Bill Morris in Board Operations on September 6, 2012
"I had to create teams of people to go from sketch to reality," says Gordon, now 64. "The artwork was a bridge toward community — between artist, businessmen, educators, architects, engineers."
Gordon got elected to her 11-member co-op board in 2009 and discovered an entrenched group — some members had been serving for over two decades — loath to spend money, even when it made sense.
Avoiding Fiscal Reality
"It amazed me when I first got on the board," she says, "that it was so easy for people to resist challenges. There are a million ways to say no. We were just going from repair to repair to repair."
The need for fresh blood became apparent last year, when a chronically leaky roof and rising costs for heating oil, taxes, water and electricity forced the board to increase maintenance by 10.6 percent. But that unpleasant experience had a positive effect. "Financial pain forces you to get better at the way you use resources," Gordon says. "It was a big wake-up call that we couldn't keep coasting."
Since her first days on the board, Gordon had been attending seminars organized by the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums. She was particularly drawn to presentations on sustainability put together by Lewis Kwitt, president of the consulting firm Energy Investment Systems. But she felt the board would resist Kwitt because of "skittishness," a suspicion that consultants were there to sell a bill of unnecessary goods.
Gordon persevered and invited Kwitt to the co-op. He toured the building, then came back and spoke for several hours to the board's energy committee, which he describes as a group of "true believers" who understand that when it comes to energy you've got to spend money to save money.
Spending Money to Save Money
Out of that meeting grew an aggressive, multi-pronged plan to address the building's future energy needs. It includes insulating the roof and replacing it with an energy-efficient, sunlight-reflecting surface; converting both boilers from No. 6 oil to natural gas and install two separate gas-fired water heaters for use during non-heating season; replacing all 56 leaky terrace doors; using a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) subsidy to defray the cost of installing utility submeters; replacing to half of the appliances (air conditioners, refrigerators, dishwashers) with energy-efficient models; installing bi-level lighting in public areas; and new shower heads to save on water bills.
The plan qualified the building for a $72,000 grant from NYSERDA. The total cost of the improvements will be about $1 million.
As Kwitt sees it, none of it would have come to pass without Gordon's deft and dedicated leadership. "She realizes that the cost of energy has risen faster than all other operating costs," Kwitt says. "What she understands is that you cannot maintain the status quo by doing nothing. She's really brilliant and enormously compassionate about improving the building and bringing people together. She has recruited NYSERDA people, the former board president, and academics who live in the building. She's not shy about reaching out and building a coalition within the building. She gets the right people involved. And believe me, that's not easy to do."
Getting Residents Roused
One of a co-op or condo board's most important functions, in Gordon's opinion, is to get residents involved in the running of the building. The way to do this, she says, is to make sure that information moves freely. "It's up to the leadership to invite participation," she says. "That's the most crucial thing you can do. By talking to a lot of people and being a good listener, I found the right people to serve on committees, even to create committees. In general, I think if cooperators are well-informed, they'll contribute a lot and step up to the plate quickly."
It wasn't a simple matter of cutting away the dead wood. Many of today's most active and effective board members were in office long before Gordon joined the board. They've simply been rejuvenated by Gordon's leadership — and by the realization that change is not only possible, it's necessary. They've also been joined by new members who understand that the old way of doing things doesn't work in today's world.
"There's more discussion and transparency now," Gordon says. "We used to have skimpy turnouts at our annual meetings, and now we get huge turnouts."
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