Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on February 26, 2020
There are elevator jobs, and then there are monster, high-dollar, multi-year elevator jobs. The current elevator modernization project at Co-op City – the 15,372-unit Mitchell-Lama in the Bronx, the largest co-op in the country – definitely falls into the latter camp.
“The biggest challenge for any project is our size,” says Bob Klehammer, Co-op City’s manager, a vice president and managing director at Douglas Elliman. “Everything we do is magnified many times in comparison to a single-building co-op. We have about 43,000 residents in 35 buildings and seven townhouse clusters, with 160 residential elevators. These elevators get a lot of use.”
Instead of taking a Band-Aid approach, the 15-member co-op board and management decided to do a complete modernization. Everything but the frame of the cabs is being replaced: machines, hoists, ropes, controllers, governors, cab interiors, emergency lighting and communication systems. The elevators will also receive mandated door-lock monitors and rope grippers, an additional safety system to keep an elevator from plummeting.
“The motors were too small, they were wearing out,” says board president Linda Berk. “Even though the elevators were not unsafe, they were getting to the point where they would become unsafe. We didn’t want to wait for something tragic to happen before we replaced them. We had to weigh cost versus the security of our residents.”
Management hired DTM Drafting & Consulting Services to survey all elevators. Conducting the survey and producing the bid package took one year, after which bids were sent out and the contract was awarded to Champion Elevator. “The bids went only to substantial companies because a small company would not be able to do this project,” says Klehammer. “One of the requirements was that the company had to guarantee that they would have 10 modernization crews here. They had to be able to put 20 employees here for four years.”
The elevator upgrades, which will cost about $38 million, are part of the co-op’s $150 million capital budget. The board had refinanced the underlying mortgage with Wells Fargo in 2012 for $630 million. “We did not do an assessment,” says Berk. “We knew we were going to have to raise monthly carrying charges to maintain our property, so we raised them by 1.9 percent each year for the last three years, and we’ll do so again in September. We were able to stockpile that money for capital projects. But it was a constant struggle to explain the increase to the shareholders, even though it’s really miniscule in the bigger picture.”
Co-op City broke the project into 16 phases, with 10 elevators in each phase. It takes from 10 to 12 weeks to do one elevator, which works out to 40 elevators per year over the course of the four-year project. It’s a working definition of a monster, high-dollar capital project.
“Before the work began, there was a town hall meeting where we explained the project to the residents,” says Stirling Collins, senior vice president at Champion Elevator. “We literally went there with hundreds of business cards and gave out our cell phone numbers. If anybody had any questions, we were open and willing to talk to anybody about their concerns.”
Adds Klehammer, “Keeping the community informed is a big part of any project.” To this end, as the project progresses, flyers are distributed and work schedules are announced in Co-op City’s in-house weekly newspaper. Management also tries to meet with the presidents of the 35 building associations before work begins in their building. “Of course there are always residents who are complaining that they have to wait too long for an elevator,” says Klehammer. “But they can see that we keep our deadline. When we say this one elevator is going to be out for 10 to 12 weeks, that’s how long it will take.”
The new elevators are expected to last up to 40 years. “We have to maintain our property,” Berk says matter-of-factly. “This is our home, and we must take care of it.”
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – PROPERTY MANAGER: Douglas Elliman. ELEVATOR CONTRACTOR: Champion Elevator. ELEVATOR CONSULTANT: DTM Drafting & Consulting Services.
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