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Basement Beautiful

Here are a couple of recipes guaranteed to delight the thousands of New Yorkers who live in co-op garden apartments.

First recipe, for people who live on the ground floor. Take your unused basement. Renovate thoroughly. Install, to your taste, washing machine, computer, stereo, television and DVD player. (You may want to add a half-bath.) You’ve just doubled your living space and now you’ll receive additional shares in your co-op. Kick back and enjoy.

Second recipe, for people who live on the second floor. Punch a hole in exterior wall. Install a sliding glass door. Build a terrace. Or, punch a hole in the roof. Add a dormer, turning the unused attic into additional living space. Now you can forget about shopping for a bigger apartment.

While you won’t find these recipes in The Joy of Cooking, you will find them at a pair of Queens co-ops that have instituted innovative renovation policies that could revolutionize life in the city’s co-op garden apartments.

This quiet revolution started at Glen Oaks Village, 134 two-story buildings sprinkled across 125 leafy acres in Glen Oaks, Queens. Built in the 1940s as rental apartments for veterans returning from the Second World War, this vast 10,000-unit complex converted to co-op in 1981. The year before the conversion, an accountant named Bob Friedrich moved in. For the past 15 years, he has served on the co-op’s board and is now its gung-ho president.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is allow people to make value-added improvements to their apartments,” says Friedrich, who is running for City Council in the 23rd district. “In co-ops in Queens, that’s generally frowned upon. It’s my idea that if you allow people to improve their apartments, it raises property values for everyone.”

So about six years ago, the Glen Oaks Village board began navigating the Byzantine maze of the city’s bureaucracy – community boards, zoning laws, building codes – and then drew up 10 pages of house rules that shareholders had follow if they wanted to renovate their basements or attics. Finally in 2007, the first dormer was added to a roof, using prefab materials and a construction crane, a process that took just four days instead of the usual four months. A year later, shareholders began renovating their basements.

To date, the co-op has sprouted 20 dormers and 125 decks, and those shareholders have received 25 percent more shares in the co-op plus a 25 percent increase in monthly maintenance. About 30 shareholders have renovated their basements, giving them 15 percent more shares and a 15 percent maintenance increase.

“It’s becoming enormously popular,” says Friedrich. “It takes the whole vision of co-op living in a small apartment and turns it on its head. Now you don’t have to move to get more space.”

The renovations caught the eye of Bobby Sher, 56, who grew up in the nearby Bell Park Manor Terrace and is now president of its co-op board. Though much smaller than Glen Oaks Village, Bell Park Manor Terrace is also a post-war assemblage of two-story garden apartments, 850 apartments on 47 acres in Queens Village.

“I heard through the grapevine about innovative things being done at Glen Oaks,” says Sher. “A while ago, I met Bob Friedrich and he invited me to come over and look. I saw basements, dormers, and decks in the front and rear of buildings – amazing things that changed people’s lives.”

Sher took his fellow board members and the co-op’s attorney and property manager over to Glen Oaks so they could see the revolution for themselves. They came away impressed.

“That’s when the hard work began,” Sher says. “There were questions about legal issues, building codes. We had meetings with the architect at Glen Oaks, we interviewed contractors who have experience working on garden apartments. Then we started writing up rules and very strong suggestions about doing things like waterproofing.”

In the end, the board produced strict guidelines for renovations. Most projects have to be drawn up by the co-op’s architect, they must meet city building codes, and the work must be performed by a licensed and insured contractor. The rules allow shareholders to renovate their basement or attic, add a second-story balcony or a ground-floor deck or patio. Sher became the co-op’s guinea pig, the first resident to renovate a basement. The project was not without glitches. Once the bugs are worked out, Sher estimates a typical basement renovation will cost about $40,000 – and it will reward the shareholder with 15 percent more shares. Maintenance will also jump by 15 percent.

“We’ve established another source of revenue for the co-op using space that would almost never be used,” says the co-op’s property manager, Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management. “The added revenue in this economic climate is wonderful.” Another co-op Wolfe manages in Bayside, Queens, is now rolling out a similar program. “We’re taking baby steps to make sure there are no infrastructure problems,” he says. “Conceptually, it’s a wonderful idea.”

Already it’s catching on at Bell Park Manor Terrace. “We have one person who’s in the process of doing this, a shareholder named Jaswattie Khublall, and several other people who are talking,” says Sher. “Once people see my basement, they freak out – same way I did when I went over to Glen Oaks Village.”

As far as Sher is concerned, this is an idea whose time has come. “In this bad economy, not everyone can afford to go out and buy a bigger apartment or a house,” he says. “This almost doubles your space, and it changes your life. The beautiful part is that if a young couple moves in and wants to start a family, they’ll have space for kids to play, a laundry room, whatever. My apartment’s like a little house now.”

Over at Glen Oaks Village, Bob Friedrich is thrilled that his revolutionary idea is beginning to catch on. “Bell Park Manor Terrace is the first co-op to do some of the things we’re doing. Other co-ops will follow suit. I’m getting a lot of inquiries.”

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