New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Project Co-op

In the cavernous sub-basement of the Brevoort East, a 26-story, 325-unit cooperative at 20 East 9th Street in Greenwich Village, workmen spent the past summer piecing together a giant metal jigsaw composed of the boilers, engines, generator shafts, catalytic converters, and assorted pipes of a cogeneration system.¬

The seed of the idea for this beast of a machine lies in a formerly industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 1950, a young Jay Silverzweig, the owner of a plastics business, watched electricity costs take a toll on his neighbors in Greenpoint. Two fellow entrepreneurs, who used steam to clean rags, finally decided to get off the electric grid. So, they fooled around with cogeneration (or CHP, i.e., “combined heat and power”), a system that uses natural gas to produce electrical and thermal power.

More than 60 years later, those early experiments in alternative energy were lurking somewhere in Silverzweig’s mind as he spearheaded the $1.5 million Brevoort East cogen project.

“It’s a birth process,” says the 31-year board veteran, describing how ideas come to fruition. “It just takes years to push it back and forth, and then comes an opportunity.”

After it becomes operational in the spring, the cogen facility will help the building save more than $100,000 annually in energy costs. But the achievement is not unusual for the board; it is merely the latest in a series that includes an oil-to-gas conversion; a lobby renovation; and an LED lighting upgrade.

Not many buildings could pull off simultaneous cogen and Local Law 11 (LL11) projects as the Brevoort East did, in 2012 and 2013. And the board didn’t stop there. When the LL11 inspection of the building façade revealed incidental problems – terraces in disrepair that posed no immediate danger to public safety, for example – it fixed those as well.

At a time when many co-op and condo boards are working hard just to keep on top of problems, this board and its management team are looking ahead, discussing their next project while tending to the current ones.

So, what’s the secret? The co-op, it must be admitted, is blessed with a fairly unusual pair of circumstances that helps it succeed: healthy capital reserves and a prime downtown location attractive to commercial tenants. Yet it would be all too simple to explain away the property’s accomplishments as mere luck. Many boards, similarly placed, flounder at the helm of their co-op or condo. The Brevoort East has something more – something elusive but essential – that accounts for its success. It all starts, perhaps, with those who guide the building through the choppy waters of building operations.

A Man to Be Trusted

On a recent brisk November day, Silverzweig, now well into his 80s, walks slowly out of his co-op’s elevator to noodle around the hulking cogeneration equipment. Despite the schlep to the basement and sub-basement, he is a frequent visitor to the staff offices and machine rooms located there.

In fact, to hear building employees tell it, the chair of the infrastructure committee can be a bit of a taskmaster, the type who lets nothing slip by. “[At his age,] he shouldn’t be down there, but he’s down there making sure that everybody is doing what they need to do,” says Robert Mellman, a management executive with Orsid Realty who supervises the firm’s Brevoort East account. “He’s a doer, and he forces us to be doers.”

Such praise clearly makes Silverzweig uncomfortable, and he is quick to lob it back: the building is “blessed,” he says, to have a cohesive core team including Mellman, superintendent Robert Miller, and on-site property manager Elizabeth Baum. As for himself, he insists, “I am just a cooperator.”

But every successful building needs an Ideas Guy, the one who says: “We need this, we want this, and let me tell you why.” At this co-op, Silverzweig is it. His own mantra for what makes a project succeed consists of three words: “conception and execution.” He fits a tad more into the conceptual end of things. The cogen and LL11 initiatives are among the many works he has overseen since moving into the co-op in 1982. In fact, he describes infrastructure projects and financial affairs as “my little niche in the building.”

This enterprising streak can perhaps be traced to the plastics business he ran for 28 years. “I’m just a compulsive individual,” he says. “I enjoy detail. I’ve put together several plastics factories, and I know [a project] requires a great deal of dedication.” As a certified public accountant, he is also naturally attuned to budgetary matters – the how, in his words, of picking out “those things that can be changed and modified” and the why of identifying those costs that need to be controlled or examined.

“Nothing Dramatic” – but a Lot to Do

Silverzweig downplays his own role in putting the Brevoort East on sound financial footing. “Nothing dramatic, just prudent management,” he says, describing the process. But there is a reason why the co-op has managed to accomplish a clutch of big projects – 11 in the last seven years alone (see chart, at right) – without assessing its 900 residents.

What he dismisses as “nothing dramatic” entails hours of research so that building funds are wisely invested, and carefully selecting those projects that result in annuities and build capital reserves. The co-op does not relent in its focus on, and finessing of, the bottom line: in Silverzweig’s words, the “what do we have here, how can we do better, which costs can be controlled, you know?”

This forward-thinking attitude is typical for board members. During an oil-to-gas conversion in 2010, they installed a 12-inch line although the job called for merely an 8-inch one. It was no mistake: they were planning for the future. Cogeneration was at the back of their minds, and they had found that such a system would require larger piping. Because of this foresightedness, when the cogen plant was installed in 2013, “we were not ripping out all the piping,” says Mellman.

The board’s cohesiveness enhances teamwork all around, testifies Baum, Orsid’s on-site property manager for the co-op for seven years. “I am working in a group with good back-up,” she says. “I don’t worry about what’s happening, as long as there is no fire, flood, or gas leak.”

Respect Is the Word

As the board goes about getting things done, it treats with respect the professional expertise of both its own employees and outside contractors. This manifests in ways big and small. Staff members have, on average, 25 years of service with the building. When the men’s locker rooms were redone a few years ago, they got more than the expected new lockers. Air-conditioning and microwave ovens were installed as well. And while it is hardly unusual for buildings to buy uniforms for their staff, the Brevoort East also bought them brand-new shoes so they all look alike.

This inspires confidence in the cooperative leaders – a sentiment shared by residents, according to superintendent Miller. “They know that the board does their due diligence” researching projects and getting the best prices for them, he says. “Questions are answered, not put off.”

That causes a ripple effect. Satisfied with how the building is being run, residents tend to be happier with employees. They inquire after one staff member who has had a mini-stroke and congratulate another on his child’s accomplishment. “It’s more of a family atmosphere here,” says the super. Miller arrived at the co-op in 1981, intending to stay for a year and then move into the property management field. But within that first year, he had decided to stay on. What clinched that decision, he says, was how warmly he and his wife were welcomed into the building.

Besides treating staff like one of their own, the board members understand that communication is key. Some years ago, a lobby redesign generated heated tempers, as projects involving personal taste often do. So they invited the designer to give a presentation, during which material samples were made available for residents to see and touch.

“It was not to give them an opportunity to vote on [the lobby project]; this was a decision that the board took very seriously and made after due diligence,” says Orsid’s Mellman, “but we kept the shareholders in the loop.”

Not everyone was happy that they could witness the process but not actively participate in it, he admits. Two factors smoothed things over: first, the “calming approach” of the co-op leaders, who understood the importance of allowing dissenting views to be heard. “Whether the board agrees with the comments or not is almost irrelevant as long as [shareholders] have had the opportunity to voice their opinion,” he says. “This board listens.”

Secondly, the directors and management kept the focus on the efficiencies that the lobby project would bring about – a package room for better mail sorting and a refrigerator to store food deliveries, for example – rather than its aesthetics. “That’s all functionality, and nobody can argue with functionality,” explains Mellman. “So, at that point, that becomes the focus of the conversation as opposed to the color of the window treatments.”

Constantly Evolving

In his own role, supervising 16 properties for Orsid, Mellman offers best practices learned on the job to all buildings within his portfolio. Not all boards, he finds, are equally open to suggestion. “What the board at the Brevoort East has done better than most is that they take those recommendations [and adapt them to their own situation],” he says. “There is a lot of tweaking that goes into everything.”

In an environment where “tweaking” – the process of streamlining building operations – is constant, employees are expected to adapt to change. But the learning curve is taken into account.

Miller, the superintendent, cites an example: some years ago, the co-op switched to the computerized, web-based BuildingLink platform to communicate with residents. It aroused some apprehension among staff, “who were used to writing things by hand,” but their fears were allayed by the board. “Nobody expected anybody to learn in one week, or one year, even,” he says, adding that employees “don’t feel that if you make an error, you are going to get written up.”

This instills a sense of security. “They enjoy learning because they may not want to be a porter or a handyman forever; they may want to have their own building [to run as superintendent],” Miller explains. Some staff members have gone on to do just that, he adds, “and we were glad to see that happen.”

Miller himself is staying put. The reason is simple: “I don’t mind Mondays.”

In that sentiment may lie the intangible secret of the Brevoort East’s success: those who live in and work at the building are cared for, and care back. This mutual concern has brought remarkable cohesion to the processes, the policies, and the politics of the building, and, ultimately, to its people.

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