New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Power of Unconventional Thinking

There are many approaches to problem-solving. Some boards and managers stick with the tried-and-true, while others dare to look for solutions that are counter-intuitive and anything but obvious. Here are three case studies of buildings where the boards and managers weren’t afraid to get creative. As you’ll see, the results speak for themselves.

Windows: The Incredible Bulk

When it rained, the complaints poured in. As the newly elected board president at Winston Towers 200, a 614-unit condominium on the Hudson River in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, Lora Sussman knew that fixing the windows – which hadn’t been replaced since the 32-story towers were built in 1974 – needed to be tops on her agenda. “They were old, drafty, and let water and wind in whenever there were heavy storms, particularly on the sides facing the Hudson,” she says. “The previous board had spent at least $100,000 on consultants trying to resolve the issues, but nothing ever moved forward.”

Sussman was set on taking a different course. She came on board in December 2014 and set up a windows committee. Within a week, her new vice president, Tatiana Mitchell, had brought in experts who concluded that all 4,200 windows needed to go. “If I had my druthers, I would have imposed an assessment and changed the windows all at once,” Sussman says. “But that would have required 100 percent agreement from all the residents, since the master deed specifies that unit-owners are responsible for their windows. And when we [did a survey], only about one in ten said they wanted to replace.”

Still, Sussman was determined to make the job as easy – and affordable – as possible for those ten percenters. The board had an engineer develop specs and drawings for high-tech windows that would be resistant to severe wind and rain. Property manager John Van Decker, of Taylor Management, began seeking bids for bulk pricing, and ended up contracting with Tindel Replacement Windows. “For any job with more than 100 windows, there are significant savings, and we offered the Winston about 30 percent off the manufacturer’s price,” says Andy Sirotkin, a principal at Tindel. “Bulk purchasing is a win/win for everyone. I’m surprised more buildings don’t do it.”

The board held a meeting where they told unit-owners about the deal, introduced Sirotkin, and took questions. “We explained that they were responsible for contacting Tindel to take advantage of the discounted pricing,” says Decker, who also mailed the information to all owners. “We made it clear the choice was theirs, and that we had just done the legwork for them.” In 2015, 1,000 new, commercial-grade sliding windows were installed that keep out wind, water, and cold air, resulting in reduced energy bills. As word spread, more owners opted in and 300 additional windows were installed this year.

“When boards are proactive and provide people with the tools to fix a problem rather than leaving them to fend for themselves, things get accomplished,” says Sussman, who expects there will be enough demand for a third wave of installations this fall. The benefits of the new windows, she points out, are hard to resist: “My apartment is warmer, I’ve got no water issues, and now I can enjoy a clearer, more beautiful view of Manhattan.”

The Rooms That Didn’t Exist

It was a Con Edison worker who caught the first whiff of trouble. In April 2015, he smelled gas while reading the meters at 69 Tiemann Place, a six-floor, 62-unit cooperative in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University in Manhattan. “They shut down all of the cooking gas lines,” says managing agent Carl Borenstein, president of Veritas Property Management, who took the right steps to get things back up and running in the 90-year-old building. “We had a plumber go through the system and do extensive repairs on the risers and branch lines,” he says. “We were all set for him to conduct a pressure test for a New York City Department of Buildings [DOB] inspection so Con Ed could turn the gas back on.”

But Borenstein got more bad news. The building would not pass an inspection for the super’s basement apartment or the boiler room because the DOB had no records of their legal existence. The dwelling did not have a Certificate of Occupancy (buildings built before 1938 were not required to have them), so Borenstein could not use one to prove otherwise. The DOB did have records of inspections and permits issued for the apartments, which established their existence, but none for the spaces below ground level. “The DOB’s solution was for us to hire an engineer, submit construction drawings, and then file and pull electrical and plumbing permits just to prove the apartment and boiler room existed and were up to code, which would have taken months,” Borenstein says. “It was crazy.”

That’s when the manager had his “a-ha” moment. Several years ago, he had overseen the creation of a super’s apartment in the basement of another pre-1938 building without a C of O. “I needed to know if there had ever been a cellar apartment, and an engineer told me to pull the I-Card,” he recalls. He was referring to the handwritten, index-sized cards from the early 1900s that documented, apartment by apartment, what structural “improvements” were required in multiple-dwelling buildings by the city’s earliest code inspectors. More than a million I-Cards have been digitized and are available to download for free at the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department’s website – an invaluable source of historical information for older buildings and brownstones.

It took Borenstein just minutes to find the I-Card, which simply read, “Tiemann 69, cellar occupancy certificate #1952,” thereby verifying the existence of the super’s apartment. Borenstein had to dig a little harder for data on the boiler room, examining nyc.gov/buildings, where he found an “Actions by Locations” document with two entries, from 1939 and 1971, referencing an oil burner application. “With those records, the city had to acknowledge that the apartment and boiler room existed,” he says. “I hounded the [DOB] commissioner for a whole week by e-mail and phone and made my case. Finally, he said, ‘You’re right,’ and told me to have the plumber refile the permit application to have all the gas lines turned back on.”

The pressure tests were conducted, and the property passed DOB and Con Ed inspections, allowing residents to go back to cooking with gas. The repairs on the aging gas lines took more than six months and cost $100,000, but, without Borenstein’s diligence, the co-op’s reserve funds would have taken a far bigger hit. “I’d say we saved at least $20,000 by not hiring an engineer and applying for all those permits and inspections,” he says. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, managers should look for alternative solutions. And having a good memory doesn’t hurt.”

Parking: A Lot

When the White Oak co-op was built in New Rochelle in the early 1950s, no one groused about the lack of parking. Consisting of four 40-unit buildings, the White Oak boasted 86 parking spaces – a reasonable number when it was easy to find spots on the street. “Now, it’s a whole different ball game,” says board president Martin Cassidy. “Iona College, which is nearby, has expanded like crazy, and there’s a seven-story dorm going up down the block. Every family here has at least one car. It all adds up to a lot of headaches.” Cassidy kept looking for new space for expansion, but there wasn’t much. The owner of a private lot with 40 spaces next door rebuffed a number of purchase offers. And with only five houses on the block, chances of one going up for sale were slim.

Then the co-op got a break. “I knew the owner of one house, a fire captain here in town, and by luck I saw him in the driveway last September, shortly after his mother had passed,” Cassidy recalls. “I asked if he was ready to sell, and he said, ‘Perfect timing.’” Cassidy promptly met with the nine-member board and proposed they buy the house, tear it down, and put up a parking lot. “We made a fair market value offer,” he says. “It was accepted right off the bat.”

The board could do that because White Oak was flush with cash. Since 2002, the co-op board had been annually challenging the building’s tax assessments. “They finally heard us in 2011, and we got a huge settlement, one of the largest for a property this size in Westchester County,” Cassidy says. “We sat on it for four years, then decided that instead of making one percent [interest each year] in the bank, we should improve White Oak with every capital improvement we could think of.” The co-op converted from oil to gas, installed new lighting and a closed-circuit camera security system, redesigned the lobbies, built a new gym, repointed the brickwork, and upgraded the landscaping, among other projects, totaling nearly $500,000. “Even after paying for the parking lot, we’ll still have over $1 million, plus $400,000 we’ve already set aside to repair the roofs,” says Cassidy.

After closing on the purchase of the house in February, property manager Robert Ferrara, president of Ferrara Management Group, solicited contractor bids and then filed for all the necessary permits. “We had to get approval to take trees down, remove asbestos, turn off the electricity, and cap the sewer line,” Cassidy says. The house was razed in August. The lot, which will accommodate 28 cars, is scheduled to be completed Nov. 1.

“We kept shareholders informed every step of the way through board meetings and memos,” says Ferrara. “I had been fielding their complaints for years, so it was great to work with a board that was able to think outside the box and find a solution.” The parking lot is already boosting property values at White Oak. “Our sales have been outstanding in the last year, and we just sold a three-bedroom duplex apartment for $325,000, a huge amount for a co-op unit in our neighborhood,” says Cassidy. The moral of the story? “If you’re building a new place, make sure you have enough parking,” he says. “And if you don’t, get creative.”

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