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Working Out, Building Bonds

Communal living has taken root in the Orion, a new condo on West 42nd Street. Every day, residents in the 550-unit Manhattan high-rise gather in the clubroom and hobnob with their neighbors over a community breakfast. The brainchild of the condo’s developer, Bernard Friedman, the amenity is very popular with the residents and serves a more subtle purpose: it helps build bonds between neighbors.

“People always accuse boards of not communicating,” observes Leslie Winkler, director of management at Penmark Realty, which manages the Orion. “With these kind of daily social interactions – the board members are there – the residents tend to see the board in a different light, while the board can hear the owners’ concerns not just at an annual meeting, when people are screaming at them, but on a daily basis. It makes everyone feel more connected to the operations of the building.”

Nancy Diaz, who sits on the condo’s board and works closely with resident manager Danny SiFonte, says the Orion has other amenities that build esprit de corps: an all-weather pool and sun deck; a gym with personal training, nutritional seminars, and massage services; and a huge party-room complex, complete with oversized plasma-screen TV, pool table, and stereo system. Penmark contracts out the day-to-day operations of several of its many services and facilities. Abigail Michaels, a hotel concierge service, schedules dog walks and food deliveries. La Palestra, an upscale Upper West Side gym, runs the pool and gym, including hiring, training, and supervising the staff. Costs – such as personnel, maintenance, and additional insurance (if any) – are passed along in the monthly carrying charges. “If you want it – great,” says Winkler, “but you pay. It’s not inexpensive.”

Costly, yes, but people are willing to pay for them. Amenities are in. And, as new condominiums compete against more traditional, amenity-free cooperatives, they can add a potential edge to apartment resale value. “If some of the older buildings have space to put in gyms, many of them are doing it,” notes Winkler. “It’s a major draw in these new buildings. People like to have these health club facilities.”

For instance, one such older property, the Pythian, a converted Masonic temple on West 70th Street in Manhattan, already has a children’s playroom. Now the condo board and the managing agent, Bellmarc Property Management, are looking into carving additional storage space out of an old boiler room and turning part of its community room into a workout area. Laura Hartstein, the president, says that residents will be asked to fill out a questionnaire to find out if that’s what the owners want since the neighborhood is already filled with luxury gyms. One practical plus: a new fitness facility would not require any additional insurance. “We have a lot of families here,” she says. “We don’t care if we’re not on the level of the new buildings with the fancy-schmancy stuff.”

“Fancy-schmancy” would include the A Building, rising in the East Village. It includes a rooftop pool with lounge chairs, cabanas, a wet bar, an electric grill, and a grass lawn; a full fitness center designed by the Gym Source; and plenty of storage.

“I remember when amenities in a building were just a laundry room and a doorman,” recalls Steven Charno, principal at Clinton Management, which oversees 555 West 23rd Street. Some of the complex’s amenities, such as a large party room and lobby ATM, were meant to ameliorate living in an area that is many long blocks from Chelsea’s Eighth Avenue strip.

If your board is thinking of adding a health facility – or if you already have one – beware: Doug Heller, a partner at the law firm of Herrick, Feinstein, says condos have to make tough decisions about certain issues. These include allowing unsupervised children to use a pool, letting teenagers use a gym, or even whether to stock free weights, which are prone to be involved in mishaps. Even so, since there have been relatively few lawsuits resulting from condo health clubs or pools, premiums are relatively low. Most buildings’ underlying liability policies take care of much of the insurance. Insurance costs, if any, are added to the monthly carrying charges.

Heller noted that Pekelmaya vs. Allyn, a pending case, may affect condo liability in the event of accidents. Two men hit by falling debris from a Morningside Heights condo sued the board, which had $2 million in liability insurance – not enough for damages, the men claimed. The lower courts have thus far sided with the building, but until the case is decided, its affect on insurance for such amenities as gyms and pools remains murky.

As for the cost of maintaining facilities, in a large building it can be amortized over enough units not to make it onerous. Steve Kass, CEO of American Leisure, which builds and runs spa facilities, points out that a good gym membership in the city costs at least $1,000. “The common charge for these kinds of facilities is only $50 to $100 per unit,” Kass said. “So even at the high end – say, $1,200 per year – you’re getting much more than [at] the best fitness club [for] a lot less money.”

American Pool Management in Forest Hills builds and maintains condo pools in three boroughs. “Give us the check, and we do the opening, closing, chemicals, parts, repairs, products, and lifeguards,” says James Luty, president of the firm, who attends condo board meetings when asked. To find qualified lifeguards, Luty advertises in local papers, attends job fairs, and contacts college and high-school guidance counselors. The pay averages $9 per hour, with a pool manager at a big complex making about $19 per hour.

In today’s condos, however, even a fully equipped gym and pool are considered slightly passé, with the trend toward New Age-type “environmental” spas. The Miravel, going up on East 72nd Street, has brought in ultra-upscale Miravel Spa from Tucson to plan a full day’s worth of activities, from nutrition counseling and food prep to children’s yoga and classes in making candles and jewelry, and clay modeling.

In American Leisure’s Aqua Grotto, a resident can take an elevator ride and find oneself in an “experiential shower” that simulates the full cycle of a tropical rain shower, complete with appropriate sound effects and smells. As with other spa-type providers, American Leisure not only installs the computer-operated “environments” but also services and maintains them. Builders are finding more and more ways to distinguish their projects. “In today’s market, everybody’s trying to build a better building,” Kass explains. “Space is at a premium. You can only have one refrigerator. It gives a project a distinct marketing edge.”

It’s getting harder and harder to find something entirely new, but Doug Korff has provided an innovation at the Solaria in Riverdale. He was inspired to top the project with the city’s first high-powered telescope by his father, a physicist. The building’s height (20 stories) and the relative darkness (it faces the Jersey Palisades across the Hudson) help out. An amateur astronomers’ group and a consultant from the Museum of Natural History’s Rose Planetarium will regularly calibrate the telescope.

On the other hand, Penmark’s Winkler observes that many older co-ops see no need to “freshen up” with the bells and whistles of such amenities. To them, competition is a fool’s game.

“There’s a type – take a Fifth Avenue or a Park Avenue building – that doesn’t care about amenities at all,” says Penmark’s Winkler, who handles both old-line co-ops and new glitzy condominiums. “All things being equal, the building with the amenities might be more appealing. But I’m not sure you can make all of these buildings equal. Older buildings have other attractions that people want, which is why they’re going to them to begin with.”

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