Ellen Cohen, board president
Upper West Side, Manhattan
Ellen Cohen loves the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Why else would she live there for most of her life? Although she has also lived in Philadelphia for thirteen years and in Switzerland for a year and a half, she asserts: “I am pretty much a die-hard New Yorker and a die-hard Upper West Sider.” She is now president of the seven-member board of The Barrington, a classic Upper West Side prewar building with a twist: the 55-unit structure, built in 1911 and converted to condominium status in 1986, was one of the first few prewar condos in the area. “I don’t know why they made it a condo,” Cohen says, “but I think it was smart.” Divorced, with two kids, Cohen has lived in the building for sixteen years, served on the board for seven years, and been president for a year and a half.
Why did you join the board?
Because I love the building, and I tend to do a lot of “giving back” in general. Really, for me, that’s what it’s all about. It was always very important for me to understand how the building was running. I am a real estate broker [at Stribling & Associates], so I understand the business, I understand buildings. I see a lot of different buildings and how they run, and I have to say that, overall, our board has been a really good, cohesive group of people, a cross-section of bankers, real estate brokers, artists, everything. It’s just a really nice blend of people who are all positive and want the same thing for the building.
Do you have a lot of rentals or subtenants in the building?
We have some, but not a ton, no. We have lots of owners in the apartments. Here on the Upper West Side, we are in a great location, and people who buy here tend, for the most part, to want to live here. There is a tremendous sense of community. We have an event for the kids at Halloween, and when our building turned 100, we had a cocktail party in the lobby. So it’s actually quite a tight-knit group.
Does your experience as a broker help you?
Oh, absolutely. I see lot of other buildings’ financials. I know what works in buildings and what doesn’t work, why people move out of buildings and why they don’t. It kind of gives me a pretty good overview of what’s out there. I am able to bring to the table a certain level of expertise that maybe somebody else doesn’t have. Case in point, when banks are lending to a building, initially a lot of people didn’t know that there had to be a 10 percent reserve, and I knew that because of work and really fought to get that built into our financials. [It] made a huge difference because at one point, it was a little bit trickier getting financing for the building. Once that was instituted, financing became much simpler to get. It’s just little things like that that I know that maybe somebody else would not.
Has your building been involved in any recent projects?
We are redoing our hallways right now, which is a major capital improvement project, and we didn’t finance it but we assessed. The hallways have really been a long-term project that we wanted to get done, and it took a long time for various reasons, one being money, two being finding the right person to take on the project, and then all of us having the time to oversee it and do it. We sent out a memo to everyone saying this was going to happen, and hoped for the best and got the best. You are going to get pushback from maybe one or two people, which was minimal because everybody agreed that it had to be done because it just looked really dated and it was starting to look shoddy. The building is now getting a certain level of price per square foot, and the hallways weren’t reflecting that. So that was part of the equation, although not the only part of the equation. It was really for everybody’s comfort and aesthetic satisfaction, and we are redoing it in a way [that is] modernizing it, yet remaining traditional.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have been very involved in both of my daughters’ schools. I was co-president of my older daughter’s parents association at her school and a VP of the parents association at my younger daughter’s school. So as you can see, I do a lot of volunteering on top of working. There are days I don’t know how I get it all figured out but I do. I have to say I am highly organized so that really helps. But I taught my girls to give back; it’s a very, very important thing for me in general.
What advice can you give others about board service?
I think you really have to have a positive attitude. You should always try and come to the table with the right thing to say instead of the wrong thing to say, and to accept people’s personalities and work with them and not against them. That really makes for a positive environment and a really positive experience. You hear all kinds of things about boards that don’t get along or that are difficult. I don’t see why people have to work like that; there is really no need for it.