Crisis Without Chaos Handling the unexpected in your building

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, much has been said about the massive recovery effort and the grievous loss of life. While work crews continue to toil around the clock to recover and clean up, a lesser crisis has been playing out in the blocks surrounding ground zero. Dozens of residential buildings had to be evacuated on September 11th, and now they must be cleaned up in order for residents to return home. In some cases, buildings have needed to repair structural damage and restore lost power and phone service. In the real estate community, practical questions are being asked about how to best manage co-op and condo buildings in emergency situations in order to minimize chaos and displacement–or just discomfort–for residents. The simple answer appears to be the famous Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.

Fortunately, the emergencies that occur most frequently in co-op and condo buildings happen on a smaller scale than what happened in lower Manhattan. However, the impact of even a minor maintenance or structural problem on the individual building and its shareholders can still be emotionally and financially challenging.

Bob Marino was board president of Columbus Common, a 60-unit luxury condominium on the Upper West Side, when a non-life-threatening emergency struck last year. Just as the building was about to welcome a new super, a minor gas leak occurred behind a shareholder’s stove. In spite of a knowledgeable board member and riser locator charts, Con Edison employees were unable to locate the riser shut-off valve. According to Marino, a decision was made to shut off gas at the next available valve, resulting in a total loss of gas supply to the building.

What followed is the stuff of a condo board’s nightmare. According to Marino, ConEd would not restore gas until the riser could be tested. The efforts to restore gas were delayed by faulty valves, which needed replacement, and units that were inaccessible because shareholders had failed to provide new keys. Original estimates for the restoration of service were two to six weeks of work, at a cost of $60,000 to $200,000. In the end, Marino cites the diligent teamwork of the board and management with quickly bringing resolution to the crisis. The building was back to normal within 11 days, at a cost of only $25,000. "We worked together as a community," says Marino, "and used the talents of various individuals to get through."

Donald H. Levy was the property manager of 32 Gramercy Park South in 1989, when a steam pipe exploded, killing three people and contaminating the neighborhood with asbestos. The 185-unit co-op had to be evacuated for more than a year while repairs were made. While ConEd and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took over the physical aspects of the cleanup, the management company took over the administrative side. "We needed to keep track of all the tenants," says Levy. "It was necessary to issue regular communications and hold weekly shareholder meetings. We had to maintain the liaison with outside professionals and keep track of the financial aspects." Because the building was unlivable, no maintenance was collected. In light of the situation, Levy also negotiated with the Department of Finance to get a break on the property tax, which slowed the financial drain on shareholders.

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