By Julia Ritchey, as published in the Savannah Morning News on December 25, 2014
Chances are if you watched or attended a City Council, Historic Board, Zoning Board of Appeals or Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting this year, you probably saw attorney Harold Yellin going to bat for a host of heavy-hitter clients.
The 59-year-old HunterMaclean lawyer has practiced law for 32 years in Savannah, but even Yellin acknowledges that 2014 was “an unusually busy year.”
In the past 12 months, Yellin has represented clients who include the Savannah College of Art and Design, hotelier Richard Kessler, developer Ben Carter, businessman Charles Morris and a slew of other major commercial real estate projects. He also handled controversial land use and ordinance petitions dealing with the height map and residential density.
The other element that makes Yellin stand out? He frequently wins approval for his clients’ projects.
Yellin said he believes part of the reason 2014 has been so busy is that people who were on the sidelines during the recent recession are now back in the game.
“I can’t tell you the magic moment when somebody pushed the button and said it’s time to get back in, but it sure seems like it was early ‘14 or late ‘13,” he said. “I’d say in the 32 years I’ve been here, it’s been as active as I can remember.”
A 1973 graduate of Alfred Ely Beach High School, the native Savannahian has always been a little competitive. He attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and later received his law degree and M.B.A. in finance from Emory University.
After graduating, he returned to Savannah to practice commercial real estate, where he’s now a partner at HunterMaclean, one of the largest and oldest law firms in the area.
In fact, Yellin didn’t get into land use or zoning until 25 years ago when he was approached by a client who wanted to open a micro-brewery on Bay Street.
“I literally went door-to-door going ‘Who can zone this? Who can do this?’ and nobody in the firm at the time knew how to zone. I said, ‘How hard can this be?’” he said.
Turns out, pretty hard. He lost and the micro-brewery never happened.
“My first venture into zoning was a terrible defeat, but I kind of got my feet wet and said, ‘I need to understand the process,’” he said. “I understood for the first time the relationship between commercial real estate practice and commercial zoning, and how important it is not to buy property until it is correctly zoned and has all the site plans approved.”
Having litigated for two years prior to that, Yellin actually enjoyed the comparatively brisk pace of land use petitions.
“There was this adrenaline rush of filing a petition and two weeks later you were at the planning commission, and then a few weeks later you were at City Council,” he said. “I suspect I’m not the most patient person in the world and knowing that everything could be done in a condensed fashion suited me just fine.”
Still, land use is not what takes up the majority of his time. Although people see him on public access TV, Yellin said, he spends two-thirds of his time finalizing real estate transactions, writing contracts and closing deals. Even less conspicuous? He said he has as many small business clients as big ones.
“My job is also to be realistic,” he said. “There are times when I will tell a client I don’t think you have any chance at all and I recommend against it, and there are times I think it’s a good project and we should go for it.”
A frequent strategy Yellin uses when addressing various review boards is he tells a short, succinct story to introduce the cast of characters involved in the project and get the board familiar with the history of the property.
He also never asks for things arbitrarily or without facts to back him up. For example, when asking for a parking variance earlier this year for the future renovation of the SCAD dorms off West Boundary Street, he said many students don’t bring cars to campus and instead walk or use the school’s bus system, citing ridership statistics.
Earlier this year, when he argued for a text amendment to the height map for Richard Kessler’s West River Street Hotel, Yellin said the heights they were requesting would not outsize any building that currently or previously stood there. He made a similar case for North Point Hospitality Group’s hotel going up at the east end of River Street a year earlier.
“It was really more of a policy decision,” Yellin said of the height controversy. “Both asked the question: What should the canvas look like? Should the map be higher for these particular areas? Knowing that the City Council as a matter of policy supported a higher map, we thought, established the canvas to work on.”
After the text amendment was approved, some neighboring property owners took Kessler to court but later settled. Yellin said he understands that change can be difficult for people.
“How do we grapple with old and new? It’s very, very tough. There’s a constant struggle,” he said. “We do want to get it right. There’s no question about it.”
Keeping the temperature down
Yellin remembers plenty of other contentious projects he’s handled over the years. He once represented the Firefly Café at 321 Habersham St. when they wanted to get a beer and wine license.
Neighbors who came to speak against the petition complained that alcohol would attract crime and a “Mardis Gras” atmosphere to tranquil Troup Square.
“It was one of those things where it helped me to define my role in the process,” he said. “My job is to keep the temperature down.”
The café got its license and, as far as Yellin can tell, there’s been no Bourbon Street-type festivities or increased crime attributed to the restaurant.
“You have to keep people from being struck by the what-if-it is,” he said.
Yellin has become so good at winning some former members of the historic board have described him as an anti-preservationist, a term at which Yellin bristled, calling it “absolutely incorrect.”
“I represent people who do change the landscape, but to suggest that merely changing the landscape makes you anti-preservations is illogical,” he said.
It’s only human nature, he said, to attack the other side when you lose the vote.
“I have worked with architects who I believe are the finest preservationists in the city,” he said. “In downtown Savannah, I have never handled a project without the assistance of local architects.”
Yellin said he understands that people feel very deeply about their community, which is why he strives to keep a cool and level head in these public meetings.
And even though some developers have argued the system is overly burdensome, he believes most petitions receive a fair shake.
“It may take longer than people may think, but all in all it’s a fairly good process,” he said. “Not necessarily streamlined but fair.”
In another example he gave, residents came out in force to oppose Publix when it first announced plans to come to the Twelve Oaks Shopping Center on Abercorn Street. Many rang the same alarm bells about a potential increase in crime.
“I think people get very emotional — you don’t find that people come out and speak in favor of petitions with the same passion that people speak against them,” he said. “No one’s going to come out and say I love the vegetable section of Publix.”
Despite the increased scrutiny — he said even his uncle will watch him on TV and give him feedback— Yellin said he’s enjoyed the last year and hopes to see more residential infill projects come online.
“The biggest issue for Savannah is mixed-used development and bringing residents into this downtown,” he said. “I think we have a couple of different ordinances that work against that. It makes a community safer when there are people walking the street.”
Yellin, who has a home in the Historic District and walks to work, said Savannah is just beginning its next evolution.
“I like where we are as a downtown right now,” he said. “Thirteen years ago, Savannah wasn’t in the conversation as a being a cool, great place to move to, and we’re in that conversation now.”
As 2014 comes to a close, the Savannah Morning News, Business in Savannah and savannahnow.com continue the tradition of profiling companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment during the past year.
The Business in Savannah staff chose the honorees from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community members, utilizing broad criteria — from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.