She was named the Lolita, a beauty with French Renaissance flourishes that rose to the imposing height of six stories. To the north was farmland, across the street was the rolling greenery of Central Park. Apartments rented for $1,000 a year, a princely sum in that prewar year of 1888. Prewar, as in pre-Spanish-American War.
Flash forward a century to May 1982. New York City was in rough shape, and the Lolita’s owner, Joseph Schwenger, wanted to convert the building from a rental to a cooperative. Among the tenants who decided to buy their apartments were Herb Chase, a medical student, and his wife, Beverly, a law student. Beverly wound up serving on the tenants’ committee that negotiated with the sponsor.
“Joseph Schwenger was very reasonable — he wasn’t greedy,” says Beverly, who still serves on the co-op board.
The insider price for the Chases’ apartment was $91,300; they got it for about $65,000. “I think we got a fair deal,” Beverly says.
Their 20-unit co-op at the southwest corner of 83rd Street and Central Park West, born the same month as Habitat magazine, has spent the past four decades on a journey familiar to thousands of co-ops across the city — some of which you’ll read about in the following pages. The first order of business was assembling a board, then figuring out how to run the building like a business — to instill in residents that they were no longer renters but were now homeowners and shareholders in a corporation.
“One of the challenges for many years was being sensitive to the disparate financial resources of the residents,” Beverly says. “So when something needed to be addressed that required a maintenance increase or an assessment or a loan, the board tried to be really sensitive.”
Jeffrey Sosnick, the current president, has also been on the board since the beginning. Another early challenge, according to Sosnick, was to educate board members about the split nature of their position. “One of the things I discovered very early on,” he says, “was that board members tended to wear one hat, which was their shareholder hat. And it took a long time to realize that as board members, we needed to take off our shareholder hat and put on our board hat, because sometimes what’s in the best interest for the entire building might have a little bit of pain associated with it. It might be a maintenance increase or a project that’s going to take a long time, but in the end it will be the right thing to do. So my long-term goal, in tandem with our professionals, was to educate and to identify potential board members who shared that vision. It took us a while, because the first 10 years were very stressful.”
Debbie von Ahrens moved into the building in the early 1990s, just as the co-op was beginning to hit its stride, and she served for several years as board secretary. The position gave her a ringside seat for a battle that illuminated the pitfalls — and payoffs — of cooperative living.
“Original shareholders were allowed to sublet their apartments as much as they wanted,” recalls von Ahrens, now retired from a career in advertising sales. “Everyone else could sublet one time, for a maximum of one year, and that was it. It didn’t make sense. We went through a big two-year process trying to fix that, and it was very hard. Some friendships were lost.”
When the dust settled, shareholders had agreed to change the sublet policy. Now shareholders can sublet their apartments for a maximum of two years out of every five years. After all the acrimony and bruised feelings, a strange thing happened.
“Ironically,” von Ahrens says with a laugh, “to my knowledge, I’m one of the only shareholders who has sublet her apartment recently. The sublet issue was the only source of contention. It’s a very friendly building.”
One reason it’s a friendly building, in Sosnick’s opinion, is because the shareholders always know what the board is doing. “Everything we do of any importance is immediately communicated to the shareholders,” he says. “When we go into an annual shareholder meeting, the treasurer and I will prepare a financial spreadsheet of our reserve account that digs down into every expenditure, where it went, why it was spent, what it is. In our 40-year history, we’ve only had one assessment, in 2011 for $70,000. We were replacing all the windows, and the week the installation started, the contractor came in and saw something they hadn’t seen before, and he realized that every window would have to be installed in a different way. So that was the purpose for the assessment, and the shareholders knew what was going on. I think it’s really crucial to earn the trust of everybody.”
This board, like all boards, worries about what Sosnick calls the “imponderables” — rising taxes, inflation, the cost of complying with the Climate Mobilization Act. But there’s a sense among the shareholders that they’re in a relatively good place.
Jonathan Parisen, the board’s current secretary, owns an architecture and interior design firm, a job that gives him a basis for comparing his co-op with other buildings across the city. “When I bought my apartment here in 2008,” Parisen says, “I didn’t think about the financial well-being of the building. But I really lucked out. The building is well run, and the board members get along. I work in a lot of buildings in the city, and that’s a rare thing.”
Four decades after she helped give birth to the co-op, Beverly Chase agrees. “Today we’re in a wonderful place,” she says. “Everyone in the building loves the building — the scale, the intimacy, the location. These are people who could afford to live in buildings with modern amenities, so the shareholders who stayed have made a conscious choice. We feel lucky to live here. There’s an esprit.”