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It worked. After some tense negotiations, the manufacturer agreed to replace the defective carpeting for free, a savings of $400,000.
Now came unpleasant surprise No. 2. The survey had revealed that most shareholders wanted brighter hallway lights, and more of them. So the design firm installed attractive new fixtures with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. The lights were a hit, until they started burning out less than one month later. It was discovered that there was a defect in the current-transferring ballast that's inside every fluorescent light fixture.
"We went back to the manufacturer and said the number of defects was way too high," Kovall says. "They came back in and replaced all the ballasts in all the fixtures, and they gave us some additional fixtures at no cost."
The board was still not finished. Each lobby has large rectangular pillars that the design firm intended to cover with off-white, one-inch-square mosaic tiles. When the first column was finished, some shareholders howled that it made the lobby look like a bathroom.
"When the first column was done, some people really hated it," says the co-op's contractor, John Marino, president of JMPB Enterprises, which specializes in hallway and lobby renovations. "That column became a flash point. There's a kind of pack mentality in many buildings. If you're a vocal person and you say you don't like something, it's easy to get people on the bandwagon."
To make matters worse, there were not enough tiles to finish all the pillars, and when a second shipment arrived, the color didn't match, creating an unwelcome stripe much like the stripe in the defective carpeting. There was endless back and forth with the tile maker, who could not match the original color. It was a case of déjà vu, and once again Kovall worked mightily to avoid litigation.
"When things get delayed, it's like a pebble in your shoe," he says. "Everyone's in a lather. We literally searched the globe for tiles that matched — for the better part of five to six months — but we were unable to get a match."
To bring the controversy to a conclusion, Kovall and the co-op's design firm came up with a unique idea: In the summer of 2010 they gave all shareholders the chance to vote on three alternative tile options. "Much to our surprise," Kovall says, "a plurality of shareholders said they preferred the original tiles — or as close as we could get to it."
Staying on Track
The $3 million renovation projects were completed last summer — a bit behind schedule, thanks to all the surprises, but under budget. Most shareholders are pleased with the finished product —a source of pride and no small amount of relief for Kovall. In addition to planning, diligence and follow-through, he believes there were other keys to the project's success.
"I believe in transparency and full disclosure," he says, noting that he and his fellow renovation committee members met with the contractor onsite every week, then reported back to the board and the shareholders. "By keeping the shareholders informed of what was going on, we headed off all kinds of consternation and aggravation. My position was to candidly and clearly communicate with shareholders by writing notices and putting them in public spaces."
Of course, there's no such thing as a problem-free construction job in New York City. "My recommendation to other boards is to be prepared for the unknown," he says. "We didn't do anything wrong — other than [take] five months to make the decision to go back to the shareholders to decide on an alternative for finishing the columns. When you have problems, the most important thing is to communicate quickly and forthrightly. Don't try to gloss over problems."
For the co-op's seasoned professionals, another key to success is having a board member like Kovall to keep the project on track. "He was instrumental in keeping the wheels greased," says Marino, the contractor. "He was very effective in that role — a very diplomatic and rational individual. He understood the big picture. We hope to have a person like that on every job, a person who has executive authority to make decisions. Sometimes there's a point person who takes it back to seven or eight board members, who bat it around for weeks."
Lansner, the architect, agrees. "He understood the need to get answers for the rest of the board, then move forward. In my experience, every successful project has one or two strong leaders on the board who are intent on getting the job done expeditiously. They're a wonderful gift to the co-op — and to us."
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