Tensions rose at Montclair’s Hawthorne Towers earlier this summer when some of the tenants aired complaints about the new building owner and management team. But in recent weeks, the conflict has calmed somewhat. 

After several weeks of continued conversations and meetings with Councilman Peter Yacobellis, and new attempts to understand and settle ongoing disputes, communication between all parties involved has increased.  

On the night of Aug.15, Marc J. Watkins, the new owner and CEO of Rockledge Ventures LLC, held an hour and a half long town hall-style meeting with the tenants of Hawthorne Towers. Seated outside on the lawn of the building, Watkins went over the changes he has implemented and his plans for building renovations and about 50 tenants expressed their concerns.  

Watkins “was very open, transparent” and “answered questions,” said Stu Zakim, the meeting moderator and a 12-year tenant of Hawthorne Towers. “There was no fighting. He wants to reset the relationship. His actions always take precedence over words. So, we'll see.”  

Since Watkins purchased the building in late March, alterations have been made, including the replacement of door attendants with a new package room and intercom system, the addition of security cameras throughout the building, the implementation of a stricter parking policy, general construction and more. The rapid changes – although cosmetically and functionally may improve the look and operation of the building – have left some tenants feeling skeptical. 

“I think it's natural that people find it hard to trust a new landlord,” said Kate Haller, an eight-year Hawthorne Towers tenant. “I think we're still in the transition period. It's less than six months since he bought the building, and a lot of things have happened during that time.” 

Haller believes that one of the reasons for the initial tension between the tenants and owners was due to one of the first major changes – the elimination of the door attendants and the implementation of the high-tech Butterfly XM intercom system. “I think that sort of got things off to a bad start, because the first big change was a change that nobody liked,” Haller said. 

Although this upgrade is a hot topic of concern amongst distressed residents, not all Hawthorne Towers tenants agree the system is problematic. Sharon Doers, a 17-year Hawthorne Towers resident, believes the system brings a sense of organization to a previously disordered system. 

“I like the Butterfly system that Marc Watkins installed,” Doers said. “It’s technology!”

Doers said that Watkins had laid out the plan for the Butterfly XM system and the other changes he planned on making in the first meeting he held with tenants on March 25. He has had his staff hold a training session for the elderly tenants unfamiliar with the technology.   

“He said this was a community, he had an eye on this building, he admired the building and he was going to give the building that T.L.C.,” Doers said. “He laid out his plan. So, I don't know why people are complaining.” 

The ongoing disputes have divided the Hawthorne Towers community, Doers said, adding that some residents have accused her of being related to Watkins or a paid promoter of his work because she posted a positive review of his building updates to the Facebook group Secret Montclair. 

“The minute that Rockledge came here, people changed their attitudes,” Doers said. “The man invests $38 million dollars, brings his staff aboard, and people are all upset. Why? I have seen the improvements. I am impressed with the lobby. I'm impressed with the Butterfly system. I love the outdoors. I love to walk on the grounds. I'm proud. I'm a proud tenant of Hawthorne Towers.”

Although some residents are optimistic about Watkins’ vision for the building, the lingering tension between tenants led Watkins to the recent open discussion.  

“I think honestly, just having a forum to have a discussion – just for them to talk, for me to listen, and vice versa – I think that a lot of things can get fixed with better communication,” Watkins said. “So, I do feel that things are on a better track.”

At the meeting, one of the major talking points was the communication between tenants, Watkins and his management staff regarding work orders. According to the concerned tenants, major changes to the building, for the most part, are appreciated, but the little problems, such as faulty AC units and dripping faucets, are not being addressed in a timely manner. 

“On one hand, yes, it's nice the corridors look much better, cleaned up and with a new life, but your quality of life is more affected by whether your air conditioner is working or not,” Haller said. “So, it's a matter of priorities.” 

When this issue was presented to Watkins at the meeting, he addressed it with a new plan.  

“This is what I’m going to do,” Watkins said at the meeting. “I’m going to have Treasure (the building manager), once a week, print for me a list of all of the issues, whatever they are, in whatever category, so I can specifically look at it every Monday or every Friday to make sure the people aren’t waiting longer than they have to.” 

While the process of reporting issues via a management email was still met with some complaints, Watkins’ pitch to rectify the issue was met with a cheerful “hear, hear” and applause from the attending tenants.

Other major compromises were made at the meeting that show promise for Hawthorne Towers moving forward. Watkins embraced some of the traditions and atypical features of the residence that he has never considered at the other multifamily buildings he owns, one of which is allowing a resident to keep and maintain a community garden she established on the property. Watkins also offered to fully fund the community’s annual poolside barbeque and purchase new grills and a grill gazebo for safe outdoor cooking. 

“What I've come to realize, and even appreciate, is that, while the tenants of Hawthorne are a little bit on the needier end of the spectrum in terms of consistent communication, I do have some appreciation for the fact that they really care about where they live,” Watkins said. “And in that sense, our interests are perfectly aligned. It would be better to have people who really care about the property and every change, than to have a building with tenants that don't care.” 

He continued, “As I told the tenants in the first meeting, and as I told them again in their most recent meeting – a third of the things I do they're going to love, and they do, a third of the things I do they may be ambivalent about, and a third of the things we do, maybe they don't care about, or maybe even are opposed to, but, when you take a step back, and you look at the whole picture, they'll be very pleased that Rockledge owns the building.”  

While not all the issues at Hawthorne Towers have been rectified, tenants generally agreed that the conversations were a starting point to a middle ground. 

“It was a dialogue, but I wouldn't say it solved things,'' Haller said. “I think the best word to describe this is transition. We're in a transition, and it's rocky. Things will be better after a while.”