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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

It Doesn’t Run Itself

Our story begins with a discarded chair. Garreth O’Connor, a native of Galway, Ireland, was on his second visit to New York City in 1998 when he went out on a date with a very pretty corporate lawyer. Things went well, but not quite well enough, and so late that night Garreth O’Connor found himself walking home alone. That’s when he saw something that astonished him.

“I saw a lovely antique chair in a pile of garbage – couldn’t believe my eyes,” O’Connor recalls in his mellifluous brogue. “I didn’t grow up with waste like that. I didn’t get the girl that night, but I brought home the chair.”

That simple act of salvage speaks volumes about Garreth O’Connor – and about how he approaches his job as resident manager at the 180-unit Penny Lane co-op in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. When he took on the job in 2008, the building was not in good order. “It was in bad shape,” O’Connor says. “There was staff living in the building, doing whatever they wanted. The place was dirty.”

Today, the building is a fine-tuned machine. The common areas are spotless, the record-keeping is impeccable, the staff is diligent about preventive maintenance, and the building – thanks to the man who was horrified that someone had thrown away a perfectly good chair – boasts one of the most elaborate and efficient recycling operations in the city.

The story of the transformation of Penny Lane is, in essence, the story of the importance of resident managers. It’s also the story of the countless unseen things supers do, day in and day out, that can make or break a building.

Attention to Minutiae

Penny Lane occupies a massive, eight-story, 1920s-vintage building that once housed a J.M. Horton ice cream factory. Its unique lobby, with Tudor timbers and ceramic-tile floor, is meant to echo the Liverpool street that became the title of a hit Beatles song. The developers who converted the building from industrial to residential use in 1976 happened to be big Beatles fans. Many of today’s shareholders share that passion.

Ron Kendal, an insurance broker, has lived at Penny Lane since 2007 and has been on the co-op’s seven-member board for the past eight years, currently serving as president. “When I first got on,” Kendal says, “I didn’t understand a lot about maintenance schedules, boiler replacements, or recycling. I needed to get up to speed on how the building runs, and Garreth has helped the whole board understand how the building runs on a day-to-day basis.”

It helps that O’Connor, 41, grew up working for his father’s construction company back in Galway, acquiring skills in carpentry, electrical wiring, handling concrete, and the maintenance and repair of machines. It also helps that O’Connor has an obsession with order. When he took the job, he set about digitizing the co-op’s chaotic paperwork, including insurance forms, invoices, permits, Local Law 11 work, city violations, bike-storage waiting lists, purchase orders, and apartment renovation schedules. He keeps hard copies of select paperwork in two old wooden file cabinets.

As he walks the building, he’s constantly running a fingertip across the tops of door knockers and lampshades, searching for dust. He sticks his head into the electrical room on every floor to make sure his staff of nine has performed the weekly cleaning without using water. He checks alarm boxes, water meters, stairwells, and storm drains. He looks in to make sure contractors are doing agreed-upon renovation work inside apartments. He visits the laundry rooms at the ends of each floor, checking for leaks, lint balls, and lost socks.

“You don’t wait for things to get dirty,” he says, “you just clean them regularly. It’s all about preventive cleaning and preventive maintenance. Rodents don’t like clean spaces.” Maintenance of mechanicals is done on a strict schedule, and scrupulous logs are kept of every job and every replaced part. “If you keep stuff clean and keep orderly logs,” O’Connor says, “you’ve got a better idea what’s going on with your equipment.”

This attention to minutiae is something that few board members and even fewer shareholders or unit-owners ever pause to contemplate. But without it, buildings quickly become dirty and threadbare, and, as happened at Penny Lane, small problems can turn into dangerous conditions. The building has a hollow sidewalk, and a few years ago O’Connor noticed that the cast-iron I-beams that support the sidewalk and form the cellar ceiling were badly rusted. He had nightmarish visions of a garbage truck tumbling through the sidewalk, into the cellar.

He oversaw the sidewalk replacement – a massive job that took almost a year and cost about $800,000. Today, the space beneath the sidewalk is a tidy workshop (and tenant storage space) where there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. Fan belts hang on hooks, numbered and arranged by size. Paint cans are dated and arranged by color. Tools are kept on pegboard walls.

“That sidewalk was a pricey project,” Kendal says, “and Garreth helped us avoid having it become a more serious issue. Most important – and this gets lost a lot of times – is that when he doesn’t understand something, he knows where to go for help.”

A Super’s Pride and Joy

One area where O’Connor doesn’t need outside assistance is in the building’s recycling operation – his pride and joy. After pouring a new concrete slab behind the building, he erected an elaborate shed where recyclables are collected. “This,” he says, with obvious pride, “is the largest recycling building in New York. It’s just my thing.”

This is not the standard paper-and-cardboard, glass-and-plastic operation. In clearly marked bins and boxes, shareholders also place their organic waste, batteries, chemicals and paints, electronics, light bulbs, hangers, clothing, shoes, books, records, CDs, even broken glass and used syringes. Typically, O’Connor sees the hidden advantages of the operation. Beyond the obvious environmental payoff, there are reductions in insurance claims (and health scares) because workers are less likely to get cut by jagged glass or used syringes, and there are reduced cleanup costs because scavengers are less likely to break open garbage bags left at curbside. There’s not much worth taking.

But no matter how rigorously O’Connor plans, there are always hiccups. “Every day you get surprises – and then everything else gets pushed back,” he says. “Like today, I got a call that a shower won’t turn off. Another dishwasher’s not working. I’ve got plumbers working on a steam leak, and I’ve got six apartments to check. You try to prioritize, but people get mad because they asked for me two days ago.”

O’Connor is getting ready to oversee a couple of big jobs: replacement of the two basement boilers with a dual-fuel boiler; and extension of an elevator shaft to the rooftop so the board can refurbish a former clubhouse and sell it as an apartment. Those jobs will be highly visible. Just as important to O’Connor are the little things nobody sees.

“When I started here in 2008,” he says, “the vents in the laundry rooms hadn’t been cleaned in years and they were packed with eight feet of lint. I was shocked. It was only a matter of time before we had a serious fire. We had to open the walls to remove the packed lint. Nobody ever stops and says, ‘There wasn’t a fire in the laundry room today!’ The unseen stuff a super does every day prevents catastrophes without people even knowing it.”

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Help or Hindrance

It’s not just board members and property managers who depend on the little things supers do. Talk to a guy like Henry Gifford, the mechanical systems designer in the architectural office of Chris Benedict. Gifford designs and oversees big jobs, such as salvaging a basement boiler ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in the East Village, then installing a new storm-proof boiler on the tenement building’s roof. More recently, he completed a heat-balancing project in an early-20th-century co-op on upper Broadway, where some apartments were overheated, others were frigid, and the pipes clanged mercilessly.

“Supers can be a big help or a big hindrance,” Gifford says. “The most important thing I can get from a super is an honest report on the history of the heating system. There are things only the super can tell me – about what happened yesterday and what happened five years ago. He can tell me which apartments are cold and which ones are hot.”

Supers can offer something beyond institutional memory. “And then there’s access,” Gifford says. “On the Broadway job we had to get access to 88 apartments. The super can make or break a job like that. If he’s friendly with people, they’ll give him their key, and we’ll get access. And he has to be friendly with us.” –BM

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