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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Hallways Reborn

The hallways of our elegant Art Deco building at 5 Riverside Drive in Manhattan were last decorated in 1985 – and they were dying. They’d been on life support for the last three years. But other priorities kept getting in the way of an upgrade. We had just finished two years of scaffolding and jackhammering to comply with Local Law 11 requirements, and that experience had left our residents construction-weary and our coffers too depleted to underwrite a redecorating project of this scale. But the shareholders wanted the hallways redone. It was brought up at every annual meeting. After a few apartment sales, our flip tax had generated enough income to upgrade the halls without having to say the dreaded “a” word: assessment.

With funding no longer a barrier, the board voted to begin exploration of costs and timing. A project that involves spending such significant dollars and affects the quality of life requires a board member’s oversight. And, unlike less democratic co-ops, we actually solicit the shareholders’ approval on discretionary projects. Having led the team that successfully redesigned our lobby several years ago, I was a natural choice for the task. When another qualified board member volunteered to chair the design committee, I immediately felt relief that the onus would be on someone else. That was short-lived, however, as I was immediately recruited for the committee and willingly agreed to serve. My background makes me well-equipped for the job. I am a classically trained fine artist and have an MBA from the University of Chicago. I am that rare combination of left- and right-brain thinkers who can create Excel spreadsheets with the same facility as painting pillows to match wallpaper. My love of design comes from my mother, who invented a technique of “design on a shoestring,” a low-budget approach to design. I originally got involved in design as a business when friends whose homes I had helped decorate began referring other friends to me for advice. That quickly escalated from accessorizing to having custom rugs fabricated. Working only with clients whose projects could be accomplished in less than four months, I actually found a perfect third-life career that allowed me to paint and travel and work when I wanted.

Two Is Not a Committee

The prospect of partnering with my board colleague, Rob Anzalone, who owns Fenwick Keats Management and has been rehabbing classic New York properties for decades, was delightful. We had drunk many a bottle of wine before this, and our compatibility was clear. Beyond sharing the “good taste” gene, we also shared the “good sense” gene.

But two board members cannot presume to represent the taste of the building’s population. We immediately co-opted another owner, Dr. Dario Cortes, who years earlier had been the vice president of academic affairs at the Fashion Institute of Technology and had just completed a renovation of his vacation condominium’s common spaces and lobby. As an administrator, Dario understood the dynamics of group decision-making and was prepared to take the lead to keep events in our project on track.

Just as a doctor doesn’t operate on his family, we knew the design needed the expertise of professionals who have a track record in this very specific area and who know the relevant code requirements. After many portfolio reviews and three in-person interviews, we selected Fina Design Group. Beyond impeccable references, principal Margaret Murray understood our design aesthetic and – just as importantly – had a keen sense of humor. After a board meeting in which we discussed process and timing and current building issues, approval was given to proceed with the initial concept phase.

Now We Are Six

So far, so good, but the committee wasn’t complete. We felt a wider cross-section of shareholders should be involved to ensure a positive outcome. To round out the group, we needed people who have passion for the product and respect for the process, and who would not stand down if they felt strongly about their positions. Why not recruit members at the upcoming shareholders meeting, where everyone has an opinion on everything? At the June 2016 gathering, we announced that we were proceeding with exploratory steps for redesigning the hallways. As expected, many came forward to express interest in serving but, in our opinion, only three were serious candidates. We recruited them.

The other lucky winners in this design committee lottery were James Kelliher, a financial services professional who is a member of our finance committee, and an avid biker and music lover; Robert Duke, an educator who is head of the Drama Department at the Brearley School and has done work in theater production, a natural to guide critical lighting decisions; and, Seena Parker, a former marketing director for Ms magazine and National Lampoon who has a passion for Art Deco architecture and would ensure that our design choices were historically appropriate.

Step by Step

Wasting no time, we established a set of design objectives:

•    Elevate our hallways to a sophisticated design honoring our Art Deco heritage (constructed 1936) and notable Art Moderne features.
•    Complement the lobby’s design scheme so the transition from public to private space would be seamless.
•    Use environmentally responsible materials (LED fixtures, paints with little or no volatile organic compounds).

When renovating the hallways, it had long been agreed by management that we would upgrade all code-related systems. Our goal was to integrate them into the redesign as unobtrusively as possible. We therefore tasked the designers with:

•    Replacing emergency lighting in halls and stairwells.
•    Installing new LED lighting on stairwell landings and staircases.
•    Re-positioning lighting and smoke detectors for optimal effectiveness.
•    Upgrading wiring and relocating cable lines, as needed.

Let Creative People Create

The best work happens when creative people are left to create. Any designer can regurgitate what clients ask for; great designers show you something better. With objectives already defined, I suggested that letting the designers do their job was a better use of our time and theirs. And it paid off. The Gang of Six, as I lovingly referred to our group, agreed that as often as the designers had things to show us, we would show up. We followed three simple rules:

1.    Everyone will be informed of a design meeting, but meetings will be held with or without a full complement.
2.    We will not “hot react” to what’s presented. Feedback will be given orally and followed up in writing – after we have digested and discussed matters among ourselves.
3.    In most cases, the majority ruled. The one exception was on time-sensitive issues where a three-person subcommittee was empowered to make the final call, if they all agreed.

How It Worked

We all came with our own design prejudices and preferences, but we agreed to speak with one voice when we made presentations to our clients, the shareholders. Sometimes, like members of a jury, a single dissenting voice was so compelling the other five acceded to his or her opinion. Everyone’s passion for the project was evident, and we all wanted beautiful and functional design.

After months of meeting... and meeting... and meeting some more, two design schemes were presented to the shareholders, and we proceeded with a comprehensive survey. The option to vote against redoing the hallways, despite their extremely worn condition and outmoded color scheme, was still possible. Fortunately, a decisive majority favored one design option, but there was enough commentary about the value of the wallpaper color and carpet border to warrant minor tweaking. As everything was being custom-colored, it was easily handled with a new set of strike-offs. Addressing those concerns, we went back to the shareholders with a final set of design boards and a timetable.

After 21 months, during which we exchanged more than 1,000 emails, held 83 team meetings, installed half a dozen potential wallpapers, hosted a pair of shareholder presentations and distributed dozens of update memos, our Class A building now has sophisticated hallways that reflect its Art Deco to Art Moderne provenance and modern spirit. Beyond being refined and elegant – and a nice place to chat with a neighbor – our newly refurbished hallways have added value to the shareholders’ investment, which is a nice bonus for everyone.

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