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Thread: Big-City Buildings Seek a Small-Town Feeling

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    Default Big-City Buildings Seek a Small-Town Feeling

    Big-City Buildings Seek a Small-Town Feeling

    Though New Yorkers have long had the reputation deserved or not of savoring their anonymity and protecting their privacy, many of them are seeking community within the four walls of their own buildings. From the transformation of a barren lot into a trellised gathering spot behind a six-story co-op to a 13,000-square-foot fitness and social center in a 53-story rental, from evening concerts to bedtime stories for groups of children, examples of facilities and programs meant to foster neighborly connections in urban settings abound.

    Take, for example, the St. Tropez at 340 East 64th Street, the first high rise in the state to be built as a condominium. There are more than half a dozen movie theaters within walking distance, to say nothing of VCR's, DVD's and satellite television, but the board recently bought equipment to show movies in the party room. And when Charlie Chaplin's "Gold Rush" was shown, a pianist was brought in to play accompanying ragtime.

    "We have 300 apartments in this building and want to keep a sense of cohesiveness," said Robert Metz, who is in charge of movies and edits the house's newsletter.

    The St. Tropez, built in 1965, also gets people together through body sculpting classes (five times a week), yoga, brunches and its rooftop swimming pool, which is ringed by lounge chairs. "When you know your neighbor, you're likely to be more respectful of them," said Suzie Schuyler, a board member who oversees both the fitness and welcoming committees.

    Indeed, there is growing acknowledgment on the part of shareholders, owners, tenants, boards and developers that city dwellers increasingly want at least part of their social and athletic needs filled within the confines of their own buildings. To one degree or another, many nests are becoming villages.

    "Our attitude is that we are a family unit rather than isolated apartments," said Guy I. Smiley, a lawyer and president of the board of the Sovereign, a 352-apartment co-op at 425 East 58th Street. "We use the word `co-op' as a signature of our philosophy. After 9/11, I think everyone was looking for a connection and home, and where you live is a great place to have that."

    His definition of family is inclusive. "We have a lot of dogs in the building, and animals are members of our family, too," he said.

    According to Costas Kondylis, who has designed more than 45 residential buildings in Manhattan since 1958, "People like to feel that when they come home they are part of a club. This gives you an identity, a meeting place, a sense of community. For the rent you are paying these days, you expect more than the four walls of the apartment."

    Setha Low, a professor of environmental psychology and anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of a new book on gated communities, read a darker reason into the trend. "Being worried about security is changing the nature of urban life," she said. "We are fearful, anxious, insecure and nostalgic for the past, and so we are becoming more insular."

    WHATEVER the underlying motives, allotting generous space for health clubs and leisure-use rooms is now considered mandatory for residential design.

    "These amenities are essential for any major building," said James Davidson, a partner at Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron Architects. "At a minimum, you must have a party room and media center where residents and friends can get together for, say, the Super Bowl, and a health center or workout room." Beyond that, his firm is designing basketball courts, putting greens and children's playrooms for inclusion in buildings.

    But offering up-to-the-minute athletic equipment and a busy schedule of social and cultural events represents not only concern for the residents' well-being; it is also smart marketing.

    "It's nice to walk into a lobby and be thanked for what you do rather than be accosted for what you don't," said David Picket, president of the Gotham Organization. His firm has developed four large rental buildings: the New Gotham at 43rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, the Key West at 96th Street and Columbus Avenue, the Foundry at 55th Street and 10th Avenue and the Atlas, which opened at Sixth Avenue and 38th Street in July.

    "This helps us rent and retain tenants," he said. "If on every apartment I can get an extra $50 or $100, I can engender good will and long-term patronage. And when leases come up and you're negotiating with tenants, the hope is that they like living there and there is something other than economic factors tugging at them."

    The Jack Parker Corporation, developer and manager of the Biltmore, a new 53-story rental at 271 West 47th Street, has devoted the entire fifth floor, more than 13,000 square feet, to what Kimberly Cafaro, a vice president and general manager, calls "the fitness element and the social element."

    "We felt we had to go above and beyond what other owners are doing to draw people to the building," Ms. Cafaro said. In addition to the standard assortment of exercise machines, it also has billiard tables, dartboards, a business center, a lounge with a fireplace, a screening room that converts to an aerobics and yoga center and a kitchen that will provide "breakfast on the go" of rolls, muffins or pastry to be handed to health club members (the health club is $400 a year).

    In older buildings, whose original blueprints did not take the demand for communal amenities into account, existing facilities have been upgraded or altered.

    A gym was opened in December at the Riviera Towers, a 34-story co-op in West New York, N.J., that overlooks Manhattan

    "It was an offshoot of a lot of requests from residents," said Anthony Errante, secretary of the co-op's board. "We have an outdoor pool where people meet in the summer, but there is not a lot in the winter.

    "We also felt strongly about creating a larger space where we could hold events. We have a small community room where we have open board meetings, but it is not large enough for events."

    When the building was put up in the 1960's, space was set aside below grade for retail stores, but none were built. "So we had a lot of underutilized space," Mr. Errante said. "The decision was made to turn part of that into a community level and now there is a activities committee to organize events like concerts there. We also had a flea market when it opened."

    In some places, the laundry room has acquired a new identity.

    "We decided to make it a comfortable place to relax," A. J. Mediratta, president of the board at the 100-unit co-op at 35 West 90th Street, said of the room there. "We put patio furniture in it and a number of bookshelves so people can drop off and borrow books. Last year someone put in tables and earlier this year hung pictures.

    "We tend to spend so much on things that people never see, like rebuilding parapets and lintels, that it is nice to spend a small amount on things that are visible. I think these little things foster a better atmosphere. You get more out of living here if you have friends, if you have someone to keep an eye on the goldfish when you go traveling."

    Similarly, in 1999 an exercise room was carved out of bicycle and laundry rooms at the two connected buildings that constitute the co-op at 110 and 118 Riverside Drive.

    "We did the whole thing over very simply," said Laurie Winfrey Shnayerson, treasurer of the board, who has a picture editing and research company. "We kept the existing columns, put up mirrors and new lighting and put in a floor of reprocessed tires."

    There was a one-time fee of $3,000 to join with a charge of $25 per month, and the loan to alter the space was repaid in three years.

    "People talk to each other when they're sweating on the treadmills and watching CNN," Ms. Shnayerson said. "You see people there you would never know otherwise and there is the recognition factor when you see someone dressed on the street."

    Nearby at 316 West 84th Street, a 141-unit, six-story co-op, an expansion into an unused rear lot has fostered a friendlier ambience among the shareholders.

    "When we co-oped, probably 20 years ago, we had a backyard that was all cracked and no one ever used," said Mort Berkowitz, a board member whose company, Mort & Ray Productions, runs street fairs. "About eight years ago, we repaved and now have a garden, trellises, vines, lounge chairs and tables. There is nothing nicer in the summer than sitting out there with coffee or wine and cheese."

    More than a dozen events have been held in the 20-by-100-foot garden in the last year, ranging from bar mitzvah receptions to anniversary celebrations. "It makes everything more civil," Mr. Berkowitz said. "In the past, the only people you knew were the ones on your floor. Now there are communities of interest, and lots of people have become friendly across floors."

    A full menu of activities has long been an integral part of life at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the 110-building community that runs from East 14th to East 23rd Street, "but we are continuing to enhance our programs," said Steve Stadmeyer, the managing director of the complex.

    With a full-time recreation staff of 15, he said, "we are adding four boccie courts; adult volleyball; more computers in the senior lounge; two new playgrounds, one for very small children and one for peewee soccer; and a Starbuck's to provide free coffee on Saturday morning. Two years ago we began having summer concerts on Tuesday evening specifically to bring people together."

    At North Shore Towers and Country Club, a three-building, 1,800-unit co-op on the Queens-Nassau County border in Floral Park, "what you get is a lifestyle, not just an apartment," said Linda Rappaport, the on-site sales specialist for the Charles H. Greenthal brokerage firm. "It has a 460-seat movie theater, a restaurant, catering hall, outdoor hot-dog stand, and clubhouse where breakfast and lunch are available."

    Sitting on a 110-acre site and bordered by an 18-hole golf course, North Shore Towers has extensive athletic offerings, some of them commanding separate fees that go from $800 for use of the swimming pools and health club to $3,200 for all activities, including golf. Social events on the calendar last month included bingo, ballroom dancing and lectures on subjects as diverse as Picasso and "Dealing with Aches and Pains."

    More than 300 residents and their relatives attended seders in the restaurant there on the first two nights of Passover earlier this month.

    "In most cases, the residents are the ones who develop and implement all these things," said Phyllis Goldstein, a board member who is in charge of the enhancement committee. "That means I do pretty things.

    "This is small-town living," she added, "and when you interact in the club, the movie theater, the coffee shop, over the years, you get to know everybody."

    By contrast, the stately co-op buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues tend to have a bicycle room or perhaps an exercise room but not much more to promote camaraderie between strangers.

    "They wouldn't get into the building if they didn't already know their neighbors or were at least friends of friends," said Kirk Henckels, the director of Stribling Private Brokerage. "These people want service, room service." (The buildings at 960 Fifth Avenue and 1 East 66th Street have chefs on the premises to meet that need.)

    The co-op at 825 Fifth Avenue does have a dining room that is used by many tenants, but Caroline Guthrie, executive vice president of Edward Lee Cave, a high-end Manhattan brokerage, explained: "Generally the apartments are pieds--terre, so most of the kitchens are kitchenettes. The dining room is only open Monday through Friday because people are at their country homes on weekends."

    Hollis Court, a complex of 18 two-family garden co-ops in Bayside, Queens, was once a bastion of group activity, but according to Patricia Brown, a retired registered nurse who recently stepped down as president, interest has dropped off dramatically.

    "We had a bowling night, but it wasn't successful," she said. "We used to have a gardening committee, a social room for cards and mah-jongg, a lending library, an annual barbecue. This year people don't seem to be interested in barbecues and they want their gardening done."

    An owner of 19 years, Ms. Brown attributed the change to the fact that "people who lived here for many years made a killing in the real estate market and moved out and the younger people who are moving in are professionals and singles who are totally caught up in their careers; it's hard to get people together because they lead such busy lives."

    The Gotham Organization has tried to address that issue with some of the programs that it gears to the young singles who predominate in several of its buildings.

    BASICALLY each of our buildings has its own personality, but several of them tend to have young professional people who go to hip restaurants and frequent nightclubs," said Lindsay Levine, social director for the organization. "So some of these events are great things to do from say 8:30 to 10:30 before they go out.

    "People really do connect," she said, "though not necessarily romantically. They tend to talk about the building, and one of our worries was that it would become a forum to voice complaints, but that hasn't happened."

    Although Gotham's events are geared to the building in which they are held, they are open to the residents of all 1,300 apartments in the four buildings and range from tapas parties with mariachi bands to sushi tastings, concerts, art exhibits and bedtime stories for young children.

    At the Key West on 96th Street and Columbus Avenue, "we gear a lot of events to kids," Ms. Levine said. "I met a graduate of Juilliard who specializes in children's entertainment and comes for what we call `bedtime stories.' " On her occasional visits, "She brings bags of tricks, balloons, puppets and storybooks and we put out milk and cookies at bedtime."

    A growing number of buildings are keeping their residents informed and connected through regular newsletters.

    "Manhattan can be a cold place, and the idea is to build esprit de corps," said Bernard Bushell, an investment banker who is the editor of the newsletter that was introduced in January at the Sovereign, the co-op at 425 East 58th Street.

    The Sovereign Sentinel, which comes out quarterly, is a blend of real estate savvy a chart in the first issue tracked the history of sales since 1998 and small-town neighborliness like the "Share a Recipe" column.

    The first two issues also had profiles of the doormen and the garage manager, a review of a neighborhood restaurant, and a guide to eating fine chocolate from a resident in the business: "Taste on an empty stomach. Clear palate with filtered water. Chew seven to 10 times . . . allowing secondary flavors such as herbal, fruity or spicy to emerge."

    Requests in print included ones for volunteers for a caregivers' club to help the elderly in the building and a children's club, along with referrals for personal trainers and computer consultants, and the name of a social secretary who will introduce new residents around.

    One of the folksier inclusions is news and photographs of pets in the building. (Two black lab puppies have taken up residence in apartment 47B, the spring issue announced.)

    But, as always, there is a distinctly Manhattan twist. "One resident had a public relations consultant call me to get their dog in the paper," Mr. Bushell said.**

    Copyright 2003*The New York Times Company

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    Jan 2003
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    Default Big-City Buildings Seek a Small-Town Feeling

    I got a laugh out of the last paragraph. Interesting.

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