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Colors & Controversy

When the board members at 215 East 79th Street wanted to redesign the co-op’s hallways three years ago, they set out with a thoughtful, methodical plan. First, they made sure they had the money budgeted for the project. Then, they vetted and hired a well-known designer. Finally, they narrowed down their choices to two schemes and presented them to the shareholders for their feedback. After so much careful planning, the board members thought they had all their bases covered.

They didn’t know how wrong they were.
Far from prompting a genteel discussion, the public display of the proposed hallway redesign ignited a controversy in the co-op, as one shareholder after another found fault with the designs and complained of the “done-deal” feel to the whole project.

“The fallout was, ‘Wait a moment – what if we don’t like either?’” recalls Michael Berkowicz, a long-time shareholder who was ultimately appointed head of a new design committee to start the process all over again. Some people thought the proposed schematics were too hotel-like, too glitzy, while others wanted a look that was richer and darker. The opinions ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other but the overall sensibility was that the shareholders were not happy with the process of the redesign. The whole project had been spearheaded “by a small group of people without any attempt at consensus,” maintains Berkowicz. “And the upshot, for the shareholders was, ‘This is not good enough for us.’”

Changing Spaces
Ask any managing agent about the one thing certain to rile everyone in a building, and nine times out of ten, they will all say the same thing: a hallway or lobby redesign. When it comes to the issue of changing the public space inside a co-op or condo, everyone thinks he or she is the expert, and woe is the board that doesn’t seriously solicit and consider the input of shareholders. Short of a huge assessment, it’s the one thing that can make a building go ballistic, observes Mitchell Berg, a senior property management executive at Maxwell-Kates, who says that boards that ignore the potential “emotional reaction” factor of a redesign do so at their own risk. “Aesthetics are such a personal view,” warns Berg. Boards should always consider the viewpoint of non-board members.

So what’s a board to do when it is considering changing the public spaces? For the shareholders of the East 70s co-op, who wrestled the issue away from their board and came up with a unique approach on their own, there is no one formula for success. What they did, however, was manage to turn controversy within the building into a sense of community. Soliciting feedback from the shareholders, striving for consensus, and then being willing to make tough decisions and deal with the aftermath.

“Let’s face it, everyone has totally different tastes,” points out Keith Gould, president of the board. “And getting consensus is more than impossible in a small building. Everyone does have a say, and it’s extremely difficult.”
At 215 East 79th Street, the disagreement over the two schematics in the hallway was only the tip of the iceberg of the decor problems. As several people familiar with the situation explain, the shareholders had long been frustrated with their board members over the board’s seeming reluctance to include them on decisions.

There was also the lingering sense of frustration over the recently renovated elevator cabs. While that project was completed on schedule and improved the look of the elevators, several people familiar with it say that the board moved too quickly, failing to solicit feedback from the shareholders. Thus, when the schematics of the proposed hallway redesign were presented in less than a year, what had been a “low-boil” annoyance with the board turned into an out-and-out rejection of its plan.

Back to the Drawing Board
After the shareholders at 215 East 79th Street rejected the two schematics, work on the hallway renovation stalled. At the annual shareholders’ meeting, shareholders expressed their discontent with the lack of communication by electing a new board. The new group, in turn, created a design committee entrusted with the responsibility of creating a design that would reflect some kind of consensus among the shareholders about what their building should look like. There needed to be a committee of people with experience in real estate and design; people who could look at the process and offer a broader view of what the building should look like. Six shareholders were chosen who fit the criteria.

The creative process wasn’t easy, recalls Phyllis Carson, one of the design committee members, because nearly each shareholder was convinced that he or she knew what would be exactly right for the hallways. As a way through the potential thicket of problems, the design committee, along with the building’s new designer, Joel Ergas, a partner in Forbes-Ergas Design Associates, developed a questionnaire (see page 23) that was distributed to all the shareholders. The one-page document asked residents to describe what kind of atmosphere they would like in the hallway (from bright and cozy to sleek and dramatic), offered a list of colors from blues to off-whites, and asked each shareholder to identify a public space that was a good example of the kind of look they wanted to see in the hallway.
“Dear Neighbor,” began the letter, dated April 25, 2003, and sent to all the co-op owners. “First, please recognize that the hallways need to be updated. The carpeting and wall finishes need to be replaced and the lighting and cabling must be upgraded. So . . . doing nothing, leaving it as it is, is not an option. That being said, there is no ‘one perfect solution’ that will please everyone in the building . . . .

“The purpose of the attached questionnaire is to identify a wish list of the shareholders at this early stage of the design process. Please keep this in mind when you complete it. Please reply to the questions not by trying to think how your answer relates specifically to the existing elements in the building, rather, what feeling/ambience you would like your environment to have. It will be the designer’s job to propose appropriate design solutions.
“Please feel free to add comments whenever you feel you can offer constructive insights. Your comments are important.”

Whenever a board starts a project, explains Ergas, “they need to take the pulse of the building. If there is a history there, and if you have a sense that there are problems with your constituency, I think you have to take careful steps forward in ways of drawing them in without allowing people to micromanage the work.”

The one-page questionnaire turned out to be a stroke of genius, as it offered all the owners an equal opportunity to not only give an opinion, but also explain what they wanted and why. The questionnaire, filled with multiple options, quickly became the design committee’s indispensable guide.

“That was a fascinating process,” recalls Berkowicz, because of what it revealed about each person’s choice. “It showed how people sometimes think that they want one thing when the reality is they want something else.” What one person considered cold and sleek, another saw as warm and welcoming. Of the 86 questionnaires handed out, one to each unit, more than 50 percent of them were returned. The goal was not to stop the designer from being creative, but to give him ideas – “these [were] recommendations, not design decisions, these were guidelines,” stresses Berkowicz, who says that the questionnaire was able to provide the design committee and Ergas with a firmer sense of direction.

After the design themes were narrowed down, the decision was made to present the designs to the shareholders. “When we reduced the number of possible choices of wallpaper and carpeting, we then created an eight-foot-high board, with the wall paper and carpet samples and put those in with voting ballots on the schemes. Even the lighting was changed in the hallway so people could look at the schemes and know what they would look like with the new lighting. For a week, the schemes were left at the first-floor hallway and two members of the design committee were on hand to answer questions,” says Carson. The process was very thorough, she recalls. “We put out the results so they could see we wanted their input. They were so adamant against the [earlier] choices, we wanted to find out what they were thinking.”

Because the committee wasn’t moving in lockstep, putting out the choices for the shareholders to see also gave the members a chance to reflect on what they thought was best for the building. “It became more work, but it was interesting because it sort of narrowed itself down,” says Carson.

One of the things he learned from the process, says Berkowicz, was that complaining was easy but finding answers was much harder. “Sometimes people care more about the idea of being involved than about the reality of being involved.”

With the questionnaire results tabulated and two new schematics on display – this time with lighting, carpet, and fixtures – the design committee and the board members believed that all they had to do was sit back and wait for the shareholders to vote on their favorite choice. But then came another bump in the road: the annual shareholders’ meeting.

Starting Over, Almost
At the annual meeting this past spring, the shareholders showed their thanks by reelecting most of the members, and promoting Berkowicz to vice president and Gould to president. But a twist was in the works: two new board members were elected, and before the redesign could go forward, the newcomers insisted that the process be started over from the beginning, with all the information about the choices presented to them.

The question now was: should the board start over or continue the project as it had already been decided upon? This, believes Berkowicz, was an unfortunate turn of events. The design committee had been charged with a particular responsibility: find out what the building wanted, incorporate it into its ideas of what would look best for the building, and work with the designer to make sure the project flowed and the design makes sense. Now, all of a sudden, the board was being asked to start from scratch.

“The new board members were very, very strong in their feelings that they wanted to be part of the process,” recalls Carson, who says the project stalled as the longer-serving members went over their decision-making process step-by-step with the new recruits. “More than wanting to start over again, I think they just wanted to be included in the thought process,” says Carson.
Ultimately, the newest board members agreed with the decisions, with a slight tweaking of the types of baseboards that would be part of the renovation. And while it was frustrating to the design committee to have lost time, the renovation is expected to be completed by the end of January.
Carson said she understood why the new board members wanted to start over. And, as a real estate agent with a background in fashion design, she also knew that everyone would be very concerned with how the hallways looked. “I see people walk into lobbies and hallways and their reactions to it. You need something to appeal to people. [Since] our building [is] an Art Deco building, there should be something [in the design] that works with that.”

Lessons Learned
Gould says that if he had any advice to share with other boards considering a hallway renovation, it was that the democratic approach to questions of aesthetic taste could be highly unwieldy, and sometimes, quite frustrating.

“Let’s face it: everyone has totally different tastes, and getting consensus is impossible in a small building.”

But the board managed to get through it. And Gould understood the shareholders’ point of view. “If I were not on the board, and just a shareholder in the building, I definitely would have wanted to be a part of the process.” On the other hand, as a board member, it would have been much easier just to work with the committee. “You have to compromise with the democratic process. It can’t be exactly what the people on the board wanted. But we managed to get through it.”

Ultimately, two special board meetings were held, without the managing agent present, and the board members discussed the delay in the project and how they felt about it. The new members were able to express their desire to be brought up to speed on the project and to have an equal say in what was going on, and the longer-serving board members were able to point out that it wasn’t smart to create the wheel each time a new board was elected; nothing would ever be accomplished.

While the meetings had a therapeutic value, Berkowicz believes, at the end of the day, “the biggest issue was that everyone wanted to feel they were consulted, and after all was said and done, when a decision was made, one can’t micromanage. If you trust somebody and you hire them, you cannot breathe down their neck. You can’t function. You paralyze yourself. If everything is second-guessed, micromanaging becomes the way of life. That is not practical, because, ultimately, we are all volunteers.” H

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