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Unions Livid Ratner Might Put Prefab Tower at Atlantic Yards

Union leaders lamented potential plans to build a 34-story prefab residential building at the Barclays Center site.

Local union workers are reeling from developer Bruce Ratner’s acknowledgement that the first residential building at the Atlantic Yards site may be prefabricated — a move that would cut costs, as well as hundreds of union jobs.

The revelation, reported by The New York Times, would cut construction costs in half by requiring a smaller workforce making significantly less money.

“We understood that there would be a certain number of jobs generated by this project that would in turn support the local economy. Clearly farming out modular housing does not do any of those things,” said Richard Weiss, a spokesman for Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79. “The union supports projects based on one criteria only: are there jobs for our members in this project? If that’s not the case, then we’re not going to support it.”

Other union representatives were equally dismayed.

“It would be disappointing, very disappointing,” said Edward Walsh, president of the New York State District Council of Iron Workers, which works on the site of the $4.9 billion, 16-tower mega project at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. “There are a lot less jobs for iron workers if this is built prefab.”

By commencing construction of the 34-story tower off-site, Ratner would fulfill a commitment to begin building affordable housing by the middle of 2013.

Maryanne Gilmartin, excutive vice president at Forest City Ratner, said the developer remained committed to union labor. She added that the developer hopes to begin construction by the end of the year, regardless of construction method.

“While we are still designing out the building for conventional construction we are
exploring the modular option as well,” said Gilmartin. “Modular technology is cutting edge, allowing for more sustainable and efficient development. This could translate into more middle income, affordable and elderly housing. And that also means more union jobs.”

But project opponents weren’t buying it.

“Now comes the latest casualty among Forest City Ratner’s endless string of cynical, empty, broken promises – a large chunk of the relentlessly touted construction jobs,” read a press release from Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a coalition of project opponents.

Others echoed the feeling that Ratner had deceived locals from the surrounding neighborhoods with promises of a project that would bring thousands of jobs.

“Most of us never believed that the amount of jobs that they asserted were likely, but it seems to be even fewer than we imagined,” said Joanne Simon of Brooklyn Speaks, another coalition of opponents. “This is a very serious concern to the labor pool who was supposed to get 17,000 jobs on this.”

Another issue sure to rear its head is the unprecedented nature of a prefabricated 34-story building. The tallest prefab building is only 25 stories tall, according to the Times.

“We believe the time-tested ground up erected steel frame provides for far greater safety than the proposed untested prefab option at 34 stories,” said Walsh. “It is our fervent hope that Forest City Ratner will build the entirety of The Atlantic Yards project without using a prefab option.”

However Tom O’Hara, business development officer at the Fort Greene-based Capsys, which has constructed 1,900 units of modular housing in Brooklyn (including those 32 three-story brick townhouses just north of the Atlantic Yards), argues that modular buildings are just as solid as traditionally built towers.

He also argued that modular building is quieter and less disruptive to the neighborhood because most of the work is done off site.

“I know there’s some sensitivity to the idea of jobs being lost but my factory is union, our guys are Brooklyners.”

He argued that his factory provides year-round, indoor jobs with more consistent hours – and that some of his workers even choose his factory over the construction site.

Still, union leaders weren’t swayed by the idea.

“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,” said a spokesperson for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater NY via E-mail.  

“Forest City Ratner has been a developer using union labor of the building and construction trades for many years, and it is on this basis that we have consistently supported projects its pursues.”

Kristen V. Brown contributed to this report.

cjohnson March 18, 2011 at 09:30 PM
Modular housing is a proven method of efficient and cost effective housing construction. This union argument is transparent and one of the main reasons unions have a bad name. Come on!

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