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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Renovation Rx

Eleanor Selling Renovation Committee Member,
5 Riverside Drive, Manhattan




It was trouble in paradise, a classic case of balancing differing needs, of responding to the requests of the new with the concerns of the old. And the board was caught right in the middle.

To back up a little: I believe that 5 Riverside Drive, the co-op where I live, is a wonderful place. A classic Art Deco high-rise designed by the team of Boak and Paris in 1937, the 109-unit co-op sits on the corner of 73rd Street and Riverside Drive. It has a variety of apartments, many including dropped living rooms, dining galleries, and decorative fireplaces. The shareholders love the proximity to Riverside Park and enjoy the wide vistas of the Hudson River. The building, which went co-op in 1966, has round-the-clock service and a live-in superintendent, laundry, storage, and a bike room.

With those attractions, however, come challenges, as we learned when the real estate market took off. Ten percent of our apartments were sold within three years, many for between $1 million and $2 million. A number of shareholders submitted larger and more complex renovation plans than we’d ever handled. I had served as president of the board in the past and had done shareholder outreach before, so I was asked by the president to be a liaison between the board and the shareholders. I recommended that we set up a committee because we needed a lot of expertise and hard work.

We found that the building and its staff were not geared up for the kind of work these new owners envisioned. For instance, we do not have a service elevator, so during construction, one of the two passenger elevators had to be used to ferry men and supplies up and demolition debris down – meaning the other residents had to wait longer to get a lift.

Also, we didn’t have the kind of rules in place to deal with the demands of multiple construction projects taking place at once. The three existing alteration agreements we used were written in 1985 and did not cover a host of areas. Moreover, without written building standards, each renovation was treated on a case-by-case basis. This added to the responsibilities of -– and the time spent by – the board.

In addition, without written procedures that showed shareholders how to navigate the process, our residents had to turn to someone in authority to answer questions about renovations – yet there was no point person designated for that purpose. Many people were involved in the approval process: a part-time, on-site office manager; a managing agent; an architectural firm; and the 13 members of the board.

To deal with these issues, the renovation committee made changes in four areas:

Schedule. The scheduling of jobs was the first issue addressed. A letter was sent to shareholders, explaining why only two major renovations could be scheduled at once, along with several smaller decorating jobs. The longer-term goal was to delegate coordination of these projects to the office manager, while having the superintendent review insurance and schedule jobs. With that in mind, a checklist was utilized to track all documents received from each unit.

Alteration Agreement. We reviewed the Real Estate Board of New York’s alteration agreement, written in 1999. Then the committee consulted our managing agent, superintendent, and the architect from the firm hired to advise the board on renovations. We also read alteration agreements used by similar buildings. These discussions gave us a handle on the issues we faced. After four months of work, we customized our own alteration agreement. These addressed our legal, operational, and financial concerns and included a checklist that shareholders could use to track the documents they needed and the steps to take. The board approved our recommendations. We posted the documents on BuildingLink (an online database to assist in the management of real estate) so our shareholders could access them as needed.

Insurance. To avoid confusion by shareholders and contractors, instructions were added to our insurance requirements and to our “hold harmless” agreement. The superintendent was made the central point of contact for approving these documents, since he was the focal point for scheduling work, from the capital improvement project to the 10 or more renovations occurring simultaneously. The committee consolidated the whole process into a one-page checklist, written from the point of view of a shareholder, and published it on BuildingLink.

Standards. Our committee also addressed specific issues that had been raised by shareholders. We agreed upon a louver color and a design for through-the-wall air conditioners, so that the building would begin to have a more uniform façade. We addressed requests for new vents to the outside where there had not been any before. We set standards for windows in different elevations. We established who was responsible for reviewing and approving the work before the walls were closed. And all the while, we kept in mind the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) potential jurisdiction, working with LPC to determine what the procedures were for buildings such as ours that weren’t yet officially designated as part of historic districts but whose neighborhoods were “docketed.” With input from our professionals, the guidelines and requirements were approved at the same time as the alteration agreement.

The upshot? We are very pleased with the way this has all worked out. We now feel that we have a tightly controlled process that meets everyone’s needs, protecting the corporation while addressing the concerns of those renovating.

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