Union workers are coming to Bruce Ratner’s rescue — again! — agreeing to take massive pay cuts to pave the way for the first residential building at Atlantic Yards, a cut-rate, pre-fabricated tower to rise next to the Barclays Center.
Labor unions provided crucial support for Ratner when his controversial, $5-billion project was moving through the approval process five years ago in exchange for a promise of high-paying jobs. But the agreement currently being negotiated between union leaders and Ratner, workers would give up millions of dollars in pay to allow the developer to move forward with the cheaper, modular building.
It is unclear how much money will be lost to laborers, but carpenters make as much as $90 an hour in wages and benefits at real construction sites, but only $30 per hour when working inside the kind of factory where Ratner will build the pre-fabricated units.
Many union leaders merely shrugged when asked about the pay cuts, suggesting that if the workers don’t give back, the project might not go ahead, leaving laborers with no work at all.
“We are attempting to reach an agreement … that will work for the building trades,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
A labor union source translated LaBarbera for those who don’t speak the language of press releases.
“The unions are going to do what it takes to preserve jobs for their members,” said the source. “The wage scale is ultimately going to be [the deciding factor]. This is going to be a long process.”
Ratner released renderings last week of a 32-story modular building rising at the corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, just south of his under-construction $1-billion basketball arena. The building would be the tallest pre-fab structure on the planet.
Two identical-looking pre-fab building would come later — and one of them would be 50-plus stories, which would break its predecessor’s height record for Lego–style towers.
Ratner says he will begin construction early next year, with ground-breakings for the others following at six to nine-month intervals after that — the first of three residential buildings in the long stalled, 16-tower development.
The first tower would be constructed using 930 pre-fabricated steel boxes known as modules that would be built in a factory and transported to Dean Street, where they would be bolted into place.
Ratner hailed the method, which he said would cut costs by up to 25 percent, but union members would face far bigger pay cuts.
Unions had supported the project from the outset because of its promise of thousands of jobs. Those same union supporters are already angered by a shortfall of positions on the project.
The pre-fab design would also save money because it would take less time to build: the world’s tallest modular building, a 25-story dormitory in Wolverhampton, England, was built in less than one year.
But the project faces significant design challenges, according to architects who reviewed the renderings.
“The modules would have to be built on an assembly line basis and that capacity doesn’t really exist [on this size],” said Jim Garrison, whose modular design firm in DUMBO declined an offer from Ratner last year to help produce the plan. “The rational thing to do is build a 20-story building and test these things out before building a 30-story tower.”
Longtime critics of Atlantic Yards slammed the plan.
“It’s another despicable slight to the community surrounding the project by eliminating more crucial jobs for residents,” said Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Fort Greene).
James and others felt similarly slighted by the notion that a project that was once meant to be an architectural showcase by legendary designer Frank Gehry will now comprise far more mundane pre-fab buildings.
Gehry was fired in 2009 in a cost-saving move.
Ratner’s spokesman Joe DePlasco said that the developer will begin to seek financing for the first building, but declined to comment further.
Reach reporter Daniel Bush at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2531.