In most respects, Robert M. Gardner is a typical divorced man in his 50s with a good job (as a program analyst with the General Services Administration). But his life is not his own.
Gardner is president of the Council of Co-Owners of Place One, A high-Rise condominium in south Alexandria, and it takes up about 30 hours of his time every week.
"I get calls in the middle of the night," he said with a sigh. "For instance, the chiller on top of the building was throbbing. It was a fairly minor problem but I had to get in touch with the building engineer."
One of his fellow activists at Place One said that the interested owners are fairly few. "Bob is king of the worker bees," said Jerry Wilkerson. "He can't even go to a wine and cheese social here without hearing a lot of complaints, mostly minor, from fellow owners or tenants."
Since he became president of the owner group in January, Gardner has been concerned chiefly about management, maintenance and repair of the five-year-old, 300-unit, 16-story building at 5500 Holmes Run Pkwy.
Gardner and other occupants said that the management has improved since the H.G. Smithy Co. was hired three months ago. So far, resident manager Wanda Demont and property manager Edward Batchelor get good marks from Gardner and others.
"But the basic physical condition of the building is another matter," Gardner said. Wilkerson and other occupant-owners agree - so much so that 80 owners recently filed a $825,000 lawsuit against the former owner, Union Bank of Los Angeles. The suit charges the bank with misrepresentation in the selling of individual condo units.
Union Bank acquired the property three years ago in a foreclosure sale against the original developer, the McCarthy Co., which had financial problems. Gardner said the building was acquired at a public sale, where the bank made the only bid, for $7.2 million. Gardner and the other Place One plaintiffs charge that the bank later misled buyers by saying there were no major problems with the building.
In fact, Gardner said, "The bank sold out and walked out, leaving us holding the bag." He said the principal problems are leaks in outside walls, water back-ups in kitchen sinks, poor drainage around the underground garage and sinking of a section of the outdoor tennis court.
The condo owners are seeking $625,000 in compensatory damages for faulty workmanship and $200,000 more for punitive damages.
Attorneys for the bank would not comment on the suit.
But whatever the problems with Place One, Gardner said that he and other owner-occupants still regard it as a "really nice place to live." He cited the convenient location, the recreation facilities and the favorable mortgages (6.9 percent interest for the first five years and then 9 percent - but without right of assumption by repurchasers).
"I'd buy here again, honestly," Gardner said. "But there's no reason why the building should not have been better built or given better warranty protection.Originally, some of the subcontractors did not get paid. So that was a construction problem."
Wilkerson added that building specifications were not totally enforced by the Alexandria government. He cited "irregular plumbing and corner cutting."
Gardner and Wilkerson also pointed out that Place One residents are becoming more politically active in Alexandria and that residents cast 121 out of 600 votes in their precinct in a recent election. "All the candidates who appeared at a meeting here were elected," Wilkerson added.
The Reason for political activity is the result of what Gardner perceives as "condo owners having special situations. We have our own regulations as a condo group and also have city ordinances. Our trash pick-up situation is unusual because of a pick-up problem. As a result, we have to pay for it ourselves. He also said that taxes went up 9 percent last year but acknowledged that increases had been greater in some other Alexandria neighborhoods.
One-third of the Place One units are rented out by their owners. A one-bedroom apartment rents for about $375 - and the building is fully occupied. As an owner of a one-bedroom unit on the 14th floor, Gardner said his condo fee is $142 a month and his principal, interest and insurance payment $335. He said that the total budget for the condominium council is about $700,000 annually, with most of it going for electricity and heating oil. "But we're trying to conserve energy now," he added. "Our reserve fund is low."
Place One has a large pool, an exercise room, two tennis courts and switchboard and doorman services. "Security is good," Gardner said.
But, he maintains, "Not enough of our owners and tenants show special interest in the building.
"I take the attitude that nothing comes free. I've been with the government 36 years and I've always done my share of work. I got involved here as an owner and then was elected vice president and then president of the council. Would I run again? It's too early to tell. I do know that there's satisfaction in making improvements. But the job isn't done yet."
Meanwhile, Gardner is starting to gray at the temples. "God bless him," said Wilkerson. "We differ sometimes on issues but he's doing an almost thankless job doing it well." CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Gardner, honcho of Alexandria's Place One condominium. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Gardner says the sidewalk at Place One has been settling unevenly. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post