New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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After Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972, the Brooklands complex — 137 apartments in three mid-rise, brick-and-stucco, neo-Georgian buildings — suffered a catastrophic flood. Flood waters engulfed the property again in 2007, thanks to 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. Kerry Smith, a retired magazine publisher, joined the Brooklands board and immediately got to work trying to convince his fellow shareholders that they needed to prepare for future flooding. Some of the board members had been dragging their feet on the proposal to augment the flood wall that was supposed to protect the property. Then Hurricane Irene and another devastating flood hit in 2011. Smith called the storm "a wake-up call, with a kick in the head." At an open meeting called for October 4, 2011, three foot-dragging board members resigned and were replaced by three people who shared Smith's sense of urgency. The flood wall would be augmented.

They just needed to figure out how to pay for it, and how to overcome the bureaucratic hurdle they were about to face.  

The great French novelist Honoré de Balzac did not have a high opinion of bureaucracies or the people who work in them. "A bureaucracy," he wrote, "is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies."

After two vicious floods and an epic battle with municipal, county, state, and federal bureaucracies, the board of directors and the professionals at the Brooklands co-op in Bronxville could be excused for sharing Balzac's dim view of bureaucracies and bureaucrats. Miraculously, they do not. This is the story of why — and also a story of what your board can expect if it's ever forced to go up against the giant governmental mechanism known as a bureaucracy.

The co-op board was complaining about the superintendent. "He sends us bills for everything he does," said the treasurer. "He paints the hallways, we get a bill. He repairs the burner, we get a bill. He fixes plumbing in the walls, we get a bill. What are we paying him for? Cleaning up the hallways and common areas?"

I listened carefully to the duties enumerated by my colleague on the board and thought, "That's an awful lot of work to do for the pittance we pay him."

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