There’s an old joke that’s been making the rounds in New York City co-ops and condos for years. It goes like this: if you want a guaranteed standing-room-only crowd at your next annual board of directors meeting, simply announce that you’re planning to redo the lobby.
Many a true word is spoken in jest.
The importance of a lobby makeover – and its power to arouse passionate feelings about everything from financial priorities to aesthetic sensibilities – is no laughing matter. Just ask the board that runs the 80-unit co-op at 260 West End Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where an elaborate restoration is under way in a lobby that recently looked like an ashtray and will soon look like a crown jewel.
The tortuous story of how this project went from dream to reality holds lessons for every co-op or condo board in the city that’s considering a makeover of its lobby or any other public space in the building. In such projects, which affect every resident, the stakes are high, the perils are numerous, and the outcomes can range from traumatic to triumphant.
Here’s the story of one board’s triumph.
One Woman’s Dream
The 16-story (plus penthouse) building at the southeast corner of West End Avenue and West 72nd Street was designed by the prolific architectural firm of Schwartz and Gross, whose many notable works are standouts along Central Park West and throughout the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights. The building was erected during the bathtub-gin pinnacle of the Roaring Twenties, and in keeping with the spirit of those over-the-top, Gatsbyesque times, the architects spared no expense in making a knockout first impression.
As a result, when the building opened in the mid-1920s the small foyer and larger lobby were a magnificent confection of bronze doors with leaded-glass windows, bronze railings, terrazzo floors, vaulted ceilings, marble casings, and travertine stairways. Mae West was just one of many celebrity residents attracted to the building’s opulence. But after decades of neglect and deferred maintenance, the once-ravishing foyer and lobby had turned dim and musty. Then, one day in 1997, a woman named Lois Meredith moved into the co-op.
“The lobby has been a project of mine that started practically the moment I first walked into the building,” says Meredith, a clinical psychologist and playwright who has served on the co-op’s board since 1998 and is now chairman of its seven-member lobby committee.
But her dream of restoring the building’s “precious artifact” to its original glory ran into a pair of very large and very common obstacles: a lack of money; and the reluctance among shareholders, particularly those who had lived in the building for many years, to make costly changes that they saw as cosmetic, unnecessary, and unwise.
“This co-op runs close to the bone financially,” Meredith, says. “We have a very small reserve fund. We tried several times to pass a flip tax, but it hasn’t happened. Then, about five years ago, a group of us said, ‘To hell with it, we’re going to do some research just to see what the cost would be.’”
The cost of restoring the lobby was, in a word, prohibitive. Undeterred, Meredith persuaded the board in December of 2006 to let her form a committee to study exactly what it would take – and exactly what it would cost – to do a complete restoration. Meredith chose five fellow shareholders whose taste and judgment she respected – an attorney, an interior decorator, a retired school administrator, a TV writer, an author – and, in early 2007, the group went to work. (Earlier this year, a seventh member, an architect, joined the committee.)
“We met in the lobby and were very careful about making a list of what needed to be done,” Meredith says. “Then we interviewed five sets of people known for landmark restoration work – architects, general contractors, painters, plasterers – and asked them to submit proposals. These were very detailed, and we developed a sense of what it was going to cost.” The price tag: around $250,000.
Of the five proposals, the committee deemed the architect Mark Irizarry’s the best and most affordable.Particularly impressive were Irizarry’s 28 years in the business and his long working relationship with numerous highly skilled craftsmen, including decorative painters, stone restorers, metalworkers, and plasterers.
The full board of directors and the lobby committee interviewed Irizarry in August of 2007. “He acquitted himself brilliantly,” Meredith says, “and the board told us to go for it.”
Irizarry, who grew up on the Upper West Side, explains his successful bid this way: “Out of the five people who put in proposals, I believe I was more specific about the craftsmen I was going to use and my vision about restoring the lobby to close to its original state. Over the course of doing this kind of work for 28 years, I’ve gotten to know the handful of craftsmen who do high-quality restoration work.”
The die was cast, but one hurdle remained: selling shareholders on the idea that a quarter-of-a-million-dollar lobby restoration would enhance the value of their apartments and, therefore, was worth the bank loan and ensuing special assessment that would be needed to finance the project.
At the annual meeting in October 2007, the predictable standing-room-only crowd materialized to discuss this hot-button issue. And the predictable objections were raised.
“We got a big crowd,” says Meredith. “There were people who said they didn’t want to pay, that other things were more important.”
“There was a lot of back and forth about if it was the right thing to do,” recalls Brian Hargrove, a TV writer who was elected board treasurer that night and also serves on the lobby committee. “But eventually the majority of shareholders agreed that it was the right thing to do. We don’t have a lot of excess to spend, but if your front porch is falling down, you fix it.”
“There was not a lot of outrage [at the meeting],” adds Jeanne Miller, an attorney who serves as the board’s secretary and is also a member of the lobby committee. “It was really something that was necessary, and most people felt it would enhance the value of their apartments. We all came to the realization that we have to do this. And the only way we could do it, since we don’t have the money in the reserve fund, is through an assessment.”
While declining to reveal the size of the co-op’s reserves, board president Cynthia Walsh says the co-op took out a bridge loan to cover the cost of the lobby restoration.
“When the project is complete,” she says, “we’ll tally the total cost and have a special assessment to repay the loan at that time.”
Though it’s too early to know hard numbers, one board member estimates that when the project is finished sometime this fall, an assessment of about $5,000 will be levied on her two-bedroom apartment.
The Dream Dance
Work started in February when an architectural sculptor began repairing the elaborate plaster moldings on the ceiling trim. Next came decorative painter Ron Sharpe, who has worked with Irizarry, the architect, for 20 years. He was shocked by the condition of the lobby.
“It looked like an ashtray,” Sharpe says. “It was incredibly black. Dust and fuzz were hanging from the vaulted ceiling like stalactites, and the old paint fell off like potato chips.”
Since the goal of the project was not to renovate the lobby but to restore it, as closely as possible, to its original mid-1920s condition, some research was required as to exactly what colors the ceiling was originally painted. Committee members visited the nearby Apple Bank on Broadway, which was built in the mid-1920s, to get ideas. Sharpe added suggestions of his own. The committee hammered out these aesthetic decisions, while all financial decisions were made by the full board.
“Sometimes the dialogue was heated,” Meredith says of the committee’s frequent meetings. “People are very passionate about this. It’s not something they take lightly. I’d say our committee has been largely harmonious, but there have been passionate outbursts.”
“We’ve had some very lively discussions,” adds Miller. “Which gold should we use here? Why do you like a different color there? But it makes life easier if there are only seven members on the committee. If all 73 families [in the co-op] were involved, you could get 73 different opinions. Some of the committee’s votes were unanimous, some were not. You win some, you lose some.”
Irizarry, a veteran of many such projects, says this one has been relatively smooth. “It’s very difficult work,” he notes. “You have to have a receptive board and a dedicated committee that knows how to work together. Boards have to think carefully about what they’re getting themselves into and not rush into decisions.”
Boards also have to be ready for surprises. Despite all the elaborate planning, there were unforeseen items on this job, as you would expect with any long-overdue project on an 83-year-old property.
“The four bronze doors were a huge surprise,” says Meredith. “After the work started we learned that the wooden core of the doors had rotted. So the doors have to be rebuilt, and the new cores will be aluminum. Oddly enough, there was concern on the board that the rebuilt doors wouldn’t have the same substance as the wooden doors, the same feel. The architect assured us it will be very similar. So much of our attachment to the lobby is sensuous.”
Originally, the board was told the work on the doors was going to cost about $5,700. It will wind up being nearly ten times as much, about $50,000. Such unexpected expenditures required board approval before the work could begin.
While realizing that such costly incidents were inevitable, the committee worked hard to stay within budget. “It’s like any other restoration – it takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you thought it would,” says Hargrove, the board treasurer and committee member. “So you have to stay on top of it the whole time. For instance, somebody suggested it would be nice to redo the mailroom. But that wasn’t in the budget, so we’re going to fix it with paint and new carpet and lighting. We’re not spending if we don’t have to.”
As painting of the once-dingy ceiling in the foyer and lobby neared completion, the board began to get its first sense of shareholder reaction to this controversial and, in some quarters, still-unwelcome project.
“Once the work started, 90 percent of the people I’ve talked to were totally pleased,” says Meredith. “Some of the old-timers who’ve been here 50 years said they were used to it being dingy.” She adds, with a laugh, “Now it’s too bright for them!”
One person with some minor concerns is Barrie Aguirre, 59, who grew up in the building, moved away for several years, then moved back in 1978, when the property was still a rental.
“They’re bringing it back to the way I remember it when I was a child,” says Aguirre. “But the small rectangular foyer used to be darker, and I think they’re going to lose that discreet transition between the street and the lobby.” Still, he is generally approving of the project: “It’s like an aging woman who’s getting a facelift. Instead of looking 100 years old, she’s going to look 20. I’m all for it.”
Blueprint for a Dream
While the early signs indicate that this project is going to be embraced by shareholders, it’s worth remembering that when it comes to the highly volatile business of renovating public areas in co-op and condo buildings, there’s no single surefire blueprint for success.
Herb Cooper-Levy, former executive director of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives and now head of a nonprofit housing group, offers several caveats and some advice.
“Nothing engenders more conversation than a change to the common areas of a co-op, and everyone has an aesthetic opinion,” he says. “Given that consensus on improvements and decorations is unlikely, the question boils down to this: how does a co-op obtain the most buy-in or the least opposition?”
Cooper-Levy suggests that boards do precisely what the board at 260 West End Avenue did – assign one of its members to lead an ad-hoc committee charged with developing several possible lobby treatments. The committee should then recommend its top choice to the full board.
“I’d further recommend that, prior to making its recommendation to the board, the committee should have drawings commissioned by an architect or interior designer that illustrate the alternative schemes. I’d post these drawings in the lobby, along with a notice of the next committee meeting, at which shareholders would be invited to comment on the alternatives. While consensus may be unlikely, giving shareholders a chance to make their views known makes them feel heard and can minimize dissension.”
As for financing, Cooper-Levy says the most painless source of revenue is the reserve fund, provided it’s adequate and is not needed for more pressing repairs to, say, the roof or heating system. A loan, financed by a maintenance increase, is the next best way to go, he says, while a special assessment is most likely to meet with shareholder resistance.
“My most general advice to a board considering such a project is to thicken their skin much thicker than the fabric on their lobby furniture.”
The Dream Recaptured
As the lobby at 260 West End Avenue began to reveal its original luster, the architect behind the restoration offered a general assessment of the importance of public spaces in residential buildings.
“A lobby becomes secondary after you’ve lived in a building for a number of years,” Irizarry says. “People don’t always realize there’s something beneath the grime. You’d be surprised how important a lobby becomes to them when they see what they’ve been missing out on. They begin to appreciate the building as a whole – not just their apartments.”
He adds a prediction: “Once this lobby gets finished, I think it’ll have a ripple effect. People will have more pride in what they own and not let things go for such a long time.”
Which brings us, finally, to this story’s subtext: the high cost of not keeping a building’s public spaces in good repair. “My advice is to go ahead and do your lobby if it clearly needs to be done,” says Hargrove. “If we’d done this eight years ago, it would have cost us half as much. And I personally feel it’s going to add value to every apartment in the building. I always saw our lobby as an untapped resource.”