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Engineer’s Second Opinion Buys Peace of Mind for Co-op Board

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on June 15, 2022

Bayside, Queens

Capital projects, second opinions, engineers, co-op boards.

Brian Sokoloff, president of the Bell Park Gardens co-op board, wanted a second engineer's opinion before embarking on a $20 million capital project (photos by Danielle Silverman).

June 15, 2022

Brian Sokoloff is the first person to tell you about the importance of second opinions. As board president of the 800-unit Bell Park Gardens co-op in Bayside, Queens, Sokoloff was recently getting ready to launch a long-overdue project to replace the roofs, windows and aluminum siding on the property’s 32 low-rise buildings. Then fate intervened.

“We were ready to pull the trigger with our first engineer’s plan,” says Sokoloff, an attorney who has lived at the co-op for all of his 61 years. “He had looked at the property from top to bottom, and we had secured a $20 million mortgage with National Cooperative Bank and had the money ready to go. Right at that time, the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed in Florida. When we read the back story — the engineer had recommended something, but the people were unwilling to spend the money — it drove home the importance of listening to our professionals.”

In this case, the professionals were not engineers but several of the contractors who’d bid on the job — and advised the board that the engineer’s approach to doing the work was not cost-efficient. The seven-member board’s misgivings increased when it learned that the employee assigned to the job by the engineering firm was a project manager, not a professional engineer. And when the board raised questions about the cost efficiency of the project manager’s approach, he replied flatly that it was the right way to do the job and he was unwilling to make changes.

“Like any patient facing surgery,” Sokoloff says, “the board wanted to get a second opinion.”

At an added cost of $20,000, the board brought in Basil Taha, a partner at Lawless + Mangione Architects & Engineers. After conducting his own survey of the property, Taha recommended a more cost-efficient approach. The board approved and is now soliciting a new round of bids from contractors. Despite the added cost and yet another delay in the project, Sokoloff has no regrets. “For a $20 million job,” he says, “it was worth it to buy peace of mind.”

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The three-pronged capital project is coming after a recent overhaul of the co-op’s finances. In 2016, Sokoloff and Mark Ulrich, an accountant, won election to a board that had been entrenched for years — and had declined to raise monthly maintenance. To keep costs down, major repairs were postponed and minor repairs were done with Band-Aids while the co-op relied on a 20% flip tax on the sale price of apartments. Fearing that reliance on the unpredictable real estate market was the wrong way to run a corporation, the board instituted a plan to lower the flip tax in increments to 5% — while making up the loss of income through matched increases in maintenance. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and apartment sales stopped cold, the wisdom of the move became apparent. “We could have become insolvent without it,” Sokoloff says.

To his surprise, the shareholders didn’t rebel over the maintenance increase. “Remarkably, we didn’t hear any complaints,” Sokoloff says, “because they realized we were telling them the truth.”

Now, as he awaits new bids on the roof, window and siding replacements, Sokoloff offers a word of advice to fellow board members: “When you know you have to spend $20 million, make sure you do your due diligence. There are good and rational reasons this project has taken so long.”

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS — ENGINEER: Lawless + Mangione Architects & Engineers. LENDER: National Cooperative Bank.

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