New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Up on the Roof

Up on the roof. As any fan of the Drifters knows, that's where New Yorkers used to go to escape the summertime heat. Today, increasingly, it's where well-to-do New Yorkers go to build their dream apartments.

And so when the co-op board at the Schwab House on the Upper West Side set out to find a buyer for their plum rooftop space —- it has sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River — they were determined not to let history repeat itself.

They had already been burned once. When the building's sponsor sold his "solarium" apartment atop the 17-story building's west wing in the 1990s, the new tenants undertook a major renovation project without notifying the board. Anger, recriminations, and lawsuits ensued.

"I think we were taken by surprise. I know I was," says Mitch Levine, who has lived in the 630-unit building since 1968 and has been on the board from the day it went co-op in 1984.

"When a report came to us that something was happening, we tried to stop it. But once things get started, it's difficult for a board to establish its rights. Toward the end of construction, we had more input."

After that nightmarish experience, the board decided to do things differently when they set out to find a buyer for the rooftop of the building's east wing. The board appointed a subcommittee, which hired structural and mechanical engineers to survey the space. Based on their recommendations — and the sentiments of 17th-floor residents — the full board decided that any new construction would be single-level and would conform to certain space limitations.

Several potential buyers were rejected before the board agreed to sell the space to Ruvan Cohen, an international marketer with MasterCard, who proposed a five-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot apartment, plus a 3,000-square-foot terrace. The selling price was about $1.1 million, according to knowledgeable sources. Cohen, who hopes to move in with his wife and three children in June, declines to reveal the cost of construction.

All involved parties agree that the year-long project has been remarkably smooth for two reasons: understandings were hammered out before construction began and communication has been constant.

For instance, half of the cost of extending an elevator to the 18th floor — $75,000 — was built into the sale price, a reasonable compromise since other shareholders will be able to use the elevator to visit the existing rooftop terrace. Though washers and driers are not allowed inside apartments, Cohen argued that carrying dirty laundry from a luxury rooftop apartment to the basement laundry room was an unreasonable inconvenience, and the board agreed. However, they rejected his request for a Jacuzzi. Back and forth it went before the first nail was pounded.

"Since the start of construction, the board has been spectacular," says Cohen, who hired the architect Steven Silverstein, as well as his own structural and mechanical engineers. "There has been what I would call a high degree of reasonableness. A project of this magnitude could have a divisive effect on shareholders, but it's been a win-win situation."

Cohen went out of his way to help make that happen. "For the people on the 17th floor, I'm sure this has not been an easy thing to live with," he says. "We met with them at the outset to go through our plans and let them know what they could expect. We've tried to keep noise and dust to a minimum. We've tried to communicate and make it as painless as possible."

To facilitate communication, the board appointed the building's resident manager, John Walpole, as a liaison between the board and its engineers, Cohen and his engineers, and the architect, contractor, and other shareholders. Weekly meetings kept everyone abreast of progress and problems.

"If you let things pile up, they spin out of control," says Walpole, 38, who has worked his way up in 20 years from handyman to super to manager. "When we got into differences of opinion — on things like flashing or waterproofing — we worked it out at the weekly meeting. But the prep work is what made it smooth."

And constant vigilance was what made the prep work pay off. Levine, the longtime board member, says there can never be any letup. Even now, with construction nearly complete, he is reviewing window installations and caulking.

"It takes a lot of work," Levine says. "Every single detail that can affect this structure, or the rest of the building, is gone over. We're satisfied that we've done everything that's possible to ensure that we're protected. The process has been proactive."

The reaction of the downstairs neighbors is proof that this project generated far less acrimony than its predecessor on top of the west wing. "Surprisingly, they were good about it," says Walpole. "They definitely went through some noisy times. The hardest part is the unknowns. There are always going to be unknowns with a project of this type."

Maeda Bloomberg, a member of Schwab House's board for the past five years and its president for the past three, believes Cohen's aerie will benefit every one of the building's shareholders.

"It has given us an apartment in a price range that you never see in a building of this type," she says of the self-managed co-op, a brick behemoth built in 1950. "He busted the glass ceiling in Schwab House. The money we got from the sale has allowed us to pay for the renovation of our hallways without an assessment. And the maintenance on that apartment will be a nice addition to the till."

Susan Fitzpatrick, the co-op's executive manager, believes the project was a success because all parties listened to each other. "It all goes back to self-management," she says. "Anybody could get a question answered almost immediately because we're here all the time. Everybody was always talking to everybody. And I must say, Ruvan Cohen was a true mensch."

While giving a visitor a tour of the rambling, light-drenched premises, Cohen, 47, a native of Queens, seems more than a little amazed that he will soon be living in such palatial surroundings.

"This is something I never conceived of doing," he says as workers haul out construction debris and put finishing touches on sheetrock walls. "We wanted to give our three kids separate bedrooms, and every apartment we looked at would have required massive renovation. But this offered us the opportunity to build it to our own vision. We wound up getting a custom house."
Does he have any regrets? "If I had to do it again," he says, "the only thing I would do differently would be to move in three months earlier."

As far as the board is concerned, preparation and diligence weren't solely responsible for the project's success. Luck helped, too. "We got lucky, we picked the right person," Levine says. "[Cohen] isn't full-speed-ahead and damn everybody else. He listens. Hey, a little luck never hurt anybody."

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