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Condo Board Limits the Number of Cooks on Lobby Renovation

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on October 6, 2021

Chelsea, Manhattan

Lobby renovation, condo board, Chelsea Mercantile.

The finished lobby at Chelsea Mercantile condominium (image via ODA New York).

Oct. 6, 2021

It was born in the early 20th century as a warehouse serving the Garment District. It later morphed into offices. Then in the 1990s a developer, taking a chance on a neighborhood that was still in the balance, turned it into 352 luxury condominium apartments in an 18-story tower known as Chelsea Mercantile

Fast-forward a decade and a half. Chelsea had become a choice neighborhood, and the five-member condo board felt the building’s disjointed, 8,000-square-foot lobby had fallen behind the times. “The flow felt choppy,” says board president Anthony Paolone, who works as a stock analyst. “The consensus among the board members was that it was time to revisit the residents’ experience. Our building has the bones and the curb appeal to keep up with the market. We needed to do something.”

Translation: it was time for a lobby makeover, one of the most fraught projects any condo or co-op board can contemplate. The Chelsea Mercantile board, however, had a firm philosophy that led to a firm plan.

“We chose to keep the decision making to a small group,” Paolone says. “If you have too many cooks in the kitchen, you’re not going to get a high-quality project. Design by committee or by a unit-owner vote would lead to a generic and poorly executed plan.”

The other board members work in the legal, finance and music industries – none has design or architectural experience – so the first move was to arrive at a consensus that the quality level of the project was going to be high-end. The board members then toured other lobbies, researched architecture and design firms, talked with principals, walked through the Chelsea Mercantile building with half a dozen of them and got one to do schematic designs. After that thorough vetting process, the board decided to hire ODA New York.

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Once the project architect, Ryoko Okada, produced renderings, the board made a decision to open up the kitchen by calling an open meeting of unit-owners. More than 50 showed up. “It was a risk,” Paolone says. “You’re always going to have critics, but it ended up working reasonably well.”

Colin Beattie, the owner’s rep, recalls that meeting: “Tony and the board explained their methodology. There were some comments about the aesthetics and some about practical aspects – package deliveries, the public meeting space, key access. It was nice because it gave the residents the opportunity to voice their opinions.”

Then the elephant was ushered into the room: the project was going to approach $5 million, which would require an assessment as well as a dip into the reserve fund. “Part of the sticker shock comes from the sheer size of the space,” Paolone says. “Nobody likes extra bills, but it went through pretty painlessly. It was our first assessment, and we stressed that it was going to improve our quality of life, and it was going to be good for our investments.”

Running the project was tricky, according to Beattie. “The lobby is enormous,” he says, “three buildings with three spaces that needed to be brought together into one common space. The layout was quirky, and during our gut renovation more than 300 unit-owners needed access to the building. We phased it in a way that minimized shutdowns of the four elevator banks and still allowed the contractor to get the work done.”

Now that it’s done, Paolone believes the board’s philosophy – limit the cooks in the kitchen – led to a dazzling finished product. “One of the things we’re proud of is that the lobby actually looks like the renderings – which is not always the case,” he says. “What we ended up getting is the lobby we told people they were going to get.”


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