Rising to the Occasion East Harlem's Maple Plaza Thrives at Last

As part of a New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) project, Maple Plaza in East Harlem was constructed in the late 1990s in hopes that the building would help anchor redevelopment efforts in the neighborhood. The eight-story, 155-unit U-shaped building went up on 123rd Street between Madison and Park Avenues, and contained a state-of-the-art laundry room, a community room, and 87 parking spaces. There was also a corporate tenant--the Ralph Lauren Cancer Center--on the building's lower level. The Mortgage Insurance Fund was providing 100 percent insurance on a loan of $17 million, and all seemed to be a go for the much-publicized--and much-needed--co-op.

But all did not go as planned for Maple Plaza--at least not at first. The project's sponsors changed again and again (Chase, Citibank and North General Hospital were all involved at one time or another), poor construction caused a plethora of structural problems, and a laissez-faire board structure in the early days led to a multitude of administrative problems.

Yet despite all the early difficulties, Maple Plaza has begun to overcome its trials and tribulations and has made itself a home that residents can be proud of. Like any building that's home to hundreds of people and dozens of different families, it's certainly not perfect--but it is well on its way to living up to the vision that was planned for the building in the beginning stages.

Beginning Woes

Maple Plaza's troubles started early. The ideals set by those at the beginning stages of the project seemed like pipe dreams when one thing after another started going wrong, beginning with construction of the building itself.

"We had problems with a leaky roof and leaky windows--but the major challenge was to get the developer and Sparrow Construction to respond to our list of items," says board president Sophine Charles. "The problems involved the construction, and the developers not having constructed the building properly."

Not content to stay quiet and live with the leaks, the board got tough and a series of events turned Maple Plaza around.

"The board had to work together in such a way that we were putting a little force on the construction company and management to follow up on getting it all completed," Charles says. "To call it a total success might be a little overstated, but we managed to get most of our issues addressed and we're still working together as a unit to have those problems resolved."

Taking Charge

The Maple Plaza board is made up of six members who meet once a month with management and once a week with each other. Charles is the current president, followed by vice president Harry Rivers, treasurer Alonzo Jamieson, and Patricia Taffe, who does double-duty as secretary and editor of the building's bimonthly newsletter. The team is rounded out by Danny Bell and Joseph Dean, security and maintenance liaisons, respectively. Each board member has a particular job and it's up to them to keep the others up to date on what's going on in their particular jurisdiction.

"We have put together a system to see that things get done," says Rivers.

"It's a work in progress, but it's something that is working."

One of the most welcome projects that the board put in place was a book for shareholders to log their complaints about the building.

"The immediate response to our shareholders is our biggest success," says Janice McLaurin, property manager of Maple Plaza. It's her job to act as one with the board of directors to make sure the building runs smoothly. "We keep a big book upstairs, and if anyone has a complaint or suggestion, they put it in the book. The board responds quickly, and has management respond just as quick to all concerns."

Thus far, says McLaurin, the shareholders have been very responsive. They are always present at board meetings and are never at a loss for offering new suggestions and ideas.

"We respond to all shareholder's complaints--in writing--within 10 days," says Charles. "It's not enough to just call management and have them leave a complaint. The book lets us document everything and ensures that management follows up."

On the suggestion of a shareholder, the building recently implemented a bicycle storage space; it's just one of the many resident recommendations the building has put into practice. As for Maple Plaza's biggest success, McLaurin points to the building's "SLS" project, and credits Charles with its successful implantation.

"SLS stands for "Strategic Learning System," Charles explains. "It's a training method that allows us to organize, conduct, follow up, and make certain that all of our tasks and assignments are getting taken care of," Charles says. "It's a corporate organizational method for handling the business, whatever that may be. In this case, it's the board of Maple Plaza."

All members of the board are given tasks that require follow-up; assignments can range from anything from ordering supplies to writing the community newsletter.

"Our maintenance liaison has a checklist to make certain that all items on a daily, monthly and yearly basis are taken care of," Charles continues. "Our security liaison makes certain all our cameras and security are functioning in order. My job as chair of the board is to make sure that everyone is doing their job."

"We provide feedback," says McLaurin. "The board does group evaluations where they orally provide feedback and maintain a positive working relationship with the other board members. If there are any problems or conflicts, we talk about them. Anything that gets in the way of doing your assignment, we consider a deflection from our work."

In addition to the board members, a number of shareholders are involved in committees that oversee projects concerning the building. One such group is an elder committee comprised of seniors and disabled people of Maple Plaza.

"We'd had seniors complain about eyesight or mobility issues, so we responded to their needs by providing someone to read building-related information to them and by helping them make it to meetings and activities so they aren't left out and know what's going on," McLaurin says.

Money Matters

There were a number of financial issues that caused problems for Maple Plaza and again, it was up to the board to find and implement solutions. According to Charles, this was also done early on to avoid repeats of problems.

"We had to do an overall inventory of all the operational procedures," she says. "We looked at increasing maintenance to bring in more funds from shareholders. We looked at our commercial tenant, the Ralph Lauren Cancer Center, and we had to look at collecting late fees."

Change for the Better

Today, Maple Plaza has become a keystone of the larger transformation efforts in the immediate neighborhood.

"There have been incredible changes in the neighborhood," says Charles. "On Madison Avenue we have five developments that have gone up in the last three years ranging from low income to luxury housing. We are working with the other new co-ops to create the Madison Row Board organization, with the purpose of intervening and seeing that we have a say in what happens in the neighborhood."

One project that Madison Row has had a hand in is the renovation of the nearby Marcus Garvey Mount Morris Park. Until only recently, the park was overrun with crime and vandals and plagued by neglect, but thanks to the Madison Row Board's efforts, the park is now safe for kids to play in.

As for the future of Maple Plaza, Charles would like to see technology have more of a hand in the building.

"We would like to look into upgrading our technology so that shareholders can go to the computer to make complaints or check on work orders and do anything concerning their account," she says. "We want to make this a full service building and use technology so everyone can have access to what's going on."

And Maple Plaza is currently a HPD/federal subsidized building and its shareholders would like to see that changed as well in time. "We're looking to move it to a full service luxury building," Rivers says.

Maple Plaza faced down financial and administrative problems, survived maintenance crises, and is reaching out into the surrounding neighborhood to make itself and its neighbors into a vibrant, stable, successful East Harlem that people are excited about moving into.

"Our success has come from the point of the shareholders through the board taking action and following up to get our needs met. We don't need spectators--we need action," says Charles. "We still have some problems but the nightmares have ended. We have put together a system for seeing that things get done but of course, it's still a work in progress."

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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