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The Unseen, Unsung Heroics of a Super

Bill Morris in Green Ideas on April 4, 2017

Murray Hill

Unsung Super Hero

Garreth O'Connor in the recycling room he built at the Penny Lane co-op in Murray Hill (photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio)

April 4, 2017

Garreth O’Connor, a native of Galway, Ireland, was on his second visit to New York City in 1998 when he saw something that astonished him. “I saw a lovely antique chair in a pile of garbage – couldn’t believe my eyes,” O’Connor recalls in his mellifluous brogue. “I didn’t grow up with waste like that. I brought home the chair.”

That simple act of salvage speaks volumes about Garreth O’Connor – and about how he approaches his job as resident manager at the 180-unit Penny Lane co-op in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. When he took on the job in 2008, the building was not in good order. “It was in bad shape,” O’Connor says. “There was staff living in the building, doing whatever they wanted. The place was dirty.”

Today, the building is a fine-tuned machine. The common areas are spotless, the record-keeping is impeccable, the staff is diligent about preventive maintenance, and the building – thanks to the man who was horrified that someone had thrown away a perfectly good chair – boasts one of the most elaborate and efficient recycling operations in the city.

Penny Lane occupies a massive, eight-story, 1920s-vintage building that once housed an ice cream factory. Its unique lobby, with Tudor timbers and ceramic-tile floor, is meant to echo the Liverpool street that became the title of a hit Beatles song. The developers who converted the building from industrial to residential use in 1976 happened to be big Beatles fans, and many of today’s shareholders share that passion.

Ron Kendal, an insurance broker, has lived at Penny Lane since 2007 and has been on the co-op’s seven-member board for the past eight years, currently serving as president. “When I first got on,” Kendal says, “I didn’t understand a lot about maintenance schedules, boiler replacements, or recycling. I needed to get up to speed on how the building runs, and Garreth has helped the whole board understand how the building runs on a day-to-day basis.”

It helps that O’Connor, 41, grew up working for his father’s construction company back in Galway, acquiring skills in carpentry, electrical wiring, handling concrete, and the maintenance and repair of machines. It also helps that O’Connor has an obsession with order. As he walks the building, he’s constantly running a fingertip across the tops of door knockers and lampshades, searching for dust. He sticks his head into the electrical room on every floor to make sure his staff of nine has performed the weekly cleaning. He checks alarm boxes, water meters, stairwells, and storm drains. He looks in to make sure contractors are doing agreed-upon renovation work inside apartments. He visits the laundry rooms at the ends of each floor, checking for leaks, lint balls, and lost socks. Maintenance of mechanicals is done on a strict schedule, and scrupulous logs are kept of every job and every replaced part.

This attention to minutiae is something that few board members and even fewer shareholders or unit-owners ever pause to contemplate. But it’s the little things nobody sees – or thinks about – that can make or break a building. Things like lint.

“When I started here in 2008,” O’Connor says, “the vents in the laundry rooms hadn’t been cleaned in years and they were packed with eight feet of lint. I was shocked. It was only a matter of time before we had a serious fire. We had to open the walls to remove the packed lint. Nobody ever stops and says, ‘There wasn’t a fire in the laundry room today!’ The unseen stuff a super does every day prevents catastrophes without people even knowing it.”

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