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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

They Were Ready

Carl Tait, unlike a lot of New Yorkers, was ready for this pandemic. Back in 2012, the fierce winds of Hurricane Sandy damaged a construction crane high up on 157 W. 57th St., one of the first luxury condo needles to rise on what is now Billionaires’ Row. The crane was in danger of falling on Tait’s building, a relatively modest World War I-era co-op at 152 W. 58th St. As co-op board president, Tait’s challenge was communication: to apprise shareholders of the danger, to parse confusing signals from the city’s emergency services and, finally, to supervise the evacuation of the 33-unit building. Then he had to help shareholders find places to stay.
“In 2012, we were required to leave the building,” Tait recalls. “Today we’re required to stay inside the building. But the questions are the same. What do you do? How do you tell people? How do you let them talk to you?”
The answer then, as now, was through email blasts and phone calls to all residents, whose contact information is assiduously kept up-to-date. Information has always flowed freely through those channels at this co-op, and the flow increases when a crisis hits.
“There was a lot of back-and-forth in both cases,” Tait says. “In this situation, there has been a lot of policy setting. You need to make rules that are reasonable so people will follow them. For example, the elevator – we told everyone to ride only with people you live with. We chose to leave our laundry room open and disinfect it regularly. We don’t have a doorman, so we put delivery protocols in place – no delivery people inside apartments. Our preference is for no contact, but if you have to sign something, wash your hands immediately. We had already discussed that someone in the building will probably test positive, and we should be prepared to announce it to all shareholders, without giving the person’s name or floor.”
The Value of Trust
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But how would the board learn that a resident had been infected? “We can’t make them tell us,” Tait says, “but we asked everyone in the building to let the board know privately, via email, if they’ve tested positive. On March 17 we learned that we do have a person in the building with COVID-19, and the shareholder was self-quarantining. People took it very well. No one came to us screaming, demanding to know who was sick. On the contrary, they’ve been sympathetic. I’m proud of them.”

Maybe the shareholders’ sympathetic response comes from the trust established by Tait and his six fellow board members. Tait, 58, is a voluble man who talks like a machine gun and brims with energy and ideas. In 2001, before Tait joined the co-op board, the mega-developer Gary Barnett, the founder and chairman of Extell, offered to buy the co-op’s air rights as part of his campaign to build the 1,000-foot-tall luxury condo tower known as One57, whose backyard abuts the co-op’s backyard. When Barnett made a low-ball offer of $50 a square foot, the board walked away. When Barnett sweetened the offer to $100, the board turned him down again. Six years later, while Tait was president of the board, the co-op made a counteroffer to sell the rights for $200 per square foot. It would mean a windfall of $4.1 million for 20,500 square feet of air rights – enough to pay off the last $1.9 million on the co-op’s underlying mortgage and cut maintenance permanently by 20 percent. Barnett accepted the counteroffer.
At the final negotiation, Barnett suggested he write a check for a nice round $4 million. “He was reserved,” Tait recalls of the titan sitting across the table that day. “Like a chess player. Unflappable.” Tait had a simple reaction to Barnett’s suggestion: “No.” So Barnett signed a check for the agreed-upon $4.1 million. “I made the co-op $50,000 per letter when I said ‘No’ that day,” Tait says with a laugh. “I wish I could do that more often!”
No Free Lunch
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The money was nice, but trouble came with it. First, the crane collapsed. Then round-the-clock noise from construction crews, which led Tait to deride the city’s compliant Department of Buildings as “an arm of the Extell corporation.” Then a fire erupted in the unfinished tower, sending smoke and water into Tait’s nine-story co-op building – and finally sending Tait around the bend.
“That was it,” he says. “I had had enough of Extell to last me several lifetimes. Within a few days of the fire, I resigned from the board.”
He found he didn’t miss the stress or the aggravation. His life was full. Born in New York and raised in Atlanta by his Southern parents, Tait went to Harvard to study music – he’s an accomplished classical pianist – but soon switched to computer science. He went on to earn a doctorate in computer science from Columbia and was working for IBM when he bought into the co-op in 1997. Seven years later he married a clinical psychologist, and in 2007 they had twin daughters. Today, Tait works in Manhattan as a software engineer.
After a four-year hiatus from the board, he allowed himself to be cajoled into reassuming the presidency in 2018. He continued to stress the importance of being ready for challenges before they arise – which has proven invaluable in the current crisis.
“If this pandemic has taught me anything,” Tait says, “it’s that you can’t predict everything – but when you see death coming your way, you do your best to figure out all the things that might happen, and then prepare for them. Before a crisis hits, you need to instill confidence and establish a pattern of trust, and I think our board has done that. One last thing: crises tend to bring people together, psychologically, even when hugs are forbidden.”

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