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No More Do-It-Yourself

For virtually all of its three and a half decades as a co-op, the Tennis View Apartments in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, has operated under an unusual – and unusually successful – form of self-management. Shortly after its conversion in 1973, the co-op hired a former police officer as manager. The arrangement worked so well that when the manager died of a heart attack in 1991, the board hired another retired police officer, Jerry DiMuro, to manage the two-building property, where all 167 units are now shareholder-owned. The unusual thing about the arrangement was that neither DiMuro nor his predecessor had any previous management experience. But they made up for this with hard work, a deft touch with people, and a knack for fitting into a co-op that has the feel of an extended family – a mix of young couples, retirees, professionals, and a few residents who’ve lived there for more than half a century.

DiMuro was on the premises four days a week, working closely with the board’s maintenance chairman, handling the day-to-day operations of the co-op. He was supported by a bookkeeper who came in once a week, and by a super, an attorney, and an accountant hired by the board. “Jerry’s a people person,” says the co-op’s president, James Versocki. “He always knew how to solve neighbor-to-neighbor issues so that problems didn’t get out of hand and come before the board.”

The nine-member board made a point of getting shareholders involved so that the co-op was not run in an imperious “top-down” fashion. Committees were active in maintenance, security, finance, physical improvements, and interviewing prospective shareholders. DiMuro’s door was always open.

For a long time, the arrangement worked like a charm. In recent years, though, there were grumblings that the personable DiMuro was disorganized, resistant to offers of help, and increasingly disengaged. In the spring, DiMuro said he wanted out.

“We had a conversation with Jerry,” Versocki recalls, “and he said he would like to retire so he could spend more time with his family and grandchildren.”

It was decision time. Should the co-op try to find the right person to carry on its unusual self-management arrangement? Or, in this age of increasing specialization, complex regulations, and soaring property values, was it time to seek out a professional management company?

“If it’s working with self-management, you don’t want to rock the boat,” says Versocki, a 34-year-old attorney who still plays pickup basketball twice a week. “On the other hand, it’s a more complicated world we live in.”

The board’s dilemma was, ironically, further complicated by several pleasant facts of life, among them the co-op’s choice location, its rich history, and the city’s robust real estate climate. Simply put, the co-op was in such good shape, physically and fiscally, that the board could not afford to make a bad decision. The stakes were too high.

To understand just how high they were, it’s necessary to know a bit of local history. Forest Hills Gardens – a small enclave distinct from the much larger Forest Hills – was laid out in the early 20th century by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the legendary landscape architect who helped shape Central Park, Prospect Park, and many of the city’s most cherished public spaces.

Olmsted and the supervising architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, were inspired by the “garden city movement” that sought to create green oases to soften the grim urban realities of late-19th-century England. As a result of their vision, Forest Hills Gardens now has the feel of an enchanted time warp – more like a century-old rural hamlet than a piece of a sprawling metropolitan mosaic. Yet from its gently curving streets, you can be in midtown Manhattan in 20 minutes by subway, less via the nearby Long Island Railroad. Rarely has the over-used expression “country living in the city” been more apt.

Many of the buildings – a mix of single-family homes, cottages, and apartment buildings – are in the Tudor style, with brick walls, exposed timbers, and terra-cotta roof tiles. The Tennis View Apartments’ two mid-rise buildings, finished in 1917 and 1919, stand next to the lordly West Side Tennis Club, which moved here in 1913 and served as home to the U.S. Open tennis tournament for several years before it relocated to nearby Flushing Meadows.

The streets and parks are privately owned by the Forest Hills Gardens Corp., which must approve all modifications to building exteriors. As a result of all this careful planning and diligent maintenance, Forest Hills Gardens was recently named the top “cottage community” in the country by Cottage Living magazine.

All of which added to the pressure on the Tennis View board when it came time to find a manager to succeed DiMuro. A nice problem to have, perhaps, but a problem nonetheless. Rather than making a unilateral “top-down” decision, the board decided to take the shareholders’ collective pulse. To this end, a pair of open meetings was called.

“We got a heavy turnout – about 50 percent of the units showed up,” Versocki says. “What we heard was a lot of concern about how this decision would affect the character of the co-op. Would professional management make it less personal, more corporate? Or would it mean better services?” It was a question of priorities: was the familiarity of self-management more important than the possibility of greater specialization and efficiency?

At first, the majority of shareholders resisted change. But gradually, information overcame their fear of the unknown.

“People realized [professional management] wasn’t going to cost more,” says the board’s treasurer, Dr. Arlene Conboy, a 60-year-old gerontology researcher. “They also realized that trying to self-manage without being in touch with regulatory bodies left us in the cold. We could not keep up with all the new regulations. That was a driving force in the decision to go with professional management.”

Once that decision was reached, back in June, it was time to start interviewing prospective companies. Even before the interviews began, the board’s unique support system was busy. An ad hoc committee composed of four former board presidents had already come up with a list of six management companies that might be right for the co-op. The committee met with the companies’ officers, then narrowed the list down to three.

In July, board treasurer Conboy and secretary Patricia McCann visited the offices of all three firms. “We wanted to get the ambiance, the feeling of the companies,” says Conboy. “I asked a lot of financial questions. Trish [McCann] asked about maintenance and relations with shareholders.” Adds Versocki: “You want to meet the people, see who they are. You want to make sure they aren’t run[ning their firm] out of the back of a car.”

By early August, having met with Conboy’s and McCann’s preliminary approval, the three companies were invited to come in and introduce their managerial candidates and state their cases for being best for the job. In keeping with the co-op’s familial philosophy, shareholders were invited.

Since all three companies had been vetted and deemed competent, it once again came down to a matter of personalities. After stating their management philosophy and answering questions – how often will you be on the premises? how do we get in touch with you? – the management candidates toured the property with the super. The entire process was a test not only of technical expertise but also of personal compatibility. The goal of the process, in Versocki’s words, was to answer a simple but vital question: does the board want to work with this person?

In the end, the directors voted by secret ballot to hire Mark Greenberg Real Estate, a firm with a long track record in co-op management. Tom Leiter, a former co-op board president with five years of management experience at Greenberg, takes over as Tennis View’s new property manager on October 1. He’ll be on the premises two days a week for a total of about 10 hours, paying bills, fielding complaints, preparing monthly financial reports, sending out maintenance bills, working hand-in-hand with the super, the accountant, the attorney, and the board.

“We offer hands-on experience in all areas facing co-op boards,” says Jim Goldstick, vice president of Mark Greenberg Real Estate, who attended the August meeting with Leiter. “Boards need people like us to take responsibility. They need to know that their business is being handled professionally and competently.” Goldstick makes no secret of his enthusiasm for managing the property. “The Tennis View Apartments are a beautiful pair of buildings in a beautiful party of the city,” he says. “It’s a good account for us. It fits nicely into our portfolio.”

Conboy did not vote to hire Greenberg because she has misgivings about the financial computer program the company uses. Yet she supports the decision to go with professional management. “I felt we had to change,” she says. “We had no choice.”

But Versocki is sanguine about the future. “I’m definitely optimistic,” he says. “We want the new manager to be part of the team, not to replace the team. I still see the board being very active. This is not a cataclysmic change. It’s just the next stage.”

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