New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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Board president Dale Burg’s secret to effective leadership? Give and take.
Dale Burg, a Long Island native, moved to New York City in 1963 after getting her graduate degree in theater at Cornell University. She moved from apartment to apartment until she met her future husband and settled in with him at 145 E. 84th St., a 16-story, 70-unit co-op on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in 1979. A full-time freelance writer who has penned everything from TV pilots to humor books to annual reports, she joined the seven-member board a few years after the building went co-op in 1985, and has served as board president for more than 30 years. Burg spoke with Habitat about the satisfaction that comes with serving her community.
Dream team. My husband worked on the original co-op conversion plan in 1985. In 1990 there was an opening on the board, and I was invited to join. I was really happy to do it. As a writer working in my own little rented office in an old building on 57th Street, I wasn’t part of a team, aside from working with an author or editor. I like synergy and being part of an organization and a community. Early on, there were some short periods of disruption on the board, but since then we’ve had a very cool, congenial group of people. One of the original members is still on the board, which is wonderful because he’s our institutional memory.
Inside job. One of the first projects I worked on was our hallway renovation. My experience is that people pretty much accept all the decisions a board makes about running a building, except for decorating. It was just an aesthetic refresh, wallpapering and reupholstering and finding new artwork for the lobby. We hired an outside consultant, who would present pieces and give us the entire history of the artist, his parents and what he had for breakfast. I mean, it was almost that ridiculous. It dragged on and on, and I was accused at the time of trying to force my opinion on everybody, but what I was trying to do is get a consensus from shareholders, which was pretty impossible. We have 70 units, so how are you going to find something that people are going to agree on? The board made its decisions, and sure enough not everyone was happy. I’ve since learned that when you’re decorating, the guideline has to be choosing things that people will dislike the least.
Outside fixes. We’ve checked a lot of bigger things off our to-do list, like replacing the windows and some facade work. That included replacing the cracked granite at the front of the building with very nice-looking limestone. And we put in a roof garden several years ago that was a huge success. I wasn’t on the committee so I can’t take any credit, but they brought in a designer who did a spectacular job. He divided the roof into different spaces so people could gather in little clusters and not all be on top of one another. It’s like you’re walking through these different little environments. It’s a fabulous amenity.
Making an entrance. The other major project was our recent lobby overhaul. It looked almost exactly like it had when the building went up in 1963. Instead of just touching things up like the last time, we did a complete renovation, putting in a new concierge desk and electric doors, which turned out to be a very good thing after COVID hit since you didn’t have to touch them. We also upgraded the security system by putting in more cameras and new lighting. So we were able to do things that were not just aesthetic but that really reflected the changing needs of the building. We were able to complete so many large projects successfully thanks to our remarkably knowledgeable and detail-oriented superintendent, Tim Dervishaj.
Big break. We have financed all of our capital improvements largely through our maintenance income and rent from our commercial tenant, which has been very helpful for the building’s bottom line. We were very lucky because when we converted to a co-op, the seller gave us the whole building, including the retail space on the ground floor.
We had a children’s shoe store for a long time, which had recently left, and a furniture store in the larger commercial space, whose lease was up in a year. We weren't sure whether to lease the vacant space or wait until the other tenant vacated and try to lease the two as one. We decided to combine the two commercial spaces into one and find a single tenant, which would be easier to manage, plus we’d get better rent. A CVS pharmacy moved in, so that worked out just fine. We also reclaimed the basement space we had been renting out and divided it into a storage area for residents, a common room that’s both a play area and a meeting space, and set up a nice-sized gym with treadmills, bikes, Nordic Tracks and a weightlifting station.
Small change. After that, we went for 11 years without increasing the maintenance and have only had to do one small assessment. We also caught a break timing-wise with the mortgage, which expired right when we could take advantage of low interest rates. We’ve just instituted a maintenance increase, but it’s very modest given all the capital work we’ve done.
It takes a village. If I had to boil down the most important thing to being an effective board president, it’s all about give and take. You’ve got to be good at mediating. It’s not an opportunity for me to express my personal opinion about anything, but to do the right thing by everyone. After the lobby renovation, I’d always ask the doormen what they’re hearing from residents, because they know what people are really thinking, and people seemed very happy. When we had our annual meeting on Zoom, I was gratified — and shocked — that I got so many positive comments and almost nothing negative. People actually used the word “spectacular,” which was a first. The entire board also got re-elected. And now we’ve got just about everything done on our wish list for at least a decade, if not more. We’re really in very good shape.
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