Transfer

Real estate lawyer David Alan Richards transfers everything from Kipling books to air

Published in 2010 New York Metro Super Lawyers — September 2010

On his 21st birthday, David Alan Richards opened a card from his parents and read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” promising heady rewards for young men of impeccable character: Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!

Forty-three years later, Richards may not have had everything in the Earth, but he did have a Kipling collection valued at $1.5 million.

“Most people cannot believe that a book collection can be worth that much,” says Richards, a partner at McCarter & English, and one of New York’s premier real estate attorneys. The collection included 82 percent of all first editions by the British author and poet, and was, if anything, worth too much.

“It was the largest Kipling collection in the world,” Richards says, “and it had become too valuable to keep in a private home.”

Thus, over a five-year period, from 2003 to 2007, Richards donated the books to his alma mater, Yale University, where he had attended both undergraduate and law school.

Yet even as his right hand was transferring the collection, his left hand was still collecting. In 2009 he snapped up the first American edition of The Second Jungle Book, sporting the earliest printed Kipling dust jacket.

“There are three known copies of the English first edition with a dust jacket, but this is the only American one. Somebody found it, and I’m known as the Kipling collector, so I’m the one likely to write the biggest check,” he says with a chuckle. He moved that volume, too, to Yale.

 

Transferring things comes naturally to Richards. His area of legal expertise is development rights transfer: shifting buildable air space from one developer to another.

“You can actually figure out how big your building could [legally] be,” Richards says with enthusiasm. “Then you can sell its rights to the next-door neighbor. And then he files for a building permit including your rights. If he uses them, both buildings are forever that size. If the bigger building burns down, it doesn’t mean I can rebuild my little building any higher than it was.”

Richards came to this area of law before he was even a lawyer. As a summer clerk at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in the early 1970s, Richards worked on the Penn Central bankruptcy and sale of Penn Central hotels. The idea of selling the air above a building originated in the late 1960s with Norman Marcus, general counsel for the New York City Planning Commission, who wanted to encourage the preservation of shorter landmark buildings by giving their owners a way to sell unused buildable space to neighboring developments. When Richards was asked by Paul, Weiss to draft an opinion letter to go out to potential bidders on the development rights from Grand Central Terminal, his opinion—that these rights could indeed be transferred—was not only in line with Marcus’, but with the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual nod to the concept in 1978.

Richards eventually handled such mega-deals as the transfer of Tiffany’s air rights to Trump Tower, and the lease with purchase option of the AT&T “Chippendale” building to Sony. He has authored numerous articles on buildable rights, and in 1991 became the youngest person elected chair of the American Bar Association’s real property, probate and trust section.

At one moment in his career, Richards was handling both the longest and tallest real estate projects in New York—literally. The tallest project, for which he was counsel to all the New York TV stations, was for a high-definition TV antenna to go atop Freedom Tower, or One World Trade Center, the skyscraper to be built at ground zero. Those plans were ultimately shelved.

The longest project—nearly two miles long, in fact—is still a work in progress. The High Line, built in the 1930s as an elevated railroad viaduct, is being resurrected after years of neglect into a park, 30 feet wide and soaring 30 feet above the city streets. It’s two-thirds done and up to 25,000 people a day come to sun themselves on rolling teak recliners, browse art exhibitions, stare through plate glass at the cars passing below, and take in three-story-high views of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

It’s the only park of its kind in the U.S., and it almost didn’t happen. After transporting one last load of frozen turkeys in 1980, the High Line slowly deteriorated, patches of grass crept across its tracks, and developers decided to demolish it to make way for a skyscraper. That’s when a group, called Friends of the High Line, suggested turning it into a unique public space. The railroads agreed—in addition to serving the public interest, it saved the expense of destroying the viaduct—and came to Richards for help.

“We concocted a deal whereby the people who had land underneath the viaduct could transfer their development rights to the avenue fronts on each side, thereby getting their money, even though the viaduct above them wouldn’t be torn down,” Richards says. “So everybody wins. Citizens get a public park, new buildings get built, which raises tax revenues. It’s the lead story in the NYU alumni magazine. It’s been on TV and in newspapers.”

Sex never hurts to sell a story, either. “There’s a hotel called the Standard Hotel, which has floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, and the High Line goes underneath it,” Richards says. “Some very trendy downtown types were undressing in front of the windows.” The free peep show, made possible by the new park, has raised both concern and laughter. “The New Yorker has run several cartoons on it,” Richards says, chuckling.

 

Richards came to Kipling at a time when the poet’s reputation had deteriorated. By the 1990s, Kipling’s poetry was criticized by many as imperialist, racist, and employing dated rhyme schemes. Richards defends him—to a point.

“What an author puts in the words of his characters are not necessarily what he believes—and he is still seen as the most sympathetic English author who wrote about India,” Richards says. “So I don’t think he was a bigot, but do I think he was a man of his time? Yes.”

Richards has always been fascinated with the history of the modern British Empire. During the Vietnam War he was a Keasbey Fellow in England, where he realized that the U.S. had replaced Britain as the world’s policeman. He was interested, he says, in “how America acts, as Britain did 100 years ago, as a keeper of peace on the sea lanes and in the little wars.”

He adds: “What do we think we’re doing in Iraq? When George Bush said we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq, that’s [Kipling’s poem] ‘White Man’s Burden.’ … We don’t use that phrase, but that’s what we mean: We’re bringing our gifts to the benighted, and we’re patting ourselves on the back for it.”

An author himself, Richards recently published his second book on Kipling, the definitive description of the poet’s writings: Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography.

As for his favorite Kipling poem? It’s late, from 1935, and not well-known: “Hymn of the Breaking Strain.” The conceit, Richards says, “is that a man does not blame concrete when it shatters, nor steel when it shears, because those materials are known to have breaking points, and always break when those points are exceeded. But a man does not know his own breaking point and yet blames himself for breaking.”

The poem, Richards says, “ends effectively as a prayer to God for comfort: that humans…”

In spite of being broken –

Because of being broken –

May rise and build anew.

Stand up and build anew!

Consider it a tribute to buildable rights.

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