David Lebenstein tries not to brag, but the truth sneaks past his determination to cast no aspersions on any other broker’s work.
Lebenstein, head of Cassidy Turley’s not-for-profit practice group, knows he represents some of the city’s most worthy tenants.
“These are the people who are doing something for society, for the poor, for the sick, for improving schools, for providing art and culture in the city, for creating jobs,” he said, gesturing towards a page-long list of clients, who range from the New Museum and Martha Graham Dance Company to the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, the United Federation of Teachers and the Jewish Guild for the Blind.
Lebenstein came to real estate as a third career. His first was in city government, where he had started as a result of campaigning for John V. Lindsay at the age of 16.
“I was probably the only 16-year-old on a first-name basis with nearly every New York City commissioner,” he said.
Lebenstein studied at Hunter College, then located at what is now Lehman College in the North Bronx, while also holding down a position as an assistant to an assistant to the mayor. At 19, he had his own parking space at City Hall.
After he finished school and the Lindsay administration came to an end, Lebenstein co-founded a public policy non-profit called Interface. His first notable deal happened when he was still working in the non-profit sector himself. In the mid-1980s, Interface was in search of new office space, and considering buying a building in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, another non-profit.
Their search came to the attention of Paul Wallace, of the Broadstone Group, then the owner of the 12-story building at 666 Broadway in the West Village.
“He told me, if you can find buyers for six floors, I’ll keep the other six floors,” Lebenstein recalled.
Ultimately, Interface bought one full-floor office condo, the Trust for Public Land took another, Harper’s Magazine and the Funding Exchange each took a floor, and the Center for Constitutional Rights bought two floors.
“I was, in effect, the real estate person, putting the deal together and finding the partners,” Lebenstein said.
It was an early example of what has since become a popular approach to real estate for tax-exempt organizations.
“I don’t want to say that I’m the god father of commercial condos, because there may be others who can make this claim,” Lebenstein said. “But I was certainly one of the first to introduce the concept to non-profits.”
By 1986, with two kids at home and a mortgage to pay, Lebenstein said he decided to leave his organization and started looking for full-time work in real estate. He landed at Time Equities, where Francis Greenburger made him director of acquisitions. “He said the qualifications for the acquisitions job was good judgment,” Lebenstein recalled.
The job took him around the country doing all kinds of transactions, but during the downturn in the mid- 1990s, Time Equities reduced his salary while offering him the opportunity to look for other clients outside the firm. It was then that his non-profit and government background came back into play, as a way to make himself stand out in the competitive field of brokerage.
With non-profit clients, he said, “I came off as a trustworthy person from their world who could advise them on real estate.”
While working for Time Equities, Lebenstein sold the remaining six floors at 666 Broadway, placed the McBurney YMCA in the base of a new residential development Related Companies built on 15th Street, and helped the National Urban League and United Negro College Fund sell their slightly awkward office building on East 62nd to a hotel operator, among many other deals.
In 2005, he left Time Equities for Colliers ABR, one of the predecessor firms to Cassidy Turley. “I’m in charge of not-for-profits nationally, but my focus and love is here in New York,” he said.
Also in 2005, Lebenstein married Ellen Baer, who is now president of the Hudson Square business improvement district. They were introduced by a real estate colleague who met Lebeinsten at a REBNY event and noted that the two were both single and both owned season tickets for the New York Jets.
He has two grown children from his first marriage and three grandsons.
Lebenstein’s work is not always easy. The relocation of the Bowery Residents’ Committee from Lafayette Street to 25th Street faced four years of legal battles and community oppositions before the organization, which operates a homeless shelter, successfully moved.
But even with its challenges, the broker says he’s grateful for the path his career has taken. “I have the ideal,” he said. “I’m entrepreneurial and I make a good living, but I can do that in a way that makes me feel good about who I’m helping.”