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Harlem Co-op’s Brownstone Facade Needs Major Help

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on August 8, 2018

Harlem, Manhattan

Harlem Brownstone

A section of deteriorated brownstone at Garden Court (photo courtesy Koenigsberg Engineering).

Aug. 8, 2018

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Garden Court, a pair of five-story buildings in Harlem, was so badly neglected by the landlord that the city stepped in, made repairs, and then converted the rental property into an affordable Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-op in 2000. Tenants were allowed to purchase their apartments for a nominal sum and take control of their destiny. 

But problems dogged the fledgling co-op. Years of neglect meant the building needed extensive work – a new roof, windows, trash compactors – and the co-op had to take on debt. Then came the potential killer: due to a bureaucratic snafu, the co-op’s property taxes soared. Eventually the city conceded that it had overcharged the co-op by a staggering $3.3 million. That admission – and a healthy refund – seemed to save the co-op. 

And then the brownstone facade started falling apart. 

“One of our board members happened to be sitting outside the building in his car when we were having a storm,” recalls Pat Crawford, a Harlem native and long-time president of the Garden Court co-op board. “Suddenly a chunk of brownstone fell off the wall. As soon as he told me, I called Josh.” 

Josh Koppel, president of H.S.C. Management, had helped guide the co-op through its earlier capital projects and tax woes, but this was something new. “When the city turned the property into a co-op, the original contractor decided to do regular concrete repairs to the brownstone,” Koppel discovered. “As a result, the whole facade had started to chip. We immediately put up a sidewalk shed, and our contractor sounded out the entire facade. They found a lot of loose brownstone and other damage that needed repair.” 

“Cheap patches and cheap repairs,” was the terse assessment of the engineer, Richard Koenigsberg, P.E., president of Koenigsberg Engineering P.C. “The key is using good patch material and anchoring it properly.” Garden Court is more than a century old, he notes, and many brownstones of that vintage have begun to show their age. “Brownstone repairs are everywhere,” he says. 

Pipe scaffolding is now up around the 157-unit property, and crews from Teamwork Enterprises will patch damaged brownstones when possible. “What we’re using is two kinds of mortar – called Mimic and Jahn – that are designed specifically for brownstone,” says Zahir Ilyas, the project manager with the contractor. “The previous restoration was sub-par work, and it’s obvious where the repairs and patches failed.” 

Koenigsberg estimates that between 150 and 200 stones are beyond salvation and will have to be replaced. The contract is for about $1.6 million – a sum that might have devastated the co-op in past years, but, thanks to the refund in the property tax settlement, will be manageable. Depending on the weather, the work could carry into next year. 

Koppel wanted to make sure the co-op’s shareholders understood the urgency of the project. “There was no debate whatsoever by the board,” he says. “This job had to be done. So we called a special meeting of the shareholders and had the engineer come in. We shared everything with them, including a bid spreadsheet, and tried to educate the shareholders about what was going on. We wanted it to be completely open.” 

Crawford, who is no stranger to challenges at Garden Court, prefers to look at the bright side of this latest one. “If we didn’t have the money from the tax settlement, we would have tried to get a loan or something,” she says. “I can’t imagine what we would have done. But now we’re restoring the brownstone back to the way it was – maybe even better.” 

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – PROPERTY MANAGER: H.S.C. Management. ENGINEER: Koenigsberg Engineering. CONTRACTOR: Teamwork Enterprises.

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