In February, before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, talk among the condo board at Palace Pier was of various news reports piling in. Wuhan. Most of China. All of a sudden, Italy.
“It was very mysterious and scary in the sense that nobody really knew what to expect, and nobody really knew what the ultimate ramifications were,” says Condo Board President Al Pace. “We seriously thought we needed to look into this matter and be on top of it and, frankly, get ahead of it.”
There were under 15 confirmed cases in Canada at the time when Board Secretary Thelma Beam walked down to the lobby and saw the property manager had placed hand sanitizer stations everywhere. That was two weeks before any official confirmation on March 11. “I thought to myself, I guess it’s here now. We then realized we were in a situation that was going to get a lot worse.”
Emails that were bouncing back and forth between the board members—what they should be doing, how they should be doing it—swiveled into weekly COVID-related Zoom meetings, starting at 9 a.m. every Friday and lasting for one hour.
“During that [initial] meeting, we found it to be incredibly productive; each and every one of us had been bringing more facts and information to the table to consider, and then we decided we should have a meeting the following week; it was very organic,” says Pace. “Nothing will be able to replace seeing the other member in-person, even if it is electronically.”
Palace Pier stands in the Humber Bay Shores neighbourhood of Toronto. When it was designed in 1978, the 433-unit, 46-floor tower was the tallest residential building in Canada at the time. According to its website, residents can walk, jog or cycle on the Martin Goodman Trail, which runs along the water and through parkland. Dining and entertainment are within walking distance as well as marinas, boating and the TTC’s Humber loop.
This year, residents have been spending a lot more time at home. How they were kept up-to-date with weekly highlights was one reason why CCI Toronto and Area Chapter recently named Palace Pier Condo of the Year 2020. Of the condos’ response to the pandemic, Chair of CCI-Toronto’s Marketing Committee Farzad Lahouti said, “As a condo director myself, I can’t help but be impressed at what Palace Pier has accomplished.”
“Palace Pier Responds With Covid-19 Plan” was the title of a newsletter sent out in February to the community. Beam, who is the editor, remembers wanting to call it the “pandemic edition”; instead it was deemed a “special edition” because the WHO hadn’t yet officialized it. A first sentence, “Coronavirus is here in Ontario. Should we be worried?” begins a long list of facts and to-dos, including a sanitizer recipe and advice for residents returning from affected areas.
“We have a lot of travelers here. So we wanted to make sure that people knew what they had to do when they returned,” she says. “We couldn’t take the risk—that people wouldn’t take it seriously and do nothing.”
Property management and the security department sat down and compiled a list of travelers, many of whom spend winters in the U.S. Others were in China or Europe; some in hot spots. The team then called people to find out their plans for returning.
“As soon as we had that schedule in place, we contacted every single person and helped them with accommodations here as much as we could,” says Senior Property Manager Donald Balla. “When they were quarantined, we followed-up with them on a daily basis to see how they were doing.”
As normal operating procedures like the valet service grinded to a halt, rather than furlough anyone, valets were re-deployed with different duties, such as delivering mail, groceries and packages, and picking up garbage for those in quarantine. The valets also took on specific cleaning routines, a need which had ramped up considerably.
“Seeing the valet personnel cleaning the elevator buttons from inside and outside every time someone left the elevator created a sense of security for the owners,” says Balla. “They really felt comfortable that our board and management were taking every action possible to keep them safe.”
One of the first protocols implemented at Palace Pier was shutting down amenities in early March.
“A lot of people thought that was a little draconian, but in retrospect, it ended up being the right thing to do,” says Pace. “We were kind of going out on a limb, but we had the full consensus of the entire board; we knew it wouldn’t be the most popular decision with all of our residents, but we knew it was the right thing to do.”
To close or not to close. To re-open or not to re-open. Those were questions many condos were mulling over in the past few months. “There were some critics who suggested we shut everything down very quickly,” says Pace. “Even though we were among the first, if not the first building (under Crossbridge Condominium Services’ portfolio), to shut down all of our amenities, we were also one of the first to start re-opening our amenities on a very case-by-case and surgical basis.”
“Our community is a bit of a dichotomy in the sense that there are people who want to keep everything shut down and people who can’t have it open up quickly enough,” says Beam. “We have to tread a very fine line in how we manage this.”
In light of wavering restrictions [at the time this article was written Toronto was in a modified Stage Two], there is dismay when having to take a step back. Some residents in the building “felt the whole pandemic ruling was overblown and [they] should get back to ‘business as usual,’ as quickly as possible,” says Beam. A majority, however, wants the board to take necessary precautions to keep the building safe.
“We get that people are feeling frustrated. There is bound to be frustration and fear of further restrictions. We sympathize,” she says. “But at the end of the day, the corporation must comply with the law.”
At its weekly Friday COVID meetings, the condo board assesses amenities to see if any are affected by new legislation.
“As a manager, I find these board meetings to be the best thing I have experienced in my career in the condo industry,” says Balla. “The way we discuss things and the way that we reach conclusions are so beneficial to me and my staff.”
He recalls someone asking him a few months ago if anyone from the board worked for the government. “This is how important those COVID meetings with the board were because we were steps ahead; every time the government made a formal decision, we had already done it.”
“Even though there are more meetings, you sort of get a lot of things done that would take up a tremendous amount of time at a board meeting,” adds Pace. He cites Zoom as one silver lining to the crisis. “We never did that before, and this really gives us a lot more flexibility. Going forward, we’re going to be able to have our meetings anyplace, anytime, and having shorter meetings to deal with issues of importance is going to be something we’ll be able to do more often.”
Pre-pandemic, the board has always strived to be on top of issues as they arise.
“Proactivity is something we’ve always been conscious of and sensitive to,” says Pace. “We’ve got a great board though; it’s a functional board. That isn’t always the case; there are some different factions in different buildings. Even though everyone on the board has some strong opinions, we’ve got common sense and allow everyone to completely voice their opinions and positions and the facts they’re basing their suggestions on. We always move forward on a consensus basis; it’s a huge strength that we have.”