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Attorney Sonia Bain finding rich rewards in practice of real estate law

An injured ankle is what led commercial real estate attorney Sonia Bain, a partner at the firm Bryan Cave, to the field of law.

The daughter of two doctors, Bain was following them into the field of medicine while still an undergraduate at Stony Brook University, where she was also a member of the college’s volleyball team. But when she suffered what ended up being a career-ending ankle injury, her focus shifted.

With more free time on her hands after the injury, she took a position at a law firm, where she stayed throughout her undergraduate years, and was mentored by attorneys at the firm.  “I found that there was this whole other world from medicine and science courses that was really appealing and interesting to me,” she said.

Though there were no lawyers in her family, her father always dabbled in real estate and she was always interested. “When you live in New York, you just can’t escape the conversation,” she said of real estate. “It comes up at every party.”

After graduating from Stony Brook, Bain attended New York Law School and graduated in the late 90s. She started working in bankruptcy law, which was a very active field at the time. Her firm represented single-asset real estate companies. As the market began to shift, she switched from bankruptcy law to real estate.

She worked on deals for some of the most famous real estate family dynasties, including the Litwins, the Helmsleys, and the Trumps.

“I dived into real estate and, specifically, big family commercial real estate, pretty quickly,” she said. “It was fascinating. At that time, it was just the beginning of the real estate boom, and we were super active. There was a lot going on, a lot of development going on, and a lot of money coming in.”

Her first memorable deal was the conversion of the Clocktower building in DUMBO, a building owned by Two Trees, the development firm that is credited for transforming the neighborhood. “It’s been really exciting to be a part of newer developments and the reshaping of neighborhoods and ground-up work,” she said.

Bain has been involved in several transactions in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens lately, in one instance representing the MTA in a transfer of air rights to a developer. In Manhattan, she’s worked on projects in Chelsea and in the NoMad area, a neighborhood she has seen change significantly over the last few years.

“In New York, itʼs become very difficult to find deals, to find land; you have to be creative to find a way to maximize your asset,” she said. “We’ve been on the forefront of helping developers and landowners maximize the value of their assets.”

And that means navigating the various creative structures and processes and collaborating with other experts in her office, whether thatʼs someone specializing in land use or an expert in the co-op and condo world.

“It’s really gratifying to be a part of something and be a part of the creative process and problem-solving process, and ultimately being a part of something reshaping the city,” she said.

“Doing real estate versus any other type of law is so tangible and rewarding, you really get to be a part of the future of whatever city you’re working in. You can touch and feel real estate, you can see the difference it’s making, you know how it affects communities and people, and all of the aspects make it a really rich practice to work in.”

Bain acknowledged that the market has started to slow down and shift in the past couple of months, after a period of strong and steady volume.
“Development has certainly slowed down, and the ones that had started are really trying to race to get them going and up and built,” she said. “I don’t see much of an appetite for new ground-up development anywhere around here.”

However she has noticed that owners of nonprofit buildings as well as publicly-owned land or buildings – like libraries, churches, and nonprofit buildings – are rethinking how to maximize their property values and reaching out to developers to work within the confines of their site.
“We might see more of those development deals coming to the forefront,” she said.

The shifting market is the confluence of several factors, including the national political landscape, 421a, and rising construction costs.

“A lot of people are in wait-and-see mode of what sort of policies will be put in place and how they will affect everyone here,” she said. “I think pricing just went up so high that with these other sort of contingencies it just didn’t make sense, and construction costs have gone up also. So there are fewer deals out there for people to make money on and, with these unknown factors, it’s causing people to take pause and not feel they have appetite for risks involved.”

Sonia Bain will be a panelist on the “Neighborhood Changes” discussion at the Real Estate Weekly Women’s Forum June 14. For more information, visit www.nycwomensforum.com

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