New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Digging a Hole

When Shari Vilchez-Blatt recalls the cluttered basement room that used to serve as her co-op's storage space, she doesn't paint a very pretty picture. "There was no organization whatsoever," she says, "A huge, huge room, filled with 20 years' worth of crap: newspapers, discarded artwork, old toilets, ovens. Just junk. It was all in disarray, it was a nightmare."

Vlichez-Blatt, a shareholder in a 26-unit, self-managed Chelsea co-op, says she was so bothered by the festering mess downstairs that she practically single-handedly spearheaded the drive to do something about it. With the board's blessing, she began a project that eventually resulted in the installation of 12 brand-new wire-mesh storage lockers. Now, the former junkyard of forgotten stuff has become a clean oasis of organization, a beloved shareholder amenity. "There's not one item outside of the storage units," she says. "There's plenty of room to move around. And people love it."

If your building has a storage room that's close to a scrapheap, don't just throw up your hands and assume that's how things have to be. Setting up a proper storage room is one of the most manageable projects that a self-managed building can undertake, simply because there are plenty of companies out there that are eager to build you a room full of storage units. And, unlike most capital improvements, storage rooms pay for themselves.

Why do it? A cluttered basement can be a potential safety risk for a building. A room overstuffed with junk may be hiding things nobody should be storing in a basement, like combustible propane tanks or old paint cans. Piles of old newspapers are a fire hazard. And unorganized clutter could hurt someone. Just think of the recent news item about the Bronx man Patrice Moore, who was buried for two days under an avalanche of junk mail, magazines, books, and newspapers he had been storing in his apartment.

If your building has a clutter problem, presumably it has room to set up a solution. While some might think that painting lines on the floor and divvying up the room into storage "parking spaces" might work, in reality, the best option out there is to work with a company that specializes in building storage lockers and storage rooms. Bargold Storage Systems, Wirecrafters, and A&D Steel Equipment are three firms that provide these services for co-ops and condos in the New York area.

Once your board has decided that it wants to move ahead with a storage installation, it needs to choose someone to oversee the project and work with the shareholders and the storage company. Typically, the firms will come and survey the room, ask some questions about the building, and then provide recommendations, plans, and drawings. Your board needs to decide which types of units to go with: Bargold builds individual, fully enclosed storage rooms (like Manhattan Mini-Storage), while Wirecrafters and A & D Steel Equipment construct all-steel or wire-mesh lockers.

When choosing a storage company, there's an additional consideration for your board: do you want to rent or own the bins? If you own them, the board can decide if it wants to rent or sell them to the residents. Most self-managed buildings that install the lockers tend to sell them directly to the owners, which reduces any administrative headaches for the board. But the rental option can be an attractive source of steady revenue.

The most taxing part of the storage process is likely to be cleaning the room. Start getting the word out to shareholders early that the basement clutter has to go. Instruct them to take whatever they want to keep from the downstairs and bring it back up to their apartments, otherwise it's going to get trashed. Be firm and set a deadline a few months away, but encourage shareholders to start the clean-up process now.

"Our biggest fear was that someone might turn around and say, 'I never knew about it,' " Vilchez-Blatt notes, discussing the clean-up process in her building. She says she gave the shareholders a two-month warning, and that everyone got a memo detailing the project with the deadline clearly stated.

Your co-op will also have to decide how many storage units it wants built, and which residents will get them. Vilchez-Blatt surveyed each shareholder to see who was interested in purchasing a locker. Once she had narrowed it down, then, each shareholder was able to customize his or her locker: one- or two-tiers, with or without shelves, with or without a cover on top, and so on. The different options could add to the price, from about $860 to $1,000 each.

In Ernie Bane's 66-unit West 25th Street co-op, 66 storage lockers were built, one for each apartment. They were so popular with the residents that 21 additional ones were built, with the new lockers going on a first-come, first-served basis. Marty Brandler's 240-unit Riverdale co-op had 15 storage rooms installed; those, too, were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Space limitations will certainly dictate how many storage rooms or lockers can be built, but assume that the rooms will be a success and build as many as you can. There's likely to be some shareholders who want to have two storage lockers, if possible. But also, think about your tenants: if you have a lot of older residents who aren't as likely to be moving things in and out of the storage room, you may not want to build to the maximum. Mark Zurawel from Giant, a New York company that installs lockers, recommends not bothering to survey the individuals. "The best thing to do is to tell the tenants, 'This is the room, we're getting 20 of these [types of lockers], it's first-come, first-serve,'" he says.

Give the room a fresh coat of paint and install some new lights once the storage room has been cleared out. Installing the lockers is not a very time-consuming construction job once the room has been cleaned out. Larry Roberts estimates that it took about four hours to install five storage lockers in his 20-unit Clinton co-op. Once the rooms are up and running, keep the door to the area locked, and give a key only to those shareholders who have space there.

It is difficult to find any building that's had a negative experience stemming from a storage room installation. Shareholders get a convenient, secure place where they can store their belongings; a cluttered, potentially hazardous basement is cleaned up; and, in some cases, your board can even initiate a new source of revenue. Plus, there's the great feeling of being able to provide a new amenity for your shareholders. "It's the best thing I've ever done," says Bane. "The tenants are loving me."

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