New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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Restoring democracy and fighting a toxic dump.
What does it take to be board president? A willingness to hit the ground running, to start.
Like many of the residents at the 157-unit condominium at 140 East 56th Street in New York City’s upscale Sutton Place neighborhood, Darren Arithoppah is a young working professional. His top reasons for joining the condo board were to bring in a new cable carrier and build a gym.
In his job at a financial services firm, Arithoppah, 37, had become accustomed to a collaborative environment, but when he joined his condo board, he found that it had a somewhat different style. While the board had done a great job putting the building’s finances in order, the responsibilities were largely handled by one person – the president. “He pretty much did everything himself,” Arithoppah says. “Being group-oriented, I felt a little disoriented, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to move forward.”
So when Arithoppah became president in 2015, the most pressing task on his agenda was redistributing power, literally across the board. He quickly began delegating responsibilities to the other officers and filled assistant roles that had been vacant for years. He also formed committees to oversee building operations and pressing capital projects, including modernizing the elevators and renovating the hallways in the 17-story property, which was built in 1956.
Establishing clear lines of communication – and bringing the condo into the 21st century – was also a must. Under Arithoppah’s leadership, board members began corresponding via email and updating residents with regular newsletters. But he’s also gone to great lengths to make it a two-way street.
“Darren has made himself available to everyone to get their input and opinions, which wasn’t the case before,” says Joan Konow, a principal at Key Real Estate, the property’s managing agent. “He’s brought back democracy and transparency, which has inspired everyone to get more involved.”
By his own admission, Arithoppah’s term as president has not been free of missteps. “At first, I paid too much attention to unit-owners who had complaints and wanted to bend my ear,” he says. “I’d spend hours talking to them before realizing they didn’t have a clear idea about exactly what they wanted the board to do, which was very frustrating. I had to learn that it’s not my job to solve one person’s problem, but to focus on building-wide projects and come up with policies that are in everyone’s best interests. That includes leaning on our staff, super, and managing agent as much as possible, and letting them do their jobs.”
Arithoppah has come a long way, but his to-do list – color-coded to help him prioritize – just keeps growing. “I still want to reach out to other boards in our community, get a better handle on pricing from contractors, and see what can be done to make our building more energy-efficient,” he says. “There’s a lot of work, but I’m not flying solo. I’m definitely liking the new democracy here. I’m not going to be president forever, we have a great team, and I’m confident any other board member can seamlessly step in and do the job.”
“You’ve Always Got to Fight”
In some cases, stepping up to the president’s office can feel like running a gantlet. That was certainly the case for Larry Kelter, who got hit with a one-two punch after becoming board president at Hamlet at Windwatch, a 228-unit homeowners’ association (HOA) in Hauppauge, Long Island.
Just months after becoming president, the 62-year-old novelist was blindsided by the news that a construction company had illegally dumped some 50,000 tons of debris – including asbestos, arsenic, and PCBs – into an unused playground near the property. “My reaction was nothing short of outrage,” says Kelter, who has lived at Hamlet, where the residents are a diverse, middle-class mix of families and retirees, since 2009. “When I’m confronted with problems, I don’t let things roll off my back. My style is to hunker down, figure out a plan of attack, and marshal my resources.”
He sprang into action. Local officials had begun working with the state to clean up the waste, but there was a serious hitch: their plan was to move the debris to a dump site just several hundred feet from one of the Hamlet’s borders. “That was an untenable solution,” says Kelter, who attended lots of angry town hall meetings and had several tense talks on the phone with the town supervisor. “I wasn’t confrontational, but I was aggressive and respectfully demanding to make sure officials were aware of the dangers.”
Kelter also had to contend with shortsightedness among his neighbors in the surrounding community. “Most people were concerned about how the cleanup would affect the air quality in their own neighborhoods, but not about where the materials would be going,” he says. “We were the lone voice arguing that it should be removed not just from our area, but from Long Island altogether.”
Kelter unsuccessfully tried to rally support from community groups and the local board of education. “I found it especially appalling that school administrators didn’t seem to care, given how many schools are in the direct vicinity of the dump,” Kelter says. The town eventually revised its plans and agreed to take only the toxic debris out of Long Island. But that wasn’t enough for Kelter, who challenged the proposal by appealing to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “Unfortunately, some of that toxic waste did end up here,” he says. “Ultimately, it was too big a battle to fight on our own and win. But we had to try.”
Soon after that fight, Kelter got slammed with another problem: Suffolk County and Off-Track-Betting were planning to open a video casino in a hotel right next to Hamlet at Windwatch. “Their parking lot is only 1,300 feet from the Hamlet’s main entrance,” he says. “There would be all sorts of traffic, an increase crime, and property values would go down. The alarm bells just went off in my head.”
This time, Kelter pursued a legal strategy, organizing a group to oppose the casino in court and holding fundraisers, which have so far brought in tens of thousands of dollars for attorney fees. “Larry really spearheaded this grassroots effort and went to great lengths for a cause that benefits not just his HOA but the whole community,” says Virginia Manning, a managing agent at Fairfield Properties, Hamlet at Windwatch’s property manager. A suit was filed last November to overturn the village’s approval of the project. It’s still pending.
“I’m optimistic about this battle,” Kelter says, “but if we don’t win, I’ll just have to get my act together, let it go, and move on, because there’s nothing to be gained otherwise. But you’ve always got to fight. The lesson I’ve learned as a board president is that huge challenges can come at you from the outside and you have to be prepared to handle them.”
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