National News

How an Air-Conditioning Project Turns Heated

Posted April 28, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — If you live in a co-op, eventually you may be asked to pay for a building improvement that does little to improve your apartment or your life. Maybe balconies need repair, but your apartment does not have one. Maybe the building needs a new elevator, but you live on the first floor, or use a different bank of elevators than the ones in disrepair.

Or maybe you already have central air-conditioning in your apartment and do not want to pay for a project that would allow the rest of your neighbors to have it too, as happened in a small co-op in the far West Village of Manhattan, where a three-bedroom apartment is currently listed for $4.5 million.

The dispute, chronicled in an essay by Kathleen Hughes, led to Hughes, who was president of the board, stepping down before she could be voted out for supporting a proposal in which all the shareholders would shoulder some of the costs of installing central air-conditioning.

Several shareholders and board members spoke to a reporter for this story to offer their views and to corroborate the sequence of events, but they requested that their names be withheld to protect the identity of the co-op.

To supporters of the proposal, the plan seemed logical: The 12-unit loft building should pay for infrastructure improvements — items like the coolant lines running up to the roof, electrical work and a support structure to house condensers on the roof, at a cost of about $300,000 to the building. Shareholders who wanted air-conditioning in their apartments would pay for their own condensers and any work done in their apartments.

But five apartments already had central air, installed in various ways over the years. The building had been converted from a factory to lofts in the late 1970s. Some residents, including the current president of the board, have condensers on the roof. In other units, condensers are hidden inside the apartments, behind dropped ceilings.

“Is it appropriate to impose on people who already have A/C the costs of providing it, which are extraordinary?” said Elliot Meisel, a lawyer representing the co-op association.

And so began a negotiation that descended from cordial to contentious, with shareholders on either side accusing the others of acting out of self-interest, and not the interest of the co-op.

One board member who already had air-conditioning and opposed the proposal said in an interview that he could not understand the argument that installing central air in other apartments could possibly improve the value of his apartment. He saw the project not as one that would improve the building as a whole, but as one in which the common space would be used to improve the value of some apartments.

Those who supported the plan saw an opposition led largely by a few shareholders who were focused squarely on their own pocketbooks and were unable to see the long-term benefit to the building should it create a system that every apartment could someday tap into.

One shareholder who supported the original proposal said he felt that those who were opposed were focused on their own short-term agendas and not on the best interests of the building in the future.

After Hughes and one other board member who supported the original proposal resigned, an alternate plan supported by the opposition gained traction and was approved. In this scenario, only the shareholders who want air-conditioning will pay for the project, with bills ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the apartment.

But once the project is done, no apartments can be added to the system at a later date, and the cost borne by the participating shareholders will be considerably higher than it would have been if the entire building had pitched in.

The new plan may cool temperatures, but not necessarily emotions. One shareholder who supported the original proposal said he felt that there probably would be permanent damage to relationships in the building.

Meisel sees the dispute as emblematic of larger national trends. “This is a microcosm of what goes on in the United States,” he said. “We seem to have reached a point where cooperation is in decline, and competition is in the ascendant.”