Bad things happen to good buildings; it's a fact of life. From tyrannical sponsors to maintenance mishaps, there's plenty to go wrong - and when it does, your life can be made miserable. But sometimes a truly inspired manager can pull a happy ending out of the stickiest situation. We spoke with some of the city's busy building managers to find out how they resolved some of their own worst-case scenarios.
Robert Grant, director of Manhattan-based Midboro Management, Inc., has been helping clients for years. But some clients need more help than others. And some need Superman. According to Grant, one such case was a five-and-a-half-story cond-op that spanned a block. "When I was brought in, they were in big trouble. The sponsor owned the commercial space; the cooperative owned the residential space. The sponsor had avoided paying for common expenses, repairs, and maintenance for years."
In fact, says Grant, no condo board of managers existed at all. The board of the co-op portion of the building had sued the sponsor for unpaid bills, and the case had settled, but they still had large legal bills to contend with - and one tenant/shareholder who was $70,000 in arrears.
"The water and heating systems were in desperate shape," continues Grant, "and they needed to be upgraded, but [the co-op] had little money in the reserve fund for capital projects. And even though the heating systems for the commercial and residential spaces had been separated, the sponsor was "stealing" heat by tapping into the co-op's heating lines." Whew.
Clearly, Grant had his work cut out for him. First, he brought in a mechanical engineer who found the zone valve that was being used to divert heat to the commercial space, and turned it off. Then he had the system redesigned to make it more efficient - all in time for the next heating season. Next, Grant began negotiating with the delinquent tenant. When they couldn't agree on the language of the settlement, Midboro retained a well-known landlord-tenant attorney and negotiated a flat fee for filing a non-payment case. The shareholder quickly settled, and remitted payment of almost $90,000.
As for the water issue, there were two leaky roof tanks that fed the building's system. The sponsor wanted to convert the system to city pressure in order to dismantle the roof tanks, but Grant discovered a hidden agenda. "The sponsor still controlled two combined units that were directly below the tanks. By removing the tanks, the rooftop would be available to the shareholder directly below." A purchaser was interested, provided the tanks would be removed. Worse still, says Grant, the sponsor wanted to convert the system to city pressure without the installation of a fire pump system, which is needed to maintain pressure.
Even with the sponsor's dubious dealing, Grant saw a great opportunity for the co-op, and began negotiating with the sponsor and the purchaser to sell roof rights for the tank room. "I worked out a deal in which the co-op would issue additional shares in the corporation, and allow the tank room to be combined with the unit below as residential space. Meanwhile, I got the sponsor to put $25,000 from the apartment sale in an escrow fund to be given to the co-op as soon as the tanks were disconnected and the water system, converted to a fire pump system maintaining city pressure," he says.
Grant saw that the sponsor didn't want anything to affect the successful sale of the apartment, so, just before the buyer's interview, he persuaded the sponsor to form a condo board, consisting of two members from the residential unit, and one member from the commercial unit. "The sponsor is also being held to payments of 25 percent for capital projects, including the cost of converting to a fire pump system," he adds.
Thanks to Grant, the co-op's financial issues have been resolved, and a healthy reserve fund has been created. The repairs have been completed - or are well underway - and the sponsor is paying his share of common expenses.
Peter Grech, a consultant, building operations manager and the president of The Superintendents Club of New York, has dozens of stories to tell about unusual situations he encountered in his normal workday - from removing dead bodies and animal carcasses to individual shareholders caught in compromising situations. A story for another day, he says. But he does recall coming to the rescue one time in 1992 when he was the new resident manager of the Alfred Condominium. His first day on the job, the building suffered a tremendous leak in the lobby, forcing a sump pump to be installed to drain the water. He hadn't yet had time to learn the building's operational structure and was in the dark about the location of the pipes, valves and plumbing lines. A board member who happened to be an architect stepped up to the plate to help out, says Grech, and in about two hours, they located the source of the leak and saved the building from further damage.
A water problem is also capturing the attention of Doug Weinstein, a resident manager and vice president of operations for AKAM Management. Weinstein is currently trying to resolve a situation where a phantom leak is causing grief in one of the properties he manages. A shareholder in the building claims that a water leak has damaged her apartment and she is withholding monthly maintenance as a result, he says.
"In this case, we believe a shareholder is creating a condition to try and emulate a leak where none exists," Weinstein explains. "We had the building staff and a plumber up there to investigate. The undersurface is dry and the top is wet. This leads us to the conclusion that she's wetting the walls to create a leak in her apartment and not paying maintenance."
Weinstein says the first step is an investigatory process to eliminate the source of the leak if one exists. But in this case, he is busy gathering evidence and collecting testimony from the building staff and plumbing consultants so that he can make a solid case and take the shareholder in question to housing court.
Michaele McCarthy of Charles H. Greenthal Management Corp. has seen it all. One of the biggest problems she's tackled befell a 97-unit building on the Upper West Side, just one month before Passover. What happened? "Con Ed found a leaking meter," says McCarthy. "Unfortunately, this building was built in the "˜20s, so it had no [individual] turn-off valves - which meant they had to turn off the whole building. And once you turn off a building, you can't get it turned back on until they've tested everything for leaks. That usually takes months. And in the meantime, people have no heat, no hot water, no stove, no laundry," she explains.
McCarthy stepped up to the plate. She assembled a virtual army of plumbers to work around the clock, and convinced the inspectors at Con Ed to keep pace. "I used all my Southern-girl charm to pull in favors - I've always believed you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I batted my eyes; I made dozens of calls; I wrote letters. I also had to reassure the residents, promising everyone they'd have a working stove in time," she recalls.
With McCarthy at the helm, the team worked seven days a week checking lines and installing shut-off valves as they went to prevent a repeat occurrence. "I had a lot of terrific help, too," McCarthy is quick to add. "We were using NY Plumbing, and they were great"¦the super, Anthony Tamboni, was also indispensable." In the end, McCarthy was able to get the gas back on in record time - less than a month, and just in time for Passover.
But that may not even be McCarthy's greatest feat. This last tale is a management hall-of-famer, straight from the "only in New York City" file: "I started managing a building on the Upper East Side that had a very nasty super," says McCarthy. "He had been there for 20 years, and he literally had the whole building terrified. They had no idea how to get rid of him. I began negotiating a buyout with him, and by January, we had agreed on a number. He was to leave on April 15th - but by March, we discovered that he was stealing [from the building]."
McCarthy and another property manager went in to confront the super. They offered him $5,000 to leave within the week, and asked for his keys and his beeper. That's when things got really ugly. "Suddenly," recounts McCarthy, "he reaches into the closet behind him, pulls out a rifle, and aims it at my head! Well, I had taken some karate, and there was this one move where you push your arm up and over. I just thought "˜up and over,' and I did it to the barrel of the rifle. He actually fired a shot into the ceiling. The manager was just standing there in shock, and I said, "˜Would you please grab the stock?' Then we called the police and [the super] was arrested for attempted murder. It turned out that he had 10 rifles in that closet, along with about $1,700 in stolen laundry quarters!" In the end, McCarthy put a well-balanced, unarmed super into the building, and now residents are happy - and safe.
Of course, heroics like these are the stories that make the paper, but even when things aren't this dramatic, a good manager is worth his or her weight in gold. Whether it's arranging to have the brass kick plates polished once a month or fending off financial disaster and saving shareholders' most important investment, managers are the people who keep things running, even when the going gets tough.
Alexandra Wolf is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.