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The ‘Wizard of Oz’ Capital Projects at Morningside Gardens

Juggling act. The 980-unit Morningside Gardens co-op in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights has a lot of balls in the air these days. The co-op board is renovating all of the sidewalks that surround and connect the six towers located on nine sloping acres of land in Upper Manhattan. The board is also tackling balcony repairs mandated under the city’s Facade Inspection and Safety Program and, for good measure, conducting 9th Cycle facade inspections while the scaffolding is in place.

“There was a lot of deferred maintenance,” says Tiana Norgren, the board president. “Over the last 60 years the co-op had the sidewalks patched and repaired and patched and repaired. There was never a systematic overhaul even though they needed it. The initial exploration to finally replace the sidewalks started about six years ago.”


Stepping up. The walkways, roughly one-third of a mile, will eat up about 60% of the three projects’ total $15 million budget. The board was able to finance the work with its reserve fund, but to raise money for future capital projects, the board is now refinancing the co-op’s underlying mortgage.

The sidewalks had to be replaced because they had become a hazard, particularly for the elderly. (Morningside Gardens is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.) Sidewalk replacement, as the board has learned, is not just a surface job. “The drainage is a big deal,” says Michael Dimen, the board’s first vice president. “There’s a lot of infrastructure. We have extensive drain facilities underground, and they have to be inspected, and in many cases they’re in need of repair or improvement.”


Going the extra mile. Ancillary pieces of infrastructure are being replaced at the same time. “We’re putting in a smart irrigation system, because ours is 20 years out of date and not working very well,” Norgren says. “We’re also replacing all of the fences, the street furniture, such as seating areas, benches and tables. It has to be designed in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which did not exist when the property was built in 1957.”

The scope of these projects would give any board a headache, but the mandatory balcony repairs have come at a particularly difficult time. “The city made no dispensation of the schedule because of COVID-19,” says Norgren, who notes that each of the six buildings has 60 balconies, many of which have been enclosed to provide shareholders with an additional room. “To clear everything off these balconies would’ve been an inconvenience at any time, but now it’s especially bad because so many people are working from home and are losing a badly needed extra room.”


It takes a village. In order to coordinate all the work, the board hired a project manager for the sidewalk job and another for the balcony work; then it hired a third to coordinate the two projects. “We did not fully appreciate the complexities when we went into the balcony project,” Norgren says, “and we cannot just rely on the project managers. We also rely on our management team and those board members who have special expertise.” Then, as always, there were the unforeseen problems: “What we did not anticipate is that the balcony work required us to clear almost 100 cars off the roof of the parking garage. This is an inconvenience for shareholders who park there, and it’s a substantial revenue loss for the co-op.”

Despite all the difficulties, Norgren can see from her window how beautiful the new sidewalks will be. “One can already see the difference before and after in the parts that are already done,” she says. “It’s like when the ‘Wizard of Oz’ went from black-and-white to color.”

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