New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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The Park That Joe Built

Tom Soter in Bricks & Bucks

White Plains

Joe Camastra. Photo by Jennifer Wu.

The former board failed to create a park because "they didn't understand buildings," Camastra explains. "They listened to so many people who did not know what they were talking about. They just wanted to put a flower pot here, put a flower pot there, put some flowers in them, and thought they were doing good. They had no idea what the hell they were doing."

Camastra, the veteran board president, suffers from no such ailment. A retired building contractor, he knew what the space needed. "That's 17,000 square feet of unused real estate," he says he told the board about an empty courtyard area over a garage. "What would Trump do with it? He would build on it. And that's what I'm going to do."

Working with a landscape designer named Beverly Isis — "her guidance helped get me started, and we worked well together because the rest I really designed on my own" — Camastra supervised the rebirth of the space. "I went and got an [engineer]. We opened up the beams in the garage, found out that we could carry the load for what I had proposed to do, and we proceeded. We got an architect to draw up a plan, went to the buildings department, got a permit to start working, and we began." 

The park took roughly five years to complete because they had to stop working whenever the money ran out. When that happened, Camastra would go to one of the 53 vacant former sponsor apartments that the co-op owned. He would then completely renovate it, charging only his costs to the co-op. The upgraded apartment would quickly be sold, and most of the profits from that would go into the park project budget. (But not exclusively, as he explains: "That money funded all my projects. Not only the park, but I put new boilers in, I put new elevators in, I redecorated the lobby, the hallways. I must have put at least $4 million [worth of work] into both buildings.")

Camastra contracted workers he knew from other jobs, getting them to work for him on weekends. He acted as general contractor, donating his time. He estimates that this saved the co-op a lot of money on both park jobs. The second park at the second building, called the Gaylord, is about 75 percent complete. The combined cost for both parks, Camastra says, is about $200,000. 

"I built as I went along," he notes. "It was my own imagination. I'm not blowing my own horn, I'm just telling you the facts." There are 35 trees, three water fountains, and a 7,000-square-foot deck. Special soil was brought in from Long Island Compost.

He is pleased with the result because he says it increases the property's value — and strengthens something even more valuable: the sense of family. "We're a co-op community. By building this park, people come out and they get to know their neighbors. We also do a yearly barbecue party at the end of June. We invite all the people we do business with during the course of the year because I believe in PR. You've got to sell."

Photo by Jennifer Wu

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