Friday, February 26, 2010

Redrawing Their Plans

Architects reflect on careers changed by housing crisis

By Joseph Kellard

Since the 2008 financial collapse, architect Mark Geiselman has had to go back to the drawing board — literally. The Long Beach resident, who has owned the Islip-based firm OCJ Architects for 11 years, had to cut his already small staff a year ago and become reacquainted with a T-square and a drafting pencil.

“I’ve absolutely had to start drawing again,” Geiselman said of blueprints he would otherwise pass off to an apprentice. “And that’s always difficult to do because you’re always trying to run the business and draw up work. I just sit at the drafting table all day.”

Since the nation’s sub-prime mortgage crisis began in 2007 — before which housing prices were generally increasing yearly — architects, the first link in the chain of new construction, have been hit as hard as real estate agents and contractors. Geiselman, whose firm draws an even mix of residential and commercial clients from Suffolk County to Connecticut, started to feel the pain in early 2008, and a year later he began laying off workers.

Today, he said, his firm is seeing a slight uptick on the commercial side, since depressed prices have made leasing space more affordable. But in general, he added, greater restrictions on bank loans have impacted both categories, but especially residential. This is particularly an issue in areas like Nassau County, where architects and contractors deal mostly with developed acreage and existing homes.

During the pre-2007 seller’s market, homeowners capitalized on rising property values and built up substantial equity, while banks lent freely for home additions. Now, with the bursting of the housing bubble, buying a home is no longer seen as a guaranteed investment.

“One reason people are hesitant do anything is the difficulty in getting the financing, and the other is that they’re not sure they’re going to get the equity out of it when it’s all done,” Geiselman said of homeowners looking to build in the current buyer’s market. “People are concerned about their home values, and that’s severely affected us.”

Monte Leeper, an Oceanside architect who has owned a firm for 25 years and writes the Ask the Architect column for the Herald, said he believes the housing crisis has led more homeowners to go forward with work on their houses — usually interior work that can not be seen from outside — without obtaining the necessary permits or hiring licensed engineers and architects, whether to save time, money or taxes. As a result, Leeper said, he and other architects have seen all kinds of defective work and safety issues.

“People go out and buy tools and start to do work or they hire a contractor who really isn’t qualified,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who call themselves licensed and qualified, but they end up using the wrong materials or tools for the problem you’re trying to correct ... We’re not a necessary evil. We’re actually a contributing factor to saving people money, yet the average person doesn’t even know that.”

The Town of Hempstead, which oversees county building and zoning issues, reports a marked downturn in building permit applications, which are issued for any plans from the foundation up as well as variances for existing structures. In 2005, the town received and processed 6,819 building applications. In 2008 there were 5,734. And from October 2008, following the financial collapse, through December 2009, a 15-month span, there were 6,226 applications.

“It would be purely speculative to make guesses as to why applications are down,” said town spokeswoman Susan Trenkle-Pokalsky, “but it’s a reasonable thought that the downturn in the economy has impacted that.”

Architect Robert Hochberg of East Meadow said homeowners have long skirted building permits to keep extensions, dormers and other additions out of town records in order to save on taxes. But with the microscope on assessments this past decade and homeowners trying to sell their houses in a down market, Hochberg said, he does more work drawing plans for additions that homeowners now looking to sell failed to file with the Building Department.

“People think, If I don’t get a permit, the assessors won’t know about it and so my assessment won’t go up,” said Hochberg, who has been in business since 1970. “But that’s not necessarily true.”

For George Bella, who has owned GWB Architect in Long Beach since 2001, and who has seen an increased in business from sellers looking to legalize previous construction, the past 18 months have been mainly about homeowners looking to build out of necessity rather than luxury. “Your family is getting bigger and you need an extra bedroom -- you still have to do those projects,” said Bella, who drafts mostly residential and public projects. “What’s different now is that people aren’t looking to do more than what is minimally required for their own purposes.”

Unlike architects who try to keep an even mix of residential and commercial projects, about 80 percent of the plans Henry Monteverde was drawing before the downturn were residential, and he has since lost about 25 percent of his business. “We’ve been affected because with the mortgages being so tight and no money available, projects aren’t going ahead,” said Monteverde, who opened a firm in Island Park in 1991. “Therefore, everything is curtailed.”

Monteverde added that because he has a small firm, with just two employees, and little overhead, he has been able to weather the financial storm and has been fortunate enough to switch to mostly commercial projects, including offices, medical facilities and retail stores. But that hasn’t necessarily been by design, so to speak.

“That’s just want came in,” he said.

Mixing Pleasure with Business

Networkers relax at event held at Allegria lounge

By Joseph Kellard

Guests sipped wine more than they handed out business cards and engaged in personal conversations more than they talked shop. This relaxed atmosphere was what hosts of a business networking event were aiming for at the Allegria Hotel last week.

While a fireplace roared and a pianist played dinner tunes on a white Steinway in a lounge, hosts Janet Slavin and Alice Leybengrub, two local businesswomen who sponsored the evening event, mingled and schmoozed with dozens of businesspeople from Long Beach and neighboring towns.

“It’s about getting people to come in, have a good time, have some drinks, meet each other without the pressure of these networking groups,” said Leybengrub, who owns an accounting firm in Long Beach.

The mix of enterprising men and, mostly, women rubbed elbows on white sofas in the candle-lit room with a sky-blue carpet and an octagonal skylight that looked out onto the Long Beach night sky. The elegant setting was a far different from the first meeting Slavin and Leybengrub hosted at the narrow, seatless Evers Place art gallery in the West End last fall, when some 30 people stopped by.

After declaring it a success, the duo wanted to try something more spacious and upscale. For some, the allure of the second meeting wasn’t just the luxury hotel.

“I went to the last networking event they had and I just fell for Alice, because she’s such a mover and a shaker,” said Dr. Jo Eisman, whose chiropractic office is on East Park Avenue. “She’s young and energetic and she’s a doer. So anything Alice does I want to go to. She’s like a magnet.”

Eisman, a member of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce for 25 years, is a regular at the networking events. But networking for her now is as much about socializing as it is about business. “I’m at a point in my career where I don’t really need to do anything,” Eisman said about promoting her business. “It’s fun to come to the hotel and I love to meet new and interesting people. There are a lot of interesting people here tonight — I can hardly get past the door.”

Both Leybengrub and Slavin cited building relationships as the purpose of their gatherings. “It’s to get business owners more acquainted with each other, because I guess we feel that the Chamber of Commerce is all well and good, but it doesn’t really suit everybody’s needs in the community,” said Slavin, an attorney with offices in Long Beach and Manhattan.

A hypnotist who opened an office on West Park Avenue two years ago, Bernadette Martin met a man at the get- together who owns a solar panel company, and they chatted about possible ways their businesses could mesh.

“Coming here is really about getting your message out, and talking to people and letting them know where you are and what you’re doing and how you might work together,” said Martin, who is involved with Long Beach’s newly formed environmental committee.

Alisa Bracksmayer, a Long Beach resident who works with a mortgage company in Rockville Centre, had attended a networking event hosted by the Rockville Centre Chamber of Commerce the night before. Living down the block from the Allegria, she decided to take up the e-mailed invitation to the Jan. 13 meeting at the hotel.

Bracksmayer said that networking helps her get referrals and lets her know what’s going on in other businesses. Admittedly frightened by the still gloomy economy, she said that when she drives around town these days, she doesn’t notice what stores are in business, but rather those that are vacant and for rent. “I see it in the mortgage business, I see it in people calling up who want help but can’t get help,” Bracksmayer said. “It’s sad, so why wouldn’t you want to help promote business within the community where you live?”

Slavin and Leybengrub quieted the din to speak to the crowd for a few minutes, explaining and promoting their businesses and speaking briefly about the reasons behind their meetings.

When asked about their next steps, the duo said they weren’t necessarily forming a networking group or business organization.

“We’re trying to get local business owners to really get to know and build relationships with one another, in any economy but especially now,” Leybengrub said. “I think these are the type of events that are going to help bring more business to Long Beach ... I think people are tired of going to all these structured events with long speeches.”

Another Heroin Death

Experts voice concern as use increases in L.B.

By Joseph Kellard

While no one may be dealing heroin in Long Beach, some local people are overdosing on the drug.

“Our intelligence tells us that to get heroin, you have to go outside Long Beach,” said Inspector Bruce Meyer, a Police Department spokesman. That conclusion is based in part on police interviews with the handful of people who were arrested last year for heroin possession, and said they scored the drug elsewhere.

That was also the LBPD’s finding when it investigated two recent heroin-related deaths in the city.

On Dec. 11, police found a 23-year-old woman dead in her home, and on Jan. 12, they found a 19-year-old woman in the same circumstances.
Both appeared to have injected themselves, and investigators
determined that they had purchased the heroin in either Queens or,
more likely, Brooklyn, Meyer said.

The deaths are signs of an upswing in heroin use, not just in Long
Beach but county- and nationwide, and local authorities are stepping up prevention efforts to try to quell the potential epidemic. In recent years, use of the drug, particularly among young people ages 16 to 19, has been on the rise.

With some 400 people arrested for possession or distribution around Nassau County in 2009, the theory that the drug is confined to urban areas and a narrow demographic has been discarded. Heroin was once sold openly on street corners in crime-ridden neighborhoods, but now it is crossing all ethnic, economic and racial lines, and is bought and sold in restrooms at fast-food restaurants, gas stations and schools.

“These were your average people who go and buy their drugs in New York City and then they come back and, in the privacy of their homes, they’re injecting themselves with heroin,” Meyer said of the two Long Beach victims.

People involved in treating heroin addicts say the gateway to the
drug is right in their family bathroom. Patricia Hincken, director of alcohol and substance abuse at the Long Beach Medical Center, said that the volume of prescription painkillers being prescribed to
people statewide has increased more than 150 percent over the past decade.

“There are so many of them now, and doctors have a tendency to write very big scrips in order to save people potential co-pays they might have,” Hincken explained. “Where they might have given someone eight pills in the past, they’re now giving them 100. And they have them lying around medicine cabinets and kids are aware of it.”

Hincken described how young people take their parents’ OxyContin or other prescription opiates along with tranquilizers, such as Xanax or valium, bring them to “pharm” parties and put all the pills in a bowl where users take handfuls of them as if they were M&Ms. But these drugs have become prohibitively expensive on the street, with some single pills going for as much as $40, and teenagers are looking for a cheaper high and find it in heroin, which can sell for as little as $5 for a small packet.

“The dealers move in and it’s so highly addictive that the users
start spinning out of control, especially the younger kids who aren’t long-term, experienced users of heroin, so they’re more likely to make a mistake in how much they take and they overdose,” Hincken said.

But Hincken is quick to note that alcohol and marijuana are still
the main drugs of choice among Long Beach’s youth and adults.
Dr. Joseph Smith, director of Long Beach Reach, a state- and county-funded community agency, said that while heroin use has increased in Long Beach, it does not approach the level of an epidemic in town.

“It’s here, it’s not that we’re immune from it, but it’s not been a
dramatic or significant increase,” said Smith, who described Long
Beach Reach’s outpatient chemical dependency treatment program its largest program.

The medical center, which has an in-patient detox facility and
outpatient substance-abuse services, was working with the Police
Department to assemble a packet of information on heroin that they planned to make available to the community this week. Similar efforts will continue right up to the annual coalition-sponsored National Town Hall Meeting on Underage Drinking, on March 16 at 7 p.m. at the Long Beach Library, which will highlight prescription drug and heroin abuse as well as underage drinking. The event will feature Dr. Stephen Dewey, a leading researcher on the effects of alcohol and drugs on the adolescent brain.

“What we want to make sure is none of the main message gets lost, because it’s all connected,” Judy Vining, coordinator of the Long Beach Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking at the medical center said. “It’s very easy to wrap your brain around how horrible heroin is, and I’m not minimizing that in the least. But alcohol is still the number one killer of kids, and it’s all connected in some ways.”

Hincken also chairs a subcommittee on the treatment of heroin
addiction for a heroin treatment task force run by the Nassau County district attorney’s office. The LBPD’s Narcotics Task Force and School Resource Unit will work with the schools and medical center to keep heroin use from spiraling out of control, Meyer said. The police also look to partner with the Drug Enforcement Administration to educate youth about the dangers of the drug.

And as always, Meyer said, detectives are running down every lead related to heroin possession and dealing. “We have confidential informants working out there,” he said. “The information that we’re getting is that it’s not of epidemic proportions.”