New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Help from Within

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Larry Weinstein has worked in a variety of fields, including electrical engineering, architecture, and lighting design. A resident of the 422-unit Silver Towers cond-op in Kew Gardens, Queens, since 1972, Weinstein was elected president of the board last summer. Even before that election, he put his electrical engineering and lighting design expertise to work, supervising a retrofit of some 500 lighting fixtures in public spaces, including the lobby, hallways, and laundry room. By reducing the fixtures from 36 to 6 watts, the building got a $25,000 rebate from Con Ed on top of $35,000 annual savings on electricity bills. Weinstein also oversaw the installation of a new gas boiler that will save roughly $180,000 a year.

Once Weinstein got elected to the board, he found other uses for his – and his fellow board members’ – talents. “On our board we have me, plus a financial guy and an insurance guy,” Weinstein says. “We just did a $1 million Local Law 11 project, and I supervised it because I’ve got some 40 years of experience in construction. I found areas where work didn’t have to be done, and I added some things and took many items out of the original contract.”

The work on the exterior of the late-1950s-vintage, white-brick building was completed on time and under budget. “We have not had a single leak since we finished the job in January,” Weinstein says, “which is pretty amazing because this building used to be a sieve.”

Weinstein is not alone. He is one of many “non-professional” professionals who are tapping into their work résumé to help expedite matters at their buildings. No wonder: it would take a milliner of rare talents to fashion the many hats that members of co-op and condo boards must wear. At various times, the job requires them to understand the roles of architect, engineer, financier, insurance agent, contractor, designer, lawyer, accountant, and teacher. Since no one outside a Marvel comic book possesses such an array of skills, savvy co-op and condo boards have learned to complement their paid professionals by utilizing the talents of a variety of professionals living in their buildings. Skill Hunt

The nine-member board at the Strand, a 311-unit high-rise condominium in Manhattan’s Clinton neighborhood, comprises a virtual smorgasbord of such professionals, including a web designer, a theater producer, a video director, an accountant, and a human resources executive. Bill Ragals, a resident of the building since 1995 and president of the board since 2004, is a lawyer who specializes in energy issues.

“Our boards have always been composed of concerned, sophisticated people with various expertises,” Ragals says. “Whenever a new project comes along, we all get involved. When we redid our hallways in 2006 and our lobby in 2010, the people with design expertise got involved, and as an attorney I was involved in the business end. I’m also interested in construction and contracting, and that helped too.”

Ragals’s knowledge of energy issues also came into play. “Several years ago, we began to investigate ways to save energy,” he says. “We replaced the lighting and began to explore cogeneration [a system that produces electricity and heat simultaneously]. It proved to be unfeasible, but we started an oil-to-gas conversion before the city decreed that buildings must stop using No. 6 oil. With my background in energy law, I was able to explain to the other members of the board what was involved and how it would benefit the building.”

Though the cogen project didn’t pan out, the board did get a NYSERDA grant to cover half of the $900,000 cost of a new gas-fired generator that will cut energy costs and serve as a backup during power outages, ensuring that one elevator, water, and electricity will be available in times of emergency. For residents of a 42-story building, such a back-up brings major peace of mind. The project will begin this summer and take about one year to complete. A Mongrel

The ideal board, in Ragals’s view, is a bit of a mongrel. “I would want a mix of skills,” he says. “Legal, business, and financial skills are important, but so are mechanical skills [and an] understanding of how construction works. Having an engineer on the board would probably be more helpful than having a lawyer like me who’s interested in construction.” With a laugh he adds: “Maybe both of us together!”

Matching the professional know-how to the board’s needs is less of a science and more of an art. For instance, by looking at her résumé – trained as a bookkeeper, she worked as a college recruiter and then an executive one before going to work for a nonprofit – you wouldn’t think Patricia Weinstein, wife of the Silver Towers president, would be a good choice for the building’s three-member admissions interview committee. It is a critical job, too, since 377 of the building’s units are co-op apartments, while the remainder are a mix of condos and commercial spaces.

But she has been successfully doing the work for 20 years. Indeed: her training and background come into play every time she sits down to review a potential shareholder’s application. “My experience in college and executive recruiting taught me interview skills, how to read a résumé, how to flush out inconsistencies,” she says. “It taught me that 99 percent of what’s on a piece of paper stretches the truth. It’s so easy to falsify that you really have to sit down and scrutinize every piece of paper in the applicant’s packet.” The one iron-clad fact she has learned from her decades on the job? “Tax returns don’t lie.”

As Patricia Weinstein’s story indicates, a board member is able to contribute expertise from his or her job that is even less tangible than balancing books, negotiating contracts, or figuring out the best way to reduce energy bills. Frequently, a board member has invaluable skills in one of the most underrated facets of running a co-op or condo: the ability to build consensus.

Jeannette Reed, vice president of the board at the Beech Haven, a 120-unit co-op in Jamaica Hills, Queens, spent more than 30 years working in the New York public schools as a teacher, principal, and superintendent before retiring last year.

“In the school system, especially in the last 10 years, everything has been about building consensus with the whole school community – teachers, parents, principals,” Reed says. “It’s no longer what the superintendent says. You have to bring the whole community together and explain the initiatives.”

It helps if you know how to listen, too. “In a co-op you have to be able to work with different personalities and listen, [and] sometimes compromise,” Reed says. “For instance, we were getting ready to replace our two elevators, and I learned we have a person in the building who is very knowledgeable about elevators. The part I played was gaining information from him, then bringing in the best people to do the work. I had experience dealing with a lot of outside businesses when I was a principal and superintendent. My background has helped me work with people and move projects like this forward.” Caveat

All that being said, there is one important caveat that boards must keep in mind. The outside professional expertise of board members should serve as a complement to – and never a replacement for – the guidance of the building’s professionals, from the lawyer to the property manager to the plumber. Overriding the advice of hired professionals can lead to a world of woe.

“Most professionals on boards, I find, are professional enough to realize they should not be volunteering their expertise to replace the advice of the building’s professionals,” says Paul Gottsegen, president of Halstead Management. “Under the Business Corporation Law, a co-op’s board of directors is legally protected only if it heeds the advice of its hired professionals. If they follow the advice of someone on the board, they’re not protected under the law.”

Which is not to say that property managers and lawyers don’t – or shouldn’t – welcome advice, expertise, and opinions from board members. “Each board member contributes his or her knowledge to a decision – general business knowledge,” Gottsegen says. “That’s always a benefit. But a graphic designer who sits on the board doesn’t always know the best and cheapest way to get Local Law 16 fire signs into the hallways. The property manager has a wealth of information, and he should know when to go to a higher professional.”

In other words, sometimes the professional thing to do is leave it to the professionals.

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