New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine December 2020 free digital issue

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Old Neighborhood, New Community

Twenty years ago, condominiums — prevalent throughout the United States — were a rarity in New York City. The dominant form of apartment homeownership, established in the 1920s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and on Central Park West and Riverside Drive, was cooperatives. Then, in the 1980s, things began changing, as a wave of new construction and gut rehabilitations began sweeping the city. Condominiums rose like flowers in the spring: Madison Green, "the condo on the park," was erected on East 23rd Street; 500 Park Tower went up on Park Avenue at 59th Street; Carnegie Hill Tower appeared on East 94th Street. And then there was the Columbia.

The Columbia was a pioneering effort in more ways than one. When the 35-story condominium sprang up from the ashes of a block of low-rise structures, including two old movie theaters, nothing quite like it had ever been built on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In a neighborhood known for its spacious, prewar apartments, the Columbia offered compact, decidedly postwar units with tip-top modern amenities: terraces, lounges, playrooms, an impressive 40- by 60-foot swimming pool, an exercise facility worthy of NASA, even a community garden. The views of the surrounding neighborhood, the Hudson River, and New Jersey, unobstructed because of the low-level buildings, were — and still are — marvelous.

Beyond the building, erected by developer William Zeckendorf, Jr., the very idea of the Columbia was daring if somewhat dubious: a condo, north (just barely) of 96th Street in the notoriously liberal (i.e., active-against-development) community. More to the point, once built, could lower Manhattan and East Side yuppies be enticed to relocate to the Upper Upper West Side? (Or as one wag dubbed it, "The Wild, Wild West.")

FANTASTIC FOLLY?

It was a different neighborhood then," recalls the Columbia's current board president, Tom Sutherland, whose sister lived there when it opened. "My sister was mugged within a block of the building. There was a pool hall across the street and a notorious night club called The Latin Quarter." Adds Suzanne Halasz, a resident-owner who bought her unit in 1988: "People had a different idea of the area. My father thought I was moving into Harlem."

Indeed, some scoffed at the project as "Zeckendorf's Folly," but few were scoffing 18 months later, when the massive structure had sold out at prices much higher than predicted. "Our research showed that the neighborhood and the market at the time were right for a condominium like the Columbia," explains Arthur Zeckendorf, William's son, who is currently a co-president of Zeckendorf Realty. "We thought it was a great location; it has subways, parks, wide streets, and a great neighborhood. Nothing new had been built there since the 1920s. Overall, it was a very satisfying project."

Now, nearly 20 years after its opening in 1983, the Columbia is no longer new, but still just as imposing, with a sense of community that would be hard to beat. Over the years, however, it has set a few other records, of sorts: it has one of the largest boards for a structure of its size (12); it will probably remain the tallest building of its type in the neighborhood (outraged activists forced a zoning change so that nothing quite as tall could be built again); and it could possibly be one of the youngest properties of its kind to need major capital improvement work.

"There were a lot of construction defects," admits Sutherland. "There was poor material and poor workmanship and we're still dealing with some of that." Explains Harvey Osgood, a mechanical engineer and former board president at the condo: "One of the problems was the use of glazed brick; it retained a little bit of moisture and in the 'freeze-and-thaw' cycle the brick would crack."

The Columbia owners long ago settled complaints with Zeckendorf over those defects, taking a lump sum in lieu of lawsuits (Osgood says they received about $50,000 in 1991), and rehabilitation is under way, guided by Sutherland, the relatively new, hands-on president, and a new majority on the board. "We have a legacy of construction defects," Sutherland notes. "On top of that there were issues of improper, poor maintenance."

Some years ago, there was also a proposal by the state government to buy three units and turn them into subsidized housing for people with disabilities, which many on the board opposed. Then the board redid the lobbies and elevators, running over budget. Leaks began appearing frequently.

All of that resulted in complaints from the owners and a recent period of political unrest at the property — what Sutherland diplomatically calls "a contentious period of politicking and personalities" — after which veteran president Osgood and his slate were defeated for reelection. "There are strong egos on the board," Osgood says now, adding that Sutherland is "a swell guy who gets things done."

LIVING IN HARMONY

Indeed, Sutherland, who seems casual about his accomplishments, has helped re-establish the sense of harmony and balance that the building had apparently lost — or had less of — under the previous regime. "He is a more hands-on leader," notes Mindy Krause, the property's resident manager, an agent with Blue Woods Management. "He is chairman of the building committee and very involved in fixing the physical plant."

One area in which Sutherland has tried to make a change is in the board's lengthy monthly meetings, made longer by the massive size of the board. He has encouraged the use of committees so that those interested in specific projects can get things done more efficiently (the committees investigate options and bring them to the board for limited discussion and a vote).

"It's a very well-run building," observes Jeffrey Schwartz, a partner at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, the condo's attorney. "People are extremely diligent with a lot of different interests on the board. But they listen to people in the building and they run it like a business. Sometimes the large boards are difficult to manage. They find out people's specialties and interests and set up a committee system."

Sutherland says he is also trying to expand community activities. The ethnically diverse property, 70 percent of which is owner-occupied, includes families, retirees, and young single professionals. It currently stages floor-wide parties about four times a year, but the president wants to get more involvement between floors. "Most floors have an 'open door' policy," he observes. "I leave my door open and let the cat go out in the hallway. People intermingle freely. The board is trying to promote a sense of community between floors, as well. There is a lot of interaction among the health club community."

The building's longest-running success story is its community garden, a source of pride to the board that has attracted local and national attention. Currently, 27 families, including several from the Columbia, tend plots there. The garden is maintained by the sale of keys and tax-deductible contributions.

The Lotus Garden, as it is called, was the brainchild of community activists Carrie Maher, a horticulturalist, and Mark Greenwald, an architect, who worked with William Zeckendorf, Jr. on the project for a year. It was built on the roof of the condominium's garage on West 97th Street. According to Shem Parsons, the garden's current keeper, "Zeckendorf built stairs to the roof from a gate on the street; a cherry-picker lifted three-and-a-half feet of topsoil onto the garage roof. Then, Carrie and Mark laid out winding paths, installed two fish ponds, and planted fruit trees and flowering shrubs. In the spring of 1983, a group of local residents, including new residents of the Columbia, began to plant flowers and herbs beneath the north-facing windows of the Columbia's tower."

The Columbia, a pioneer in its day, is now settling down to comfortable maturity. No longer an oddity — new construction has since gone up nearby on 95th Street and a new development is rising on 110th Street and Broadway — the nearly 20-year-old property has survived its growing pains to become a strong, vibrant community within the larger community. Sutherland, for one, is looking forward to a promising future. "We are getting the construction work done. Everything is on track."

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