Construction Group of The Year: Schiff Hardin


Construction Group of The Year: Schiff Hardin

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Schiff Hardin LLP's recent work on complex renovation projects at the Belmont Park horse racing track on Long Island and Chicago's historic Navy Pier while both locations remain at least partially open to the public helped earn the firm a spot among Law360's Construction Groups of the Year.

The 18-person group works mainly out of New York City and Chicago, but has a presence in Washington, D.C., and many members have worked together for decades, attorneys at the firm said. In the past year or so, Schiff Hardin has been involved in construction matters across the country, but two of its biggest have been on its home turf.

Since last year, when the New York Racing Association announced its $300 million plan to renovate the 445-acre Belmont Park, Schiff Hardin has been handling all contract-related legal work for the association. The project will involve clubhouse renovations, work aimed at improving the horse paddocks, and construction of a new racetrack, the firm said.

NYRA is also hoping the track's new look will attract visitors who aren't racing fans, particularly from the new hockey arena for the New York Islanders that's being built next door, the firm said.

One of the project's challenges is that Belmont, home of the annual Belmont Stakes horse race, needs to be open for that event. NYRA and its contractors will need to stop work so the public can watch the race, which is the third and final contest of the sport's Triple Crown, then pick up where they left off once the crowds have gone, attorneys said.

"Even though we're renovating, [they] still have to operate the business," said partner Michael J. Hanahan. "They've got to run horse races. That's how they make their money."

It's nothing Schiff Hardin's construction team hasn't seen and done before, according to Kenneth M. Roberts, the practice group's leader.

"You've got to really see the chessboard and think through every move," Roberts said. "It's doable but you've really got to pay attention."

Out in the Midwest, Schiff Hardin is representing Navy Pier Inc. during the second phase of its $200 million redevelopment of the 102-year-old landmark that's among Chicago's top tourist attractions. The firm has advised the owner at every stage of the process while coordinating parallel construction projects for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a hotel and the pier's Centennial Wheel, the firm said.

Given the more than 10 million people who visit the pier each year, workers couldn't simply knock everything down and build it all at once, Roberts said. Instead, work happened in stages while most of the pier remained in use, he explained.

The pier's location on Lake Michigan also presented a challenge, as it's built on pilings and doesn't have the same type of foundation a building on land would have. So, it was important to understand how the work on one section would affect the rest of the structure, Hanahan said.

In doing so, contractors had to consider risks that wouldn't come up in typical construction projects, such as the pier's numerous trees. Because the pier is on the water, the trees aren't rooted in the ground but rather in large pots built into the pier itself. That meant it was important for contractors to know how to keep those trees alive while working around them, Hanahan said.

Attorneys in the practice group credit its success, in part, to their ability to often resolve problems without litigation. When Schiff Hardin is involved in a matter, contractors know it's there to seek a fair and reasonable settlement, Roberts said.

"Every project has issues, but we're identifying them early, we're working in a proactive manner and we're doing it at the business table," he said. "We walk the walk and executives for the contractors know it."

Roberts recently chaired a dispute avoidance panel in a dispute over a $762 million runway project included in $2.3 billion worth of work at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. The panel was established to resolve issues raised by runway contractors and Roberts moderated numerous matters, sorting them out before anyone could resort to litigation, the firm said.

"When owners have challenging, complicated projects, they come to us, and we've had a really good track record of helping owners navigate those projects and succeed," partner Heidi Hennig Rowe said.

Roberts, Hanahan and Rowe all said another key to their group's strength is its members' ability to work as a team. Roberts said the core attorneys have been working together for about 20 years, and Rowe described the unit as "close-knit."

That means if someone gets sick or another internal issue arises, each member can rely on the others to step in and provide consistent work. It also means they understand each others' skills and know exactly who to put on any project, the attorneys said.

"There's not one attorney in my group that I haven't worked with," Hanahan said. "The law can be a pain sometimes, but we all like what we do and we like each other."

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This article is reprinted with permission from Law360, February 26, 2019,