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Bell Park Gardens Gets an Energy Transfusion

Paula Chin in Board Operations on February 10, 2017


Bell Park Inertia

TRANSFUSION TRIO: (from left) Bell Park Gardens property manager Stuart Betheil, president Brian Sokoloff, and treasurer Mark Ulrich. (photo by Danielle Finkelstein)

Feb. 10, 2017

Brian Sokoloff has spent his whole life at the Bell Park Gardens co-op in Queens, and it was a perfect place to call home – until about 15 years ago. “It used to be called the ‘Jewel of Bayside,’” he recalls, “but it had started looking shabby. The lawns were brown and full of weeds, gutters were falling apart, and the brickwork needed repairs.”

After a snowstorm last winter, Sokoloff, who commutes to Long Island, couldn’t get to his car because the drifts outside his garage had gone untouched for days. “In all my time at Bell Park [Gardens], it never took that long to plow out a driveway,” he says. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew it was time for a change.”

One of many co-ops built in the area to provide affordable housing for World War II veterans, the 800-unit, 39-building property had aged – and so had its board, whose seven members were well into their sixties and seventies. Meanwhile, younger residents and families had moved in – they now constitute half of all shareholders – and they wanted a board that reflected the co-op’s changing demographics. Ousting an entrenched board is never easy, but it becomes doubly necessary when the board is also out of step with the times.

“Inertia had set in,” says Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, Bell Park Gardens’ attorney since 2011. “None of them had any legal or financial backgrounds. They weren’t taking advantage of modern technology. They seemed to be drifting from year to year, reacting to events instead of dealing with them proactively.”

The board’s laissez-faire style included its handling of the co-op’s finances. Though property taxes and energy costs had risen relentlessly, there had been no maintenance increases for six consecutive years. Another problem was a lack of supervision, especially when it came to the onsite property manager, who’d been on the job for 16 years. The manager was disrespectful and yelled at the residents so often that they had come to fear him. Not a prescription for a happy home.

Sokoloff, an attorney, and Mark Ulrich, a CPA and accounting professor at St. John’s University who had moved into Bell Park Gardens in 2014, found they shared concerns about the co-op’s problems.

“I agreed with Brian that maintenance charges – which averaged $460 compared to about $700 at neighboring co-ops – were too low, and not covering operating expenses,” Ulrich says. “Residents weren’t being informed about capital improvements, and even though significant money was being spent on them, they almost seemed like DIY projects that were done without professional consultants. Bell Park Gardens is a multimillion-dollar corporation, but it wasn’t being run that way.”

Sokoloff adds: “All of the jobs seemed to be done by one company, which raised concerns that there might be an unduly close relationship with the board.”

Promising greater transparency and better communication with shareholders, Sokoloff and Ulrich were elected to the board in May 2016 and became, respectively, president and treasurer. “Initially, we felt shut out at meetings and got the sense that there were decisions we weren’t being told about,” says Sokoloff, adding that it was difficult to contact other board members because they resisted using email.

Things began to change when three longtime members stepped down. That gave the board newcomers the opportunity to seek new blood. “In the past, the board would have quietly brought replacements in,” Sokoloff says. “But this time we had applicants submit statements. Then we met with them, just like a job interview. We wanted to make the process transparent.”

With three new members, the revitalized board fired the old property manager and hired Stuart Betheil, who has more than 30 years experience. Together they began to put the house in order at Bell Park Gardens. It’s a process that continues to this day, and it proves that there comes a time when some co-op boards need a transfusion of energy and fresh ideas. Inertia, it turns out, can be a killer.

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