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Red Tape Nightmare: A Co-op Gets Caught in a Perfect Storm of Bureaucracy

Bronxville, Yonkers, Westchester County

Kerry Smith, board president at the Brooklands co-op in Bronxville. Photo by Danielle Finkelstein.
Kerry Smith, board president at Brooklands.
Feb. 3, 2015

Beginning at Brooklands

To begin at the beginning: the Brooklands complex — 137 apartments in three mid-rise, brick-and-stucco, neo-Georgian buildings — was erected in the 1920s on a triangle of land at the confluence of the Bronx River and the Sprain Brook in the Bronxville section of Yonkers. Over time, the Bronx River Parkway and the Sprain Brook Parkway were built alongside those waterways, adding concrete to the complex's watery eastern and western borders. The complex converted to a co-op in 1954, and a few years later, as part of the Sprain Brook Parkway's construction, master builder Robert Moses erected a 12-foot concrete wall to keep the Sprain Brook from overflowing its banks. As he did with so many of his other projects, the visionary Moses failed to see the future clearly.

The inadequacy of the wall became apparent when Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972 and the Brooklands property suffered a catastrophic flood. The New York Department of Transportation (DOT), which owns the retaining wall, approved adding 30 inches to its height. It would prove to be an inadequate Band-Aid.

Flood waters engulfed the property in 2007 and again in 2011. The first disaster was caused by a one-two punch of melting snow and torrential rains that caught the co-op by surprise. It wiped out all three elevators, both boilers, all electric meters and transformers, 96 automobiles, and all 24 ground-level apartments. Luckily, no one died. The second flood was compliments of Hurricane Irene; this time, timely storm warnings allowed the co-op to remove automobiles and evacuate shareholders.

The two storms inflicted a total of $8 million in damages — $3 million more than the corporation and shareholders were able to collect from various insurance policies.

It was after the first of the two storms that Kerry Smith, a retired magazine publisher and a shareholder since 2006, joined the Brooklands board and got busy dealing with the disaster, trying to convince his fellow shareholders that they needed to prepare for future flooding.

"I tried to get order out of chaos," Smith, now president, recalls of the first rebuilding effort. "It took two years to rebuild the garden apartments. That's too much time. Partly it was because the architect/project manager was from New Jersey, and he wasn't here to do even week-to-week supervising. The contractors hired unskilled people to do the work. No one was in charge. The shareholders were in an uproar."

To meet the shortfall, the board increased maintenance gradually by nearly 50 percent. It also took out a $3 million line of credit to repair common areas.

As the work crawled toward completion, Smith kept thinking about the future. At his urging the board hired an experienced hydrologic engineer, Leonard Jackson, who spent two years surveying water activity on the property during storms. After rejecting several options, Jackson said the best solution would be to add another four feet to the original flood wall.

The cost, Leonard projected, could be anywhere from $1 million to $3 million. An appeal for funding from local politicians got the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Brooklands's property values were falling as some local brokers whispered that the buildings were "flood-prone."

It was time for the board to get creative.


Adapted from "Face-Off: An Epic Battle at the Brooklands Co-op" by Bill Morris (Habitat, February 2015). Photo by Danielle Finkelstein. 

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