New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



The Future Is Now

For the board at Central Park Place, a 52-floor, 303-unit West Side condominium, communicating with all of the building's residents is always difficult. "Whenever there's a problem with the building," laments Kent Oz, board vice president, "everyone calls the concierge. The concierge line gets tied up, everyone gets a busy signal, and people get frustrated."

Worried about what to do in case of an emergency, the board had considered installing a building-wide public address system. But even that expensive option might not have been completely effective, Oz says.

Now Cooper Square Realty, the building's management company, is stepping up with a solution that not only could help solve the communication logjam, but also simplify and improve a number of building functions. Central Park Place is among the first buildings in New York City to be using Community Connect, a broad suite of high-tech tools right out of Star Trek that ties together disparate systems with an easy-to-use web-based interface.

The tools, which will be known as Cooper Square Connect to Cooper Square clients, have a number of features that promise to make communication more effective and building operations more efficient for everyone: the board, the property manager, the building's staff, and the residents. "Cooper Square Connect allows us to communicate faster and better," says David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty. "It utilizes ordinary devices like telephones as opposed to requiring residents to adapt to a computer."

The Chicago-based Simplikate, in conjunction with Canada's FirstService, developed Cooper Square Connect. FirstService owns a number of property management companies throughout North America and Community Connect available exclusively to those firms. In the New York City region, only Cooper Square and Wentworth Property Management will be able to offer the technology to their clients. Wentworth will offer the services under the name Wentworth Connect. Simplikate CEO Tushar Patel demonstrated Community Connect recently at Cooper Square's offices in Manhattan.

A current condominium board member and former real estate investor himself, Patel was one of the founders of U.S. Web, a website development company that went public during the internet boom. He had run into certain repeating issues while managing his buildings and trying to get his board together. Questions were asked over and over again by residents, sometimes with different answers, there was a lack of good information available to the board when they were able to meet, and much of a building's success depended on the quality of the individual manager assigned to it.

"It was hit or miss, and across my buildings I wanted to level the playing the field," he says. "All of the managers had their strengths, but none of them had a centralized knowledge management system."

He began working on Community Connect after a March 2002 lunch with his Miami Beach realtor and Tom Roses, president of Florida's Continental property management group, another First Service company. He made a presentation to Roses a few weeks later and by September he had developed the fundamental structure of Community Connect.

"Everyone in this industry knew for years what the solution would be, but they hadn't been able to find the right mix of training and technology," Patel says. He didn't want to try and adapt existing software for the property management industry, because "nobody really made a program out of the box, they never really thought of the decentralized decision-making process of condo and co-op boards. There's no other business model out there like that."

There are two major elements to Community Connect; one uses telephones, the other computers. Resident Alert is the phone portion of the system. It enables property managers to record a voice message and deliver it simultaneously to building residents and unit-owners' home, office, or cell phones, as specified by the recipients. The manager can choose to deliver the message building-wide or only to selected apartments, tiers, or floors; for example, if water is being shut off on the 11th and 12th floors, a message can be sent to only those residents affected.

The system can also be used to assist in collections. Building residents, behind on their maintenance or common charges, can be sent a "friendly reminder" message, custom-recorded by the building manager, at any specified interval after a collection due date. Board presidents can also set up conference calls with board members by just calling an 800 number, entering a PIN, and saying, "Set up a conference."

The other major part of Community Connect is its web and computer features. Basically, each building has its own user-friendly web site that sits on top of a database containing information and preferences for each unit, including pictures and names for all unit residents. Residents, board members, managers, and staff are each assigned a user name and password that they use to log on to their building's web site. Upon logging in, they're presented with different tools and options available to them depending on their level of access. Any Community Connect user can log on from anywhere in the world with an internet connection; they don't need to be at home or inside a specific building.

For managers and building staff, Community Connect can simplify many operational tasks, ranging from security to repairs to violations. Using a small camera, front desk staff and concierges can quickly take pictures of guests and contractors and print out badges that specify how long they've been granted building access. Preferences for packages are included in the database; when a package is delivered at the front desk, it is logged in the web site so both residents and staff can track who signed for a package and when. Community Connect's accounting features help keep building staff honest. Staff members sign in every day using a thumb scanner and each staffer's hours are tracked on the computer.

The system can be set up to budget time so that if an employee is approaching overtime, the board is notified. If employees are not cleared for overtime, they are locked out of the system until the overtime request can be approved by the board.

Managers are given a Palm Zire, a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) device that has a built-in camera and a color screen. If a manager sees a violation, they can quickly snap a picture of it, type in a code pertaining to the unit-owner in violation, and press "send." A color letter with that picture inside is addressed, printed, and mailed from Simplikate's Chicago offices to the violating resident and the delivery is tracked and archived on the Community Connect site. Work orders can also be generated using the same PDA interface. Each work order is tracked on the web site and creates a log of events, with all the pertinent pictures archived.

For residents and board members, Community Connect serves as a link between the building's community and the property management company's back office. Residents can use the site to post messages, check the building's event calendar, and download building documents, but they can also review their own account balance, see what charges have been made to their account and make payments online. Residents will no longer have to search around and make phone calls looking for a building's bylaws, board minutes, or documents needed to refinance their mortgages; these will all be available on the web site.

"Instead of someone having to pick up the phone," says Vincent Pedone, the building manager for Central Park Place, "they can log onto their account, they can see when a bill was paid, what a charge was for. It's going to help them out a lot."

Community Connect is not the first internet system developed by a management company to improve building communication and efficiency. AKAM Associates has developed the AKAM Genesis System, which features many of the same community and communication functions as Community Connect. Residents of AKAM buildings can log on to their building's specific web site and post on a message board, e-mail the board or the building manager, check building notices, read building documents and board minutes online, and submit a work order. It's a quick way to exchange messages with other board residents, the management company or the board. is a web-based building management system that is not excusive to a specific management company; any building (condo or co-op, residential or commercial) can purchase the system. is designed to help manage day-to-day communications, building operations, and repair requests, with separate options and tools available to residents, management and building staff. Residents, for example, can post messages on a bulletin board, make maintenance requests and view building documents posted by the board. Managers can use the system to view the status of repair requests. Front desk staff can keep track of instructions and events relating to each building unit.

All of these systems represent an evolution in technology for the property management industry. All three systems are web-enabled, meaning properties don't have to make significant software and hardware expenditures in order to use the programs.

Community Connect in particular is a high-tech step forward because it integrates numerous disparate systems under one user-friendly interface. Residents not only can communicate with each other, but also can pay their common charge via the same web site. It takes advantage of current technology on the market (like the Palm Zires) and applies them to improving the efficiency of a manager's job.

Kuperberg is enthusiastic about Community Connect's benefits and ease of use. "This has been written for management, as opposed to being technology that management has adopted," he says. "The difference between Cooper Square Connect and other systems is that Cooper Square Connect makes the property manager's job easier and more efficient," he says. "The other programs I have seen make the property manger's job harder and less efficient."

Community Connect is currently being rolled out throughout First Service's property management companies. In New York, both Cooper Square and Wentworth have been working with Simplikate to get the managers up to speed and figure out which portions of the system will be used. Letters will soon be mailed out to unit-owners informing them about Community Connect and asking them for the information needed to get the databases up and running.

Pedone anticipates that Community Connect will make it easier for him to focus on building issues instead of constantly fielding phone calls from residents. "It's going to give me more time to do more important issues," he says. "Now they can manage their account, they can e-mail me stuff, they can communicate with the board. It just seems like it's going to be a win-win for the condos and the management. And make our job as managing agents a lot easier."

Both New York City area firms confirm that specific pricing for Community Connect hasn't been decided upon, but Jonathan Klein, president of Wentworth Property Management, says that pricing will be structured on a per-unit basis as part of the management company fee. Klein says that Community Connect will be an additional service available to Wentworth clients; it's not mandatory that buildings implement it.

Early reports from the field are positive. In Miami Beach, Patel's own condo at 1500 Ocean Drive has been a guinea pig for Community Connect. Building manager Tanya Deidan has already used the "Resident Alert" function to notify residents of an important city hearing regarding a neighboring hotel's construction plans. "We had about 50 residents that showed up," she says. "That's an amazing amount considering I usually don't get 60 residents to vote in the annual meeting."



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