Union sundown! Ratner risks losing labor support with prefab tower

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Developer Bruce Ratner has yet to birth a building at the Atlantic Yards site, but he’s already causing labor pains.

Unions are recoiling after learning that the mega-developer has been secretly planning a prefabricated tower at the Prospect Heights site — a decision that could significantly jeopardize hundreds of union jobs that Ratner promised to organized labor and their political supporters at a critical juncture in his project’s approval process.

The 34-story building at Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street — the first residential building in what is on paper is stll a $4.9-billion 16-skyscraper project — would be constructed using 900 modules, or prefabricated steel boxes, that would simply be stacked and bolted together, the New York Times reported last week.

This week, union members were the ones bolting — from Ratner.

“This was never part of the plan that was presented to us,” charged Richard Weiss, a spokesman for Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79. “If something is going to provide good jobs to our members, we are going to support a project. But, clearly, he’s changed how he is planning to go forward.”

It was the unions who loudly supported Ratner for years, trumpeting the hundreds of construction jobs that were slated to be filled by union workers during the decade it will take to build the project.

If the modular plan proceeds, union jobs would be considerably diminished, as most of the work is completed on a factory floor rather than on site of what would be the world’s tallest prefab building.

“Everything is built in one shot — the electrical, the plumbing — then they pick up the box with a crane and put it in place,” said Tony Buscema, president of the Brooklyn Board of Business Agents, which finds work for the building trade unions. “The building trades don’t get much out of it because the rooms are already completed.”

After the developer’s star-studded groundbreaking, union labor gushed about the project, noting that its peak, it could employ 2,500 construction workers at once.

This week, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an umbrella union, was hardly as effusive.

“We have obvious concerns about the safety and quality of modular construction for larger buildings as well as its impact on estimates for job creation, wages and benefits that have been central to the economic justification for projects advancing,” the group said in a statement.

But what’s bad for labor might be good for the developer.

The modular move could cut Ratner’s construction costs in half, according to the Times, as fewer and cheaper workers could build the structures.

That said, a modular construction approach would allow Ratner to add 400 units of affordable housing units, fulfilling the developer’s promise that 30 percent of the new apartments would be reserved low-to middle-income residents.

Ratner is bound by an agreement with the state to begin excavation by May 2013, or fork over up to $5 million in penalties for every year the project falls behind.

MaryAnne Gilmartin, Forest City’s executive vice president, stressed that the company is considering a conventional building along with the modular option.

“Modular technology is cutting edge, allowing for more sustainable and efficient development,” she said. “Particularly now, this could translate into more middle income, affordable and elderly housing.”

Ratner is already scouting sites in Queens to build a modular factory, according to the Times.

Steamfitters, were, well, steamed.

“I’m not crazy about it,” said Chris Sheeran, the union’s business agent.

And it’s not just about jobs — it’s also about safety, he said. “Things built from the ground up are going to be more sturdy.”

State and city officials agreed to subsidize the project to the tune of $300 million, in part because of its stated benefits: a basketball arena and thousands of union jobs — roughly 1,700 over a 10-year span.

But now, lawmakers are calling on the city to reconsider the $200 million it plans to direct toward the project — considering that modular construction would reduce total wages, and, therefore, tax revenues.

“It has become clear that city is very likely to lose many millions of dollars on this project, even as many of the contemplated benefits have evaporated,” said Councilman Brad Lander (D–Park Slope). “We need a new cost-benefit analysis before we proceed to put city taxpayer money into this project, just as we need real public oversight and accountabi­lity.”

The prefab development is the latest in a series of cost cutting moves critics say further tarnishes a project once billed as an architectural jewel.

In 2009, Yards architect Frank Gehry was sent packing and his glitzy, one-of-a-kind arena was “value” redesigned, as financing woes mounted.

In November, Ratner asked the city for an additional $10 million for the first residential tower, blaming a tough lending market.

The federal bribery complaint against state Sen. Carl Kruger also cast an unwanted spotlight on the project. According to prosecutors, Forest City Vice President Bruce Bender negotiated with Kruger for more state money for the project. Bender and Forest City have not been charged with any wrongdoing, though the company did employ lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who was arrested earlier this month with Kruger in connection with bribing public officials — and cops found $104,000 in cash in his home.

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Reader Feedback

Louis from Marine Park says:
You're surprised?

Did you think years and years of protest and court challenges and fuss by Park Slopers wouldn't be costly?

Ratner was fighting those Park Slope cry babies instead of employing construction workers to build Atlantic Yards.

Want somebody to blame? Talk to the co-op owner who waited for his million dollar payday for his trashy co-op instead of taking far market value.
March 22, 2011, 3:01 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Hearing this wouldn't surprise me. I sort of knew this was comming sooner or later. Seriously, prefad style has never been used on something so big, and there are concerns for that. It looks as if the sheep have been lead to the slaughterhouse. Then again, that's Ratner for you! Even if the court doesn't rule a construction stay, there might be one anyway with the strike over what's going on there now. This may not be what the oppostion wanted, but if it throws a wrench into the works, then it's works for me.
March 22, 2011, 4:53 pm
jj from brooklyn says:
get real, louis. ratner's entire project was a scam— which we're all paying for in hundreds of millions of dollar subsidies. and there was never going to be any consequential number of local jobs.
March 22, 2011, 5 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
The unfortunate part is that there are still people who believe everything they hear on this even with those promises being found to be lies.
March 22, 2011, 8:49 pm
Ian from Brooklyn says:
Louis - Atlantic Yards is not in Park Slope you ignoramus, it's in Prospect Heights. Do us a favor and stay in Marine Park.

That homeowner deserved every frickin' penny, if not more. To take property from one private citizen to give, just give, to another private citizen is state-enabled theft.

Ratner lies, plain and simple. He lies to the politicians, the unions and the residents of Brooklyn and New York City. Now yours and my taxes are paying for those lies. That's what you should be angry about.

Buyer's remorse yet?
March 23, 2011, 3 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Louis, were you living under a rock all these years on this? When Ratner wanted to acquire the properties he needed, he only gave them two choices. One of them was to accept whatever he gave them even if it was below the current market value, or he can get it through eminent domain, while just saying no was never an option. Why should a private developer be allowed to use a process that is only meant for public projects? BTW, if you read the AYR, Oder mentioned that FCR spent more on lobbying to the city and state to get what they wanted than DDDB did for having their lawsuits, and he present irrefutable proof for that. If you like this project so much, then maybe it should be built in your neighborhood instead. It's so easy to support something like this when your property isn't in the wrecking ball.
March 23, 2011, 6:24 pm
Steve Nitwitt from Sheepshead Bay says:
Norm has crossed the picket line and is now producing Atlantic Yards Report with a shiny new, nonunion laptop that was built in China.
March 23, 2011, 11:46 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Steve, there are unions that oppose this project as well, so nobody is being anti-union here just for taking the other side. This union is really a group of people who Ratner prehired, and are probably not even local, who believed everything they heard and acted as yesmen for him. Speaking of the Chineese, you are aware of the EB-5 Program that Oder was covering extensively, and it's likely that they will get the major jobs through this before anyone here does.
March 24, 2011, 9:23 pm
Steve Nitwitt's conscience says:
Sorry about that. I act like a jerk sometimes.
July 16, 2011, 7:42 am

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