New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Refresh. Restore. Redo.

TWO point two. Million. As in dollars. That’s the price tag for a two-bedroom apartment at 1150 Park Avenue.

Dumpy. Once upon a time, that was the best word to describe the lobby at 1150 Park, a Carnegie Hill co-op that featured imitation 18th-century green fabric, English-style furniture in the lobby, and wallpaper that imitated stone in the vestibule. “The lobby looked dilapidated, tired, and old,” recalls board president Lillian Brash.

Can you spell dilemma? How about “kiss of death”? That’s what the board of 1150 Park Avenue faced in a situation that is not unique: it had a bad lobby and desperately needed to refresh it – without spending too much money.

As the housing market heats up, many co-op and condo boards are taking a fresh look at their lobbies and realizing that if shareholders want to get top dollar, the lobby needs to wow a potential buyer. At the same time, co-ops are flush with cash as they refinance their underlying mortgages at historically low rates. Suddenly, that floral seating starts to look more shabby than chic.

Introducing the Building

“The lobby really is the introduction to your building’s interior,” says Susan Lauren, president of Lauren & Chase Design Group, an interior design firm. “It’s the first impression and it speaks a lot about the maintenance and the character of the building. Sales are either won or lost before a buyer even enters the apartment.”

Renovating a lobby is an expensive undertaking that can cost anywhere from thirty thousand to several hundred thousand dollars. Eager to keep costs down, many condo and co-op boards are looking for ways to refresh their lobbies without draining their capital reserves. But navigating the terrain of a lobby upgrade on a budget is a path best traveled with care. Here are the steps you should take:

Hire a Designer

The first rule of a lobby refresh is this one: hire an interior designer who specializes in building lobbies. The president of the board may be a fashion designer, but that does not mean he knows how to select the right commercial-grade sofa for the foyer. Or just because the super did a fantastic job painting the mail room doesn’t mean he can select the appropriate vinyl wallpaper.

Interior designers charge a set hourly fee, or take a percentage of the total job cost. Boards should interview several designers. As part of the process, designers will offer the board an assessment of the work they think needs to be done and present a budget based on that.

Using a designer has several benefits. The designer will oversee the job, can often get industry-rate prices on furnishings and materials, and knows contractors. A designer also acts as a buffer: if a shareholder doesn’t like the finished product, he or she can’t (or shouldn’t) blame the board for poor taste.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

No one likes a surprise, especially when it’s the first space on view when someone walks into a building. Aesthetics tend to fuel controversies. “Lobbies bring out the worst in people,” says Brash, of 1150 Park Avenue. “But the lobby is not an extension of our living room. It is a public space and it cannot reflect personal taste.”

To avoid shocking (and horrifying) shareholders with the sight of a new velveteen sofa, designers recommend keeping residents in the loop. To do that, you should create a design committee, consisting of board members or a combination of board members and residents. Once the committee decides on a design, put a poster of the winning entry in the lobby for all to see and have the designer on hand to answer questions. In some cases, buildings will present two options to the shareholders and poll residents for the favorite. Once work begins, send out regular updates so they know how long it will take and what inconveniences lie ahead.

Decide on an Approach

The most affordable lobby upgrades tend to be the ones where the building takes on cosmetic improvements like replacing the lighting or wallpaper, or refinishing the floors. Replacing floors can cost far more than buffing a dull surface.

When Josh Field became co-op board president of 165 East 72nd Street, he joined a board that wanted to restore the lobby of the mid-20th-century building, which had never been updated. “It was a hodgepodge; it didn’t have that wonderful mid-century flavor,” recalls Joel M. Ergas, president of Forbes-Ergas Design Associates, the designer for 165 East 72nd Street. “Our whole focus was on bringing it back to a beautiful, elegant, mid-century style.”

Field and the other members decided that a conservative approach – in Ergas’s words, “refurbishing the original finishes and adding appropriate new wall finishes” – would be cheaper and, in the long run, more aesthetically appealing than a complete renovation. Forbes-Ergas refinished the checkerboard floors, replaced light fixtures with vertical chandeliers and custom sconces, rearranged artwork, and replaced the wall coverings.

“What we didn’t want was one of these lobbies where they put in the wood paneling and the brass and it looks nice for a year and then it looks like every other building in the city,” says Field.

At 1150 Park Avenue, the building’s lobby was woefully out of date. Board members decided that the space had stylistically lost its way. The best remedy was to restore it to its late Art Deco/Art Moderne style, a decision that would ultimately save the building money, as it would not require any major structural renovations.

Rather than install new floors, the building polished and restored the terrazzo floor. They replaced the faux stone wallpaper in the vestibule, restored the wooden wall coverings in the lobby, and added recessed lighting to brighten gloomy corners. They replaced the outdated green furnishings with custom-made, commercial-grade furniture appropriate to the period. The price tag for the job came to $150,000, the maximum amount the building was willing to spend. But, according to Brash, another nearby building spent more than $600,000 remodeling its lobby.

“The [idea] was to bring the lobby back to its original style,” says Brash.

Work With What You’ve Got

In many cases, buildings have lovely pieces of artwork or interesting details that have been ignored. Moving a sculpture to a new location, for example, can breathe new life into it.

Forbes-Ergas took artwork that was scattered in different parts of the lobby at 165 East 72nd Street and brought them together on a single wall, creating an art wall without spending money on new art. The designer also moved a sculpture that was too small for the lobby to the end of a hallway, making it the focal point of the hallway. By moving existing pieces of art around or giving them new frames, a building can add new life to an existing piece of work at a lower cost.

Adding entirely new lighting can be expensive and may require an electrician to open up a wall. To keep costs down, a building can replace existing lights with new fixtures or add affordable table lamps.

“If you have a beautiful lamp with a shredded light shade and you just change the shade, all of a sudden the lamp looks like a treasure,” says Marilyn Z. Sygrove, president of Sygrove Associates Design Group, which designed the lobby for the Park Avenue co-op.

Adding something as simple as plants can make a space look fresh and inviting. If the lobby is too dark for plants, consider silk – seriously.

“I had a client on Park Avenue who wanted plants,” recalls interior designer Liz Morehouse, president of Morehouse Design Associates. “There is a source that makes ficus and palms that are artificial. They use the real bark of the trunk. You really can’t tell the difference – it looks so good.”

Do Everything at the Same Time

Once a board decides to upgrade its lobby, it is best to do the work all at once. Although doing the work in spurts is a financially attractive option on the surface, it can ultimately cost a building more, as the new sofa may not match the even newer wallpaper. Also, elected boards change, and if one board settles on a design and only finishes a portion of it, a later board might have an entirely different vision. Buildings also miss out on the pleasure of a new, cohesive look to their common areas.

“If you do it piecemeal, people are kind of disappointed,” says Morehouse. “You lose the ‘wow’ factor.”

But lobbies don’t exist in a vacuum. When a building updates the look of the lobby, it can affect the hallways and elevators. If the lobby extends into a hallway, that area needs to have the same aesthetic. And if elevators open onto the lobby floor, the elevator cabs should also be updated. These changes, however, can add significantly to the final price. Boards should consider all of these factors when determining a budget.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t the shareholders, but the board members. At 1717 East 18th Street, a co-op in Brooklyn, the lobby hadn’t been updated in more than 20 years and wallpaper was peeling from the walls. The demographics of the building had changed, with younger tenants who wanted their building to look fresh and appealing to buyers. But the board had no interest in updating the common areas. So, five years ago, an entirely new board was voted in and the new members decided to redo the lobby, elevator cabs, and hallways, and build a community room. Designed by Marilyn Sygrove, the new common areas have a decidedly Mad Men look, says Samuel Thomas, president of the board. In all, the project cost $350,000, and the building paid for it out of its reserve funds.

“There certainly was some tension,” recalls Thomas. “But our fiduciary responsibility as a board is to look at the values of apartments, and this was something that needed to be done.”

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