James Boisi, Who Saw Dollars Above NYC’s Park Avenue, Dies at 94

James O. Boisi, a real-estate lawyer who helped guide high-rise development over railroad tracks along New York’s Park Avenue before becoming a top executive at Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., today’s JPMorgan Chase & Co., has died. He was 94.

He died on Aug. 21 at his home in Old Brookville on New York’s Long Island, according to his son, Geoffrey Boisi. His death was due to natural causes.

On his unusual path to Wall Street, Boisi in 1957 became vice president for real estate at New York Central Railroad Co. and an authority in the then-innovative use of air rights, an important real-estate development tool that spread from Manhattan to cities across the U.S. New York Central controlled land along Park Avenue in midtown because its tracks ran under there to Grand Central Terminal.

“Using the air rights, you could expand the height of a lot of these buildings and create greater rental space,” Geoffrey Boisi, a former executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase who now runs New-York based Roundtable Investment Partners LLC, said today in an interview about his father. “He kept the New York Central afloat the last five or six years until they had the merger of Penn Central.”

Penn Central was formed by the combination of New York Central with the Pennsylvania Railroad. It went bankrupt in 1970.

Behind Renaissance

H. Erich Heinemann, a financial writer who later became a vice president of Morgan Stanley, wrote in the New York Times in 1965 that Boisi “was as responsible as any single man for the real-estate renaissance of Park Avenue.”

Among the other air-rights projects that Boisi helped bring to fruition was Concourse Village, a union-sponsored housing complex built over the railroad’s Mott Haven rail yard in the Bronx.

“Air rights development could prove to be the salvation of the American urban area,” a 1964 article in the Toledo Blade quoted Boisi as saying. “There are economic limits to urban expansion sideways. There comes a point where growth has to go up. In the future I can see more and more buildings over waterways, railroad rights-of-way, over streets and over highways.”

He joined Morgan Guaranty Trust in 1964 as vice president in charge of a newly formed real estate division, rising to executive vice president of corporate finance, then executive vice president of parent firm J.P. Morgan & Co., and finally vice chairman of the board in 1979.

Following his mandatory retirement at age 65 in 1984, he became executive vice president, or second in command, at Harry B. Helmsley’s Helmsley Enterprises Inc. He held that post until 1987, when he became chairman of Pan American Properties, the U.S. property unit of the British Coal Board.

Engineering Dismissal

Newsweek magazine reported in 1989 that Leona Helmsley had engineered the ousting of Boisi, whom her husband had been grooming as a successor.

James Orlando Boisi was born on April 30, 1919, in New York, one of two children of Louis Boisi, a Frenchman who fought with the U.S. Army in World War I, and the former Mary Davolio.

He graduated from Brooklyn College and Fordham Law School.

From 1942 to 1956, he worked at the New York law firm Amend & Amend, where he began specializing in real estate and represented clients including the prolific New York developer William Zeckendorf Sr., who died in 1976.

Boisi joined New York Central in 1956 as a real estate attorney before his promotion to vice president.

Generating Revenue

In addition to using air rights to generate revenue for the railroad, Boisi directed the sale of $100 million worth of land along the 10,000-mile system in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as the leasing of the railroad’s 34-story office building, over Park Avenue between 45th and 46th streets, to investor Irving Brodsky, according to articles in the New York Times.

The office tower, which has openings for cars traveling on Park Avenue, is today called the Helmsley Building.

During his time with J.P. Morgan, he represented the firm in its dealings with New York City’s Municipal Assistance Corp., which guided the city away from a brush with bankruptcy. According to his son, he also worked with former New York Governor Hugh L. Carey to create a free-trade zone for international banking that opened in New York in 1981.

For 51 years Boisi taught real estate law at Pace University’s campus in Manhattan. In 1993 he founded the Mentoring Partnership of Long Island.

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Edith Mullen; sons James, Geoffrey, Mark and daughters Jeanne Sheehy, Patricia Sheehy and Eileen Dobbs; 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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