New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Going Up?

For the shareholders of 586-unit 300 East 40th Street, life in their luxury co-op was getting to be a real headache. It wasn't parking that was the problem or maintenance increases. It was a much more mundane but critical quality-of-life issue: the 34-story building's six elevators were growing increasingly unreliable. Leaving one's apartment and then returning home again was becoming a tiresome game of "wait-and-see." After getting on the elevator, there was no guarantee a passenger would be delivered to his or her floor. Sometimes the elevators would skip floors. Sometimes they would take passengers straight to the roof.

"No matter what we did, it didn't seem to cure the problem," recalls Robert Stella, the board treasurer. As the bills for elevator maintenance began to climb, the residents began to speak up about the hit-or-miss operations. Then the inevitable happened. "Someone got stuck and got scared." Enough was enough, the board decided. Other renovations would have to wait. It was time for an elevator upgrade.

Of all the inconveniences of urban life, probably none affects everyone the same way as a poorly running elevator. But for co-op and condo boards, figuring out when to stop doing stopgap repairs and tackle an upgrade can quickly become a mammoth undertaking. Without a plan in place and a consultant to help oversee the process, boards can quickly become vulnerable to all kinds of renovation pitfalls, leaving shareholders and their finances dangling in mid-air.

Getting Organized

Before a co-op or condo board even starts to consider an upgrade, the board members need to think about the building's timetable: what is happening that year? Are there any major capital improvements scheduled? Has there been a big turnover and are a number of new residents moving in? Just as important, how much money does the property have to spend on an upgrade, and is it necessary? Or is a thorough repair sufficient?

At 355 Riverside Drive, the decision to upgrade the service and passenger elevators couldn't be put off any longer. First, there was the issue of age: the cabs and machinery were installed when the building was constructed in 1923, and the motors were at least five years overdue for replacement. Then there were the rapidly rising electric bills. The elevators were still running on antiquated direct, not alternating, current, and Con Edison was charging more for using it.

The building had the money on hand for the upgrade, and a board committed to seeing it through, but where to start? For help in navigating the thicket of issues surrounding an upgrade, the board turned to an elevator consultant to help them with the upgrade.

"We come in and we do an initial evaluation, which really assess or evaluates the present condition of the existing equipment. The first step is to see if you need a modernization or some TLC [tender loving care] on the maintenance end of it," explains Tom Olenik, an elevator consultant with Van Deusen and Associates.

At 355 Riverside Drive, just about everything had to be modernized. Along with installing a new control system and new motors, the doorframe on each floor had to be ripped out and a new frame installed. And because Verizon had run phone wires along the inside of the shaft, the wire needed to be separated and rewired.

From the outset, the co-op faced several serious problems. Five of the floors in the co-op had no direct access to the service elevator. That meant that when the passenger elevator was down, those residents would have to walk up to their apartments, some of them located near the top of the 15-story building. Then there was the larger hurdle: one of the residents on the fourth floor used an electric wheelchair, and had to be assured easy access to and from his apartment at all times. There were other issues, too: ongoing apartment alterations, deliveries, and the flow of visitors. How was the board supposed to handle it all?

As the directors reviewed the upgrade with their elevator consultant, they plotted out the least inconvenient route to the full upgrade. The decision was made to modernize the service elevator first. Residents were asked to hold off on apartment alterations as much as possible, and those contractors working in the building were asked to take the stairs whenever possible. The board also made it clear to the contractor that all work on the second elevator - the passenger car - had to be completed between the months of July and August, when the wheelchair-bound shareholder would be away on vacation.

"We made it clear to him that the passenger car had to be done only in the months of July and August and we have a penalty clause that if they run past August. 31, they pay us what we have to pay to put that person up in a hotel," says the board treasurer, John Young.

Controlling the Timetable

Slowly the work proceeded, and not without snafus. First, there was the wait for the replacement parts, which took nearly three months to arrive. And then there was the delay on the repair of the service elevator. It was taken off-line in mid-January, and wasn't completely up and running until June, a big hassle. Most of the residents, however, were very patient, reports Young. People were "very congenial" about the upgrades, and despite some grumbling, everyone seemed to be able to handle the inconvenience.

Advance notice of any disruption in elevator service is key to managing the problems that can arise, stresses Paul Herman, a managing director at Rose Associates. Boards should be alerting residents at least a year before an upgrade so residents can plan alterations and large deliveries around the building work. "It's really a communication process - to the residents keep them apprised of the status, from when the board considers it to when the project is completed."

It is here that a good managing agent can make the difference in maintaining the quality of life in a building. For Rose Associates, years of experience have led to a formula for working with boards considering an upgrade. "We bring in the consultant in," explains Herman. "They prepare the specifications that get reviewed by the board. And we will make sure it includes everything that the board and management has intended to do."

That could mean increasing the control the concierge has over the elevator by putting instrument panels at the front desk, or "locking out" floors after 7 P.M so only residents living on those floors can gain access, or making sure the elevator is handicap-accessible. A good agent will be able to think through the effect of the upgrade on each floor, from changing the hallway push buttons on the floor to a more involved process of insuring the new doors mesh with the aesthetics of each landing.

"Floors, hallways, painting, we know what the hot buttons can be [for a board considering an upgrade]," says Herman. "We definitely like them to interview the contractors and be a part of the decision-making process, and then essentially management is responsible for the information flow to the residents: how long it's going to take, when they are going to be shut down, and restricting move-in and move-out and large-scale deliveries."

Hiring a consulting engineer, meeting with the board to go over specifications and writing bids can take six weeks. Sending out specs for bids from contractors, four weeks. Bid comparisons and co-op reviews and contractor interviews, six weeks. Deciding on the contractor, two weeks. Co-op boards choosing car interiors, six weeks. Waiting for materials to be prepared, twelve weeks. Actual down time of each elevator, depending on the height of the building, can be ten weeks per elevator. Going over the work when it's finished (reviewing a punch list with the contractor and consultant), four weeks.

The longest lead time, points out Olenick, is waiting for the work to start: it can take up to three months between the time the contractor is selected and the parts are ready for work to start on the renovations. "If we had tried to do this by the seat of our pants, it would have been a disaster," observes Young. His co-op decided to do its soup to nuts renovation of the two elevators in November 2001 and planned to be finished by Labor Day 2002. "We were off by a year," says Young with a laugh. "One thing we learned early on was the machinery that we needed did not exist on a supplier's shelf. A lot of it had to be fabricated for our building, which is 15 stories."

Ed Powers, president of the board of 258 Riverside Drive, also learned the hard way that delays are inevitable. The board decided to do an upgrade in August 2001, but the work didn't actually start until over the December holidays, recalls the president. Having one of the three elevators out of commission during December lead to a lot of overcrowding in the remaining two elevators, and grumbling from shareholders over the timing. If he had to do it all over again, the first thing Powers would do is move the start of the upgrade to a time when the building was mostly empty, like the summer.

But the upgrade was critical. Like their neighbors at 355 Riverside Drive, the board at 258 Riverside was facing increasing costs for direct current: the surcharge alone in 2001 was $4,800 for the three elevators, and Con Edison had warned that it would be doubling and tripling the surcharge over the next several years. That, and the fact that the elevators still had the original motors, installed during the building's construction in 1908, led the board to realize it had to upgrade. The three elevators in the 13-story building were finally completed in May of 2003. The final cost: $400,000.

In hindsight, Power would have done a few things differently, such as getting a firm agreement on work deadlines. "You want to be able to try and hold the contractor's feet to the fire on deadlines so things get done when they are supposed to get done, and the project doesn't drag on too much," he notes. Still, there were advantages: "Because of a delay on work in the first elevator, we were able to get a break on the second elevator."

The board made other alterations at the same time, electricity rewiring on each floor, changing the face plates, and installing a special key card system that allowed residents to go only to their floor between midnight and 7 A.M., when the doormen are off duty.

Finishing Touches

Another important aspect of doing an upgrade, second only to hiring an elevator consultant, is giving shareholders enough notice before the work starts so they can plan around the problems that come with an elevator out of service. While it doesn't reduce all complaints, it can mitigate them significantly.

Paul Gumbinner, president of the co-op board of Southgate, a complex of five 14- to 19-story buildings, four on East 52nd Street and one on East 54th Street, between First Avenue and the river, says his board spent at least a year planning the 11-elevator upgrade before work began. The 442-unit complex, built in 1928, was still using the original elevators, and the breakdowns, particularly in the passenger cars, were becoming intolerable. "They were constantly down and there wasn't a week that went by that didn't have an elevator out for hours for a time," recalls the president.

The planning process for the upgrade started in the summer of 2001. The contract was awarded the following summer and work began this past January. The full upgrade of all the elevators is expected to be completed by January 2004. Says Gumbinner: "We do a monthly newsletter in the co-op. From the time we undertook this, we told resident-shareholders that we would be doing this. I think the secret for having it done successfully is to communicate with your residents, because lack of communication breeds both hostility and anger and also makes people very nervous. And so we've been telling them everything that we've done all the way through."

The proof, as they say, is in the results. At the most recent annual meeting, there were very few complaints about the work despite the $2 million price tag.

Finally, in considering an upgrade, the board needs to review all aspects of the elevator's performance: "You have to look at their useful life," points out Stella, the Churchill's treasurer. "How long are they going to last? You also have to monitor the maintenance that you are spending. When you start spending a lot more money and the cabs are out of service, or the maintenance doesn't maintain them," it's time to start thinking about an upgrade.

Then, too, adds Powers, boards need to remember the aesthetic details: what will the new control panels look like? The buttons? Will the cab be painted or paneled? So are you all done when the elevator is back up and running? "Somebody ought to pay attention to those details, because that is what you are going to get for your feedback. You pay a lot of money and you want it to look the way you expect it to look when it's all done. We had someone come in and show us button styles, and frankly, we still could have done better," says Powers of the board's selection of the new style.

In Stella's building, the board had planned to renovate the elevators at the end of a building-wide renovation, but after someone got stuck in the elevator, the board quickly changed tack and put the elevator renovation first. It occurred to the directors that if people were having trouble getting to and from their units, contractors bringing material up and down from the lobbies for hallway renovations would have the same trouble, possibly delaying work and racking up bills in overtime. Then too was the issue of safety.

"Let's not take the risk, do the right thing and take care of this issue before it becomes a real problem," says Stella. And that's the only tack a board can take. If the elevators are causing major problems, a board has to step up to the plate and take on an upgrade. Concludes Gumbinner: "My advice to boards is that they have to be decisive. They have to make the decision - and do it."

Subscriber Login

Ask the Experts

learn more

Learn all the basics of NYC co-op and condo management, with straight talk from heavy hitters in the field of co-op or condo apartments

Professionals in some of the key fields of co-op and condo board governance and building management answer common questions in their areas of expertise

Source Guide

see the guide

Looking for a vendor?