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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Lobby Lessons

A Manhattan board member offers what she learned on Experience Street


No matter how elegantly, or cost-effectively, or quickly a lobby renovation is completed, someone will not be happy with the way it looks, how much it cost, and how long it lasted. It might be the building curmudgeon or the cat lady on the floor below, but it will be someone; and, more than likely, it will be several someones. Recognize that if there are 100 apartment units, there will be at least 101 opinions on what the end result should be. Having said that, a lobby renovation can be accomplished with few complaints and minimal disharmony if you bear certain rules of thumb in mind at all times.

The lobby at our building, 5 Riverside Drive, was in desperate need of a face lift. While the marble floor, installed just 15 years before, was gorgeous, it had not been cared for properly and dirt had been ground in. The couches, devoid of their lofty down cushions, and stained despite endless scrubbing, weren’t even good enough for Goodwill. The wallpaper, and its large-scale border, made the 10-foot ceiling seem low, while the alabaster sconces had black burn marks from being over-lamped (100 watts in a maximum 40 socket). Not too appealing in a building where the price per square foot averages $1,200. Right?

Something had to be done. And, despite fits and starts caused by the drop in the stock market by the weak real estate market, and because of impassioned letters from shareholders both for and against it, our lobby went from dowdy to elegant in a 16-week work period earlier this year to everyone’s delight. We finished exactly two years after we began the process with lots of down time in between.

Leveraging the best of what we had, including those amazing marble floors (now restored), Art Deco benches from the original 1937 Dorothy Draper designed lobby (now reupholstered), and our timeless Baldinger wall sconces (retrofitted with frosted glass that can withstand higher watts), we designed a space that optimizes our comfort, security, and Art Deco heritage. With the addition of custom-designed work spaces for our staff, understated upholstered furniture, and a breathtaking marble mantel that creates a focal point for the main lobby, we have now recaptured the elegance that made this building so desirable when it opened its doors over 70 years ago.


Tips for a Better Process

How can you accomplish this?

Get consensus that the lobby (hallways, roof, etc.) actually needs to be renovated. What looks down-at-the-heels to one shareholder can seem like the Ritz to someone else. Ask a realtor or two if you are losing sales because your lobby is turning people off. Take the pulse of shareholders at the annual meeting, or at other building gatherings, and ask the important question: who thinks the lobby needs to be restored? Once that is affirmed, get going.

Assemble a team of individuals with different, but complementary skills. In groups, three is generally the optimal number for productivity, but five will provide a broader ensemble of talents including someone to be vigilant about the budget. Five will be more representative of the various residents. Be clear upfront that each participant needs to commit to seeing this project all the way through. Going to fabric showrooms is fun the first time or two, but it becomes more tiresome with each return trip.

Populate the design team with people who have good taste. And, that is not to say they all have the same taste or your taste. Different design sensibilities will keep things fluid and will guarantee that choices don’t become “vanilla.” Try to include at least one person who is experienced in home design, home staging, or architecture. If you have a shareholder who is a design professional, ask if he/she is willing to extend access and discounts – but don’t necessarily include this person in the core group, as he/she may try to take over.

Determine what function the lobby should serve. Is it for lounging or for expediting residents and guests quickly and comfortably from the street to their own homes?

Ask your neighbors what they think. Don’t presume to know what other people see for this space. Speak to the staff. Find out what would help them be more efficient. What functions could they do better given the proper equipment? Talk to your managing agent. Find out best practices from other building renovations with which he or she has been involved.

Do your homework. Walk your neighborhood and visit other buildings to see how they have handled their spaces: both winning and losing concepts should be explored. Leave your neighborhood and see how people across the park do things. Most importantly, take pictures of spaces that are appealing and appalling to share. (Introduce yourself and ask permission before bringing out the telephoto.)

Don’t duplicate work. Assign each person a specific set of tasks which they are responsible for from the get go. Staying focused will keep each task moving and avoid finger pointing later on.


Professionals and Planning

With facts in hand, meet with at least two designers who specialize in residential lobbies, which are very different from other public spaces. (Remember, even if one of the internal team is a designer, an outsider will likely have more gravitas with your board and your shareholders when talking about design.) Pick their brains for ideas on how the space could look and function better given the known interests of the building’s denizens. Ask for fees for the project parsed by stage from development through implementation. Visit spaces they designed to see if their ideas and yours align. If you collide, run the other way. It will never get any better than contentious.

Gain budget approval for an initial design and schematics. Expect $5K.

Once objectives for the space are defined and budget constraints are understood, come up with two plans to show the board. Professionally present the two approaches. Do not do this in the context of a regular board meeting. Instead, set up a special presentation in an environment conducive to thinking about pretty spaces and spending the budget to get there. Make sure the team can live comfortably with whatever ideas are presented. Then, give the board members time to think and react and modify as needed before presenting to the shareholders.

Let the shareholders know the process has started and that they will have the opportunity to see what is being considered and to vote on it. Giving people a voice in the decision gains support and buy in. And, shareholders can genuinely have good ideas that warrant consideration and, possibly, inclusion.

Have a town hall meeting about the designs. Set up display boards in the lobby or a common area, and have the designer or the design team available to answer questions about the project, costs, and timing. Give shareholders about two weeks to revisit the designs and ask questions.

Develop a ballot that recaps the two designs under consideration. Ask each shareholder to vote on which they prefer. Leave plenty of room for comments.

Set a firm deadline to complete and return the ballot. Have someone tabulate the results and collate the comments and report back to the shareholders on the “winning” concept. Let everyone know that the process will begin on Day X and end on Day Y.

Interview your contractors, using referrals whenever possible, and set up a time and events schedule for all the tasks, including furniture purchase and delivery. For custom-made work, expect things to take twice as long as promised and cost 50 percent more than quoted, and plan accordingly. Throughout the restoration or renovation process, keep people aware of what is going on or coming next. Too much communication is better than too little. This is not a secret process, don’t privatize it. Try to condense the work to as short a period as possible. In effect, don’t start tasks prematurely and have gaps between tasks being completed. As each phase completes, people will be excited by the progress and look forward to the next phase.

Document everything in pictures. Create a scrapbook for the building’s records: a binder that has all the vendors used, the products purchased, and the colors of the walls. Committee members may never forget that Benjamin Moore 1541 was used in the lobby but they may not live there forever. Make sure you know the finishes used on every surface because an Impervo just doesn’t look the same as a satin or semi-gloss. Just as importantly, create a user’s manual for the staff on the “care and feeding” of the lobby. Don’t let a beautiful restoration get derailed by a bottle of Clorox.

Let real estate brokers know that the lobby has been restored or renovated or refreshed. If you had a reputation for being the building with “great bones” and Motel 6 decor, now is the time to let them know it’s been glamorized.

Everyone knows a great lobby can sell a mediocre apartment but a bad lobby can keep prospective buyers from going above the first floor. And, don’t forget the added value that a sumptuous lobby adds to your own little piece of Manhattan heaven.

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