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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Science Guy

Leo Pignataro has always had an analytical mind. The Argentina native got a degree in molecular biology before earning a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Buenos Aires. After completing his postdoctoral work at Northwestern University, he moved to New York City, where he taught anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medical College and at Columbia University. Pignataro, 52, is now Program Manager for Student Success at City University of New York-College of Staten Island but still manages to find time for his duties as vice president on the co-op board at Woodstock Tower, a 32-story, 459-unit Art Deco landmark building in the Tudor City complex. He spoke with Habitat about the challenges of being a board member — and how solving problems is all in the details.

 

Deco dream. I first moved to New York City in 2004 to work at Weill Cornell and lived nearby on the Upper East Side. Whenever I was taking a cab home from downtown and we were on the FDR Drive passing 42nd Street, I’d look over at Woodstock Tower and think, “Wow, that looks like it’s from another era.” When I was looking to buy my first apartment in 2011, I checked it out, and as soon as I walked into the lobby I loved it. My apartment is on the 24th floor, and the views of Upper Manhattan and the East River are amazing.

 

Diving in. I started volunteering on the board right away, by helping out with social activities and preparing documents, which I like doing because I’m very detail-oriented. But I couldn’t participate in certain confidential issues or any decision-making. I thought I had expertise to offer my community, so I ran for the board in 2015, and I became vice president two years later.

 

Bright idea. One of the first projects I oversaw was converting all the public areas in the building to LED lighting. I don’t want to say that I was more knowledgeable than anyone else, but as a scientist I understood and was very interested in the technology. I interviewed the companies and did all the agreements with Con Edison. It cost $53,000, $22,000 of which they paid for. And we’re saving $80,000 a year, so it was a no-brainer.

 

Time to refresh. The next project was renovating the hallways. We had a board member who brought in a decorator, but he wanted to charge too much, and I thought it wouldn’t be all that difficult to do it ourselves. We wanted carpeting that was neutral and a little bit modern and durable. I did a lot of research and learned that when you dye the carpet before the weave is produced it lasts longer, so we went with that. But nothing custom-made, because it’s too hard and expensive to replace. As for painting, our hallways are very narrow and we have a lot of doors, so it would look a little bit like a madhouse if we had contrasting colors. We decided on a single beige color, but the walls are painted matte and the doors are gloss.

 

Extra, extra. We have these beautiful brass signs with floor plans next to the elevators and figured it was a good time to send them out to be cleaned and repolished. Then we created directional signs with numbers and arrows pointing to the apartments, which aren’t easy to find because the building is so big. Between the hallways and the signs, the whole project cost $473,659 and five cents.

 

Facade fixes. Because of our landmark status, we have to preserve the original materials used in the building, and one of them is terra cotta. The building is nearly 100 years old, and we need to replace more and more of the statuary on the top of the building and in certain areas around the windows. But there are very few producers of custom-made terra cotta pieces. After our last Local Law 11 inspection, we had to wrap some of the statuary with metal mesh and make sure those areas were secure. We have to address those issues for the next cycle, which will probably end up costing about $3.5 million. Because of the new technology — they fly drones with cameras that find cracks and other problems you couldn’t see with the naked eye or binoculars — the Landmarks Commission keeps asking us to do more repairs. At least now they are a little more flexible and will accept molded stone instead of original materials above the seventh floor.

 

Money matters. Fortunately, the finances of the building are good. We did a one-time assessment for $1.4 million, the only one we have instituted in the last 10 years. We refinanced recently and have $2.5 million in the reserves. The first years of the mortgage are interest only, so we plan to put the money we’re saving into the reserve fund and build it up to $5 million.

 

Busy, busy. Our next project is converting our two boilers from oil to gas. They’re 50 years old. We’ve been looking at the repair bills, which are only going to keep increasing, and decided to change the boilers before we end up in an even worse place. During my tenure on the board, we spent $700,000 to renovate our three freight elevators, so now they’re computerized, fully automatic and state of the art. We also changed the hinges on all the fire doors to be sure we’re in compliance with code and updated the whole fire alarm system. We’ve tried to be very diligent to address things before they break down completely and we are in emergency mode.

 

Animal rescue. The facade repairs have already begun for the next cycle. One of the statuaries we had to remove earlier was this magnificent lion holding a shield. There are four of them, one on each top corner of the building, but the base on this one wasn’t stable, and we replaced it with an exact replica in terra cotta. I didn’t have the heart to throw the old one out. It’s humongous, probably seven feet tall, and has a very Tudor style to it, like it came right out of a medieval British castle. So we decided to put it in the garden, where everyone can see and enjoy it.

 

Analyze this. In science, you’re always chopping big problems into little pieces — you work with one variable at a time, understand it, and move on to the next. That approach has helped me with everything in life, including my work as a board member. Our minds tend to get overwhelmed when things are complex and there are too many variables, but when you simplify and break them down, it’s much easier to find a solution.

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