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Safe, Not Sorry

A Brooklyn board confronts an age-old dilemma: how secure is its building?

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. And just because your neighborhood is much safer than it used to be doesn’t mean you can afford to get slack about security. As a result of these realities, questions arise when boards have to deal with building security. When does diligence shade into overkill? Where do you draw the line between street smart and paranoid?

Those questions are very much on the minds of the board of directors and shareholders at the six-story, 54-unit co-op at 295 St. John’s Place, near Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. The area was riddled with criminal activity when the building converted to a co-op in the mid-1980s, but today it enjoys a low crime rate and attracts increasingly upscale residents, including people who can afford $3 million apartments in architect Richard Meier’s glass palace called On Prospect Park.


But a low crime rate does not mean a neighborhood is crime-free. After all, despite the ardent ministrations of Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, this is still New York City. Bad things can and do happen. To wit: in November of 2009, robbers held up the super at gunpoint in his apartment in the building next door to the St. John’s Place co-op. The co-op’s board promptly sent an e-mail to shareholders alerting them to the incident.

“I was the first person to say we need to talk about this and make sure we have proper security measures in place,” says Nina Statman, a marketing director with Hearst who moved from Park Slope into a ground-floor apartment in the co-op in 2008 with her husband and their two young sons. She was elected to the five-member board this past spring. “I felt this incident was not addressed in a way that made me feel comfortable. So I sent out a reply e-mail asking for more specific details about what had happened. If we as a group feel there’s an issue with safety, let’s have a meeting and air our concerns.”

A meeting was convened December 6, 2009, and 32 of the 54 apartments were represented, a mix of the old guard and recent arrivals. Jill Dube, the board’s treasurer and a resident since the building’s conversion, gave an update on the armed robbery. Other shareholders offered information about a break-in in the co-op’s basement, a stolen bike and computer, and a shooting in the neighborhood a year earlier.

Statman and two other shareholders were named to a security committee, and they began to explore ways to make the building less vulnerable to crime. They attended a community meeting held by the NYPD’s 77th Precinct in Crown Heights; they gave police officers a tour of the co-op, then took down their security recommendations; they began exploring the cost of installing cameras or other systems, such as enhanced exterior lighting. As the committee was doing its work, a subtle split became evident within the co-op.

Dube, a Brooklyn native, real estate lawyer, and mother of a teenage son, couldn’t help but remember the bad old days when the co-op was trying to get on its feet back in the 1980s. “When we moved in we were not well-received on the block,” she recalls. “At the beginning we had lots of problems. There were robberies, burglaries, muggings in the vestibule. We could see the drug-dealing going on. But we didn’t put in some expensive security system. Instead, shareholders took turns volunteering as security guards. But nobody has time to do that anymore. Both buildings on either side of us have security cameras, and they have worse problems than we do.”

As Dube sees it, common sense trumps high-tech every time. “Until people stop giving door keys to guests, until they stop holding doors open for strangers, until they take precautions, you can’t expect a security system to protect you,” she says. The building’s property manager, Justine Delagana of Saparn Realty, agrees. “I strongly believe that if people don’t pay attention to who’s walking in behind them, it won’t work even with cameras,” she says.

There is, for Dube, something even deeper at work here, something that goes beyond the effectiveness of security cameras, something that goes all the way into the changing fabric of this city. “I’m tired of the Manhattan invasion of Brooklyn,” she says. “When they first opened the Richard Meier building, they put security officers out front to keep kids from skateboarding on the sloping slate barrier. A $50 million building doesn’t make the neighborhood any safer. That building doesn’t belong here, and I don’t think the people in it belong here.”

For her part, Statman wasn’t particularly interested in hearing about the bad old days. Or about how much more crime there is in other neighborhoods today. “I don’t think it’s acceptable to say that this happens in other neighborhoods,” she says. “I care about this neighborhood. I feel if there are things we can do to make it even safer, we should explore those options.”

Asked about the disagreements over the security cameras, Statman says, “There were definitely some struggles. We got into it a little bit, but we’ve worked it out.”

All parties agree that the division within the co-op was not simply between the old guard and more recent arrivals, though one’s length of time in the building was one factor in determining one’s feeling about the need for enhanced security. Other factors include the location of the shareholders’ apartments, whether or not they have children, and the age of the children. In the end, the issue boiled down to a difference of opinion between shareholders who feel safe and those who feel less so.

At the board’s regular September meeting, Statman and her committee presented several proposals. But some board members had questions, and the committee members agreed to do more research.

“We haven’t decided anything,” reports Dube, who remains opposed to spending money on a security system. “We may call a meeting of all shareholders to get their consensus. That would be primarily for the board’s education. We have to make the final decision.”

Even if her arguments fail, though, Dube says she’ll go along with whatever the board decides. “As a board member,” she says, “I have to be sensitive to the consensus of the building not my own personal needs. If it makes people feel safer and more comfortable, we have to give it consideration – if it’s reasonable.”

Although the September meeting produced no decision, Statman remains hopeful that she can persuade a majority of the board to install some sort of security system. “What I would like to have happen is some security cameras, at the very least, covering the front entrance so we have a record of people entering the building,” she says. “That would give us the deterrent the police recommended. That’s my main goal.”

But she, like Dube, vows to go along with whatever the majority of decides, even if the decision is to do nothing and stick with the status quo. “I would be disappointed,” Statman says, “but I would have to respect the consensus of the shareholders. As a board member, that’s my job.”



A Serious Business

By Kathryn Farrell

Security in a co-op or condo is a serious business. The options are so varied that it can be difficult to know where to begin.

One of the first steps to take is to determine the amount of security your building needs. This is generally dictated by the size and location of your property. For example, a five-unit brownstone in Brooklyn will probably not face the same security issues as a 500-unit complex in midtown Manhattan. A more remote location might need more surveillance to make up for the foot traffic that might otherwise deter a burglar, whereas an urban location could be concerned about unidentified people moving in and out of the building all day, and therefore focus on restricted access.

The next step is to examine crime and police statistics for the neighborhood. Has there been an increase or decrease in criminal activity over the past three to five years? What kind of crimes are being committed? Has there been a spike in home invasions? Such a trend in similar buildings could alert residents to flaws in their own buildings. The answers could clarify the reason for doing a security assessment now, rather than in six months or a year.

After statistics have been gathered, the assessment of the specific system begins. What security measures does the building currently have? Where are these measures lacking, and where are they excessive? According to Mariana Perry, director of the National Crime Prevention Institute at the University of Louisville, the most important aspect of building security is “to know what the building is used for and to ensure that the security measures support the intended uses of the building.”

Controlling access to the building is the most basic requirement of a security system, but if the system for keeping intruders and unwanted visitors out is so rigid that it inconveniences residents, something is wrong. “It is always important that legitimate users of the property have a positive experience and that security procedures are not too cumbersome,” says Perry.

Boards in non-doorman buildings will periodically change the front door locks to ensure security (over the years, a lot of duplicate keys can be given out). Some security firms and managers are suggesting more hi-tech ways to enhance security, although not all are practical for all properties. According to Jeff Weber, principal of Weber-Farhat Realty, when people move out of the buildings he manages, they generally only change the apartment door locks. For a building in Greenwich Village that recently endured a security breach, he even had special keys made that he alone could order from the locksmith. “[But] when one apartment ordered 12 extra keys to give out to the dog-walker, their parents, the maid, the laundry woman, you have to ask, why bother?”

“A trend that we are seeing is buildings moving towards access cards instead of keys,” says Daniel Oppenheim, a representative of DGA Security Systems. Bram Fierstein, president of Gramatan Management, agrees. “About 15 percent [of our buildings] use a keyless entry system, and it’s growing. We manage buildings in Westchester, and it’s more prevalent in Manhattan, but I just added a keyless system to a building last week. [The property] had video of someone entering with [an unidentified key].

Access cards offer the same sense of security as a lock and key but can be remotely wiped, guaranteeing that no one has unwanted access to a particular building or unit. Access cards also prevent copying. If a key is lost or stolen, all the locks that the key opens must be changed, but an access card can simply be erased.

Such cards also allow for more discretion. For example, a building might decide to put the same lock on the front, back, and service entries to reduce the number of keys the manager or super has to carry. However, this means that anyone with a key to one of these doors – such as a tenant, babysitter, dog-walker, or whoever – has access to all of these entries. An access card would allow tenants and others entrance through the front door but keep access to the service door and back entrance more strictly controlled.

Costs are not necessarily prohibitive. Says Matthew Arnold, president of Academy Mailbox: “The rough cost of an intercom is more or less $200 per apartment; for a video intercom, more or less $750 per apartment. Construction time is about two hours per apartment. Depending on the door and controls, up to a day.”

Colin Foster, Vice President of Sales and partner at Virtual Service, adds: “[To install a basic monitoring system takes] one day, maybe two depending on the age of the building. In an older building, it’s harder. The basic [security package we offer,] Virtual Doorman, is $9,500; it includes the Virtual Doorman module – an interactive front-door station – as well as the brains of the system in the telecom or electrical closet. It also includes eight cameras, DVR [digital video recorder], and labor.”

Determining how much further the board wants to go beyond this basic system is a decision the board needs to make. The consensus is that the only way to determine what type of system your building needs is to walk through it with a security professional. Observes Al Simon, president of Nortronics: “[When the] security company walks through building with [the board] committee, manager, [and/or] super, they go over areas they’re concerned about – roof, garage, service entrance.”

You can do a security assessment yourself – checklists for a self-assessment are available online costing from $50 to $500 – but you might be better off with an experienced security company. In certain instances, the police will perform a security “tour” of your property. For more on the NYPD’s availability for tours, contact your local community affairs board.

Maria Gonzalez, a representative of Nortronics, puts it simply: “Video intercom systems as well as access control systems are a great way to manage surveillance and access in a smaller building. On the other hand, larger buildings have a bigger need for integrated communication, alarm, surveillance, and access-control systems.”

Security systems involving video surveillance can not only protect a front door and its doorman, but can also continue surveillance of the entrance when a doorman is not on duty. In the same vein, it can reduce the hours of security personnel and make residents feel safer just knowing that their homes are being monitored.

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