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Elevator Empathy

It’s the capital improvement every co-op board dreads: shutting down the building’s elevator for repair or replacement. Modernizing is not just expensive – costing anywhere from $175,000 to $350,000 per elevator – it’s also a long, complicated process that requires proactive planning, micromanaging, and soothing surly shareholders. With two serious upgrades being mandated by New York City – elevators must have door-lock monitoring by January 1, 2020, and an extra emergency brake by January 1, 2027 – many buildings are opting to bite the bullet and do a full overhaul now. Here’s everything you need to know to get the job done, as painlessly as possible.

1. Choose the right contractor.

The first step is spending a few thousand dollars to hire an elevator consultant, who will write up specifications, send them out to four or five qualified bidders, and typically make a presentation to management. But boards shouldn’t sit on the sidelines. “You need to be as inquisitive as possible,” says John Faldetta, resident manager at the 106-unit, 32-story St. James Tower on Sutton Place, a co-op that recently replaced its service elevator. “Get all the nitty-gritty details, and not just from managing agents, who are at the mercy of what they’re told and are busy with other buildings. [Go to] the company itself – specifically the field supervisor in charge, since he really knows what’s involved.”

Due diligence, Faldetta adds, also includes inspecting other buildings with the same equipment and software you’ll be installing so you can make an informed choice.

2. Strike a bargain.

When you're deciding on a contractor, don’t be afraid to negotiate, advises Jeffrey Heidings, president of Siren Management. “You can get companies to compete to offer you the best price and even ask them to throw in something extra, like six months or a year of free maintenance,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how much wiggle room there is."

3. Go generic

Avoid elevator systems that require proprietary equipment, which will make servicing and getting replacement parts much faster and cheaper. While brands like Otis and Fujitec require using only their components – as well as technicians who know their special maintenance codes – non-proprietary elevators can be repaired by any properly trained technician using interchangeable parts. “Companies like Galaxy Manufacturing or Ultra 2000 make control panels that are durable and easier to get hold of because they’re made in America," explains Faldetta.

4. Don’t get bogged down in cab selection.

This is one of the most common mistakes boards make, according to Doug Weinstein, vice president of operations at AKAM Associates, which manages the Windsor Park co-op in Bayside, Queens, an 1,821-apartment complex now in the midst of a massive project replacing its 40-plus elevators. “They get too intricately involved selecting materials, wall finishes, and control panels,” he says. “That can cause problems when a managing agent has to step in and say something won’t work because it’s too easily scratched or not durable enough. After all, we’re the ones who will have to maintain it.”

Another big hiccup is flooring, particularly in double-duty cabs that serve as both passenger and service elevators.“A building might want to replace vinyl tiles with something heavier,” Weinstein says, “but elevators are rated for a certain number of pounds they can carry, and going above that requires a whole technical upgrade. Boards have to be very conscious of the weight of all the cab materials.”

5. Do consider the extras.

Now’s the time to make practical improvements, such as pushing the cab ceilings as high as possible to make room for plus-size sofas and heavy-duty furniture. “Some boards are going for more security and installing key fobs for residents to get to their apartments, or putting a panel at the front desk so the concierge can control which floors the elevator goes to,” Weinstein says. “Another big thing we recommend when there isn’t emergency backup is installing a battery-operated apparatus on top of the cab so that it will lower to the next floor and open when there’s a power outage."

6. Mind your schedule.

Since modernization will put an elevator out of commission for anywhere from 8 to 16 weeks, buildings that want to pay extra to shave the timeline should choose a company that will agree to an expedited schedule by working a 60-hour instead of a 40-hour week, which Joseph Caracappa, president of the Sierra Consulting Group, an elevator consulting company, says will typically raise the bill by $7,500 to $10,000 a week.

And first things first: properties with multiple elevators should always start by replacing the one that’s in the worst shape. “That way, you’ll have at least one car that’s in more optimum condition and less likely to break down,” Weinstein says.

Still, boards should be prepared for a long haul. “From choosing a vendor to deciding on the cab to ordering materials, it can take six months from start to finish if everything goes smoothly, and up to a year if it doesn’t,” says Kenneth Breglio, president of BP Elevator. Since delays are almost inevitable, he suggests building in a penalty clause to keep companies committed to a time frame. Boards also need to factor in the waiting period for an inspection by the city. “That can take a while, so you want to monitor the work closely and make an appointment a week or so before you anticipate completion,” Breglio says.

7. Give residents a leg up.

There’s no way around it: shutting down an elevator for several weeks is a major headache, and boards have to brace themselves for shareholder complaints. When Le Havre in Queens – a 32-building co-op with one aging elevator in each – did an upgrade that required a shutdown in 2000, the complex hired extra staff to carry groceries, packages, and strollers upstairs. Chairs were placed on the landings between floors so that residents, especially the elderly, could stop and rest if needed.

Now Le Havre is gearing up for a massive $6 million modernization. “We plan to provide the same kind of help,” says board president Stanley Greenberg. “Except this time we’re going to have even more runners.”

At the Western Houston Equities co-op, a six-story building in Greenwich Village that will be modernizing its single elevator later this year, “we’re providing residents with a list of grocery stores and cleaners who deliver, and we’re asking for people to volunteer as designated floor monitors and as emergency contacts to make sure any issue is addressed quickly, beyond a phone call to management,” says president Noelle Russell. But the board has also come up with a list of forbiddens, including apartment renovations, furniture and appliance deliveries, and jobs such as carpet cleaning, which can cause traffic jams in the stairwell and lobby and create headaches and delays for elevator workmen.

8. Tread carefully before going through the roof.

In buildings with more than one wing, and one elevator per wing, boards could construct a walkway or bridge connecting the roofs of the different wings so people could take the elevator up one and cross from one wing to the other before going down the stairs to their apartments.

Boards, however, need to consider the possibility of being held liable if someone slips or falls. “In all likelihood, your insurance would cover accidents arising out of an elevator or any other kind of repair,” says Michael Spain, executive vice president at Brown & Brown Insurance. “Still, you should consult your lawyer to make sure you’re not putting people in a situation where they might be injured, which could tie you up in litigation for a long time.”

Stephen Lasser, managing partner at the Lasser Law Group, which represents co-ops and condos, agrees that boards need to proceed with caution. “Even setting up something safe won’t necessarily protect you if your roof wasn’t equipped specifically for people to walk on, because they can deviate from the protocol and hurt themselves,” he says. “I’ve dealt with at least three boards who were contemplating a bridge walkway scenario but decided it just wasn’t worth the risk.”

9. Communicate.

Since modernizations involve months of planning, boards should take advantage of the long lead time to inform residents of what’s coming. “We gave people notice at our last annual meeting,” says Mandy L. Berry, secretary at the 4810 45 St. Owners co-op in Woodside, Queens, a six-story property that just signed a contract to modernize its single elevator late this year.

At Western Houston, Russell says that once their date is set, “the board will send out both digital and hard copy – not once but several times – at least three months in advance. We’re trying to be as forthcoming as possible.”

The planning stage is the time to suggest that elderly or disabled residents arrange to live elsewhere, perhaps with family or friends. Shareholder requests for a maintenance abatement or other monetary compensation need to be handled firmly – and tactfully. “There’s always someone who broaches that subject,” says David Goodman, director of Mitchell Lama development at Tudor Realty, whose clients include a 10-story luxury property in Tribeca that replaced its single elevator in 2017. “We had someone on the top floor who, as soon as the project was announced, said the board had to pay to relocate him. We knew that he usually spends the summer out of town, so we suggested that a board member have a casual conversation with him and find out when he was going away. Then we scheduled the job and expedited it so it was all done by the time he came back." Problem solved.

10. Commiserate.

Communication, Russell points out, is a two-way street, which is why she and the board have made themselves available to residents to hear their issues and get their suggestions. "You've got to let them air out their angst." she says. "If you don't listen to people, that's when the complaints can get ugly."

At the end of the day, shareholders want to know that boards feel their pain and are doing everything possible to make the process go smoothly. “You have to walk the walk,” says Faldetta, St. James Tower’s resident manager. “And if things go as you said they would, that’s when a board looks stellar.”

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