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Surrounded by tony glass buildings, the Coliseum Park Apartments transformed its public spaces...
It's about attraction, about looking your best and making a good first impression. Not to a member of the opposite sex. Oh no. We’re talking about building to buyer. As in curb appeal. Yes, that much-talked about, elusive ingredient that means so much to a sale and that a board ignores at the property’s peril. To remain competitive in what is essentially a buyer’s market, co-ops and condos need to freshen up their aesthetic attractions.
That was one of the operating principles at a pair of modest 14-story brick buildings called the Coliseum Park Apartments, located behind the Time Warner Center (the site of the old Coliseum) at Columbus Circle. What might amaze its original designers today is the pristine state of the structures, which were originally built as low- and middle-income housing.
A co-op since the 1980s, the property recently went through a complicated, multimillion-dollar renovation of the hallways and lobbies. Such a redesign tends to enhance the value of all the apartments in a co-op or condo without altering the apartments themselves. “Improvements to hallways and lobbies, according to real estate agents and property managers, stabilize or raise the value of apartments,” says Dan Lansner, an architect and a principal at Chadwick Lansner Design.
Curb value may have been a motivating factor in the project. But the story behind the work is, in itself, a monument to the importance of three qualities every co-op and condo board must summon when tackling such a fraught project: planning, diligence, and follow-through.
When Geoffrey Kovall bought into the 600-unit co-op in 2005, he noticed that the wallpaper was peeling in the hallways, and the lobbies looked tired. Not to worry, he was told.
“One of the comments at the closing was that it will be renovated,” says Kovall (pronounced Ko-VAL), who runs a New Jersey company that supplies golf courses. “A year later, not a lick of work had been done. As I looked into it I realized that one of the problems was that the board couldn’t decide just what to do. There was nobody on the board with a design or interior decorating sense, nobody in the construction trades. No one felt comfortable overseeing this kind of project.”
When a board member resigned in late 2006, the board named Kovall to serve the remainder of the term. He was then elected in 2007 and served until 2011, part of that time as treasurer. He also chaired the renovation committee. Kovall brought something greater than business acumen to the job: he has a fine arts degree from Syracuse University, experience working as an illustrator and animator in advertising, and a history of volunteer work at the Metropolitan Museum.
“Fine arts just comes easy to me,” Kovall says. “When I moved in, I renovated my apartment, and the board had to inspect it before and after the renovation. They were impressed. So when I got on the board, I was selected as chairman of the three-member renovation committee.”
Shortly before Kovall joined them, the other board members had been running some numbers. The co-op had $7.5 million outstanding on its mortgage, which is due to mature in 2012. A stiff $1.5 million prepayment penalty ruled out refinancing the mortgage. But because of a low ratio of debt to value, the board was able to get an unsecured $3.2 million loan to cover the hallway and lobby renovations.
One of the renovation committee’s first – and most far-sighted – moves was to circulate a survey to all shareholders that sought to gauge their desires for the renovation. The committee was looking for “general feelings” rather than specific design proposals, Kovall says. From the responses, the committee was able to ascertain that the primary concern was enhanced lighting in the hallways, and there was a pronounced preference for carpets and wall coverings in earth tones, “something not necessarily trendy but something that would endure.”
The board hired Chadwick Lansner Design, a company with extensive experience in hallway and lobby renovations that is run by interior designer John Chadwick and architect Dan Lansner. Using the survey results and information gleaned from other buildings that had undertaken similar projects, Chadwick and Lansner produced a design. The renovation committee passed it along, enthusiastically, to the full board.
The board members liked what they saw – and then made another smart move. They decided to present the approved design as a fait accompli to all shareholders at the 2008 annual meeting. Why? “Because,” says Kovall, “the advice we got from our contractor [JMPB Enterprises], our design firm, and other buildings that had done similar jobs was that if the shareholders get involved in the design, the project would grind to a halt whenever there’s a change order about the color of wallpaper. Buildings that went to pure democracy wound up in trouble.”
Let There Be Light
Then, the unexpected happened. The custom-made carpeting for the hallways – an entire mile’s worth – turned out to have what Kovall calls a “most unusual” manufacturing defect. When it was laid on the floor, the carpeting appeared to have an unexpected stripe running through it. When the board complained, it learned that the manufacturer was in the process of merging with another company, which further complicated negotiations.
This unpleasant surprise got a lot of people’s blood boiling, but Kovall opted for a cool-headed approach. “I had to head off the lunatic fringe that says, ‘Sue ’em!’” he recalls. “My position is to get it done without litigation.” It worked. After some tense negotiations, the manufacturer agreed to replace the defective carpeting for free, a savings of $400,000.
Now came unpleasant surprise No. 2. The survey had revealed that most shareholders wanted brighter hallway lights, and more of them. So the design firm installed attractive new fixtures with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. The lights were a hit, until they started burning out less than one month later. It was discovered that there was a defect in the current-transferring ballast that’s inside every fluorescent light fixture.
“We went back to the manufacturer and said the number of defects was way too high,” Kovall says. “They came back in and replaced all the ballasts in all the fixtures, and they gave us some additional fixtures at no cost.”
The board was still not finished. Each lobby has large rectangular pillars that the design firm intended to cover with off-white, one-inch-square mosaic tiles. When the first column was finished, some shareholders howled that it made the lobby look like a bathroom.
“When the first column was done, some people really hated it,” says the co-op’s contractor, John Marino, president of JMPB Enterprises, which started out specializing in high-end jobs in the late 1980s and gradually moved into the niche market of hallway and lobby renovations. “That column became a flash point. There’s a kind of pack mentality in many buildings. If you’re a vocal person and you say you don’t like something, it’s easy to get people on the bandwagon.”
To make matters worse, there were not enough tiles to finish all the pillars, and when a second shipment arrived, the color didn’t match, creating an unwelcome stripe much like the stripe in the defective carpeting. There was endless back and forth with the tile maker, who could not match the original color. It was a case of déjà vu, and once again Kovall worked mightily to avoid litigation.
“When things get delayed, it’s like a pebble in your shoe,” he says. “Everyone’s in a lather. We literally searched the globe for tiles that matched – for the better part of five to six months – but we were unable to get a match.”
To bring the controversy to a conclusion, Kovall and the co-op’s design firm came up with a unique idea: in the summer of 2010 they gave all shareholders the chance to vote on three alternative tile options. “Much to our surprise,” Kovall says, “a plurality of shareholders said they preferred the original tiles – or as close as we could get to it.”
Staying on Track
The $3 million renovation projects were completed last summer – a bit behind schedule, thanks to all the unpleasant surprises, but under budget. Most shareholders are pleased with the finished product, which is a source of pride – and no small amount of relief – for Kovall. In addition to planning, diligence, and follow-through, he believes there were other keys to the project’s success.
“I believe in transparency and full disclosure,” he says, noting that he and his fellow renovation committee members met with the contractor on-site every week, then reported back to the board and the shareholders. “By keeping the shareholders informed of what was going on, we headed off all kinds of consternation and aggravation. My position was to candidly and clearly communicate with shareholders by writing notices and putting them in public spaces.”
But, as he now knows so well, there’s no such thing as a problem-free construction job in New York City. “My recommendation to other boards is to be prepared for the unknown,” he says. “We didn’t do anything wrong – other than [take] five months to make the decision to go back to the shareholders to decide on an alternative for finishing the columns. When you have problems, the most important thing is to communicate quickly and forthrightly. Don’t try to gloss over problems.”
For the co-op’s seasoned professionals, another key to success is having a board member like Kovall to keep the project on track. “He was instrumental in keeping the wheels greased,” says Marino, the contractor. “He was very effective in that role – a very diplomatic and rational individual. He understood the big picture. We hope to have a person like that on every job, a person who has executive authority to make decisions. Sometimes there’s a point person who takes it back to seven or eight board members, who bat it around for weeks.”
Lansner, the architect, agrees. “Geoff was astonishing,” he says. “He understood the need to get answers for the rest of the board, then move forward. In my experience, every successful project has one or two strong leaders on the board who are intent on getting the job done expeditiously. They’re a wonderful gift to the co-op – and to us.”