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Can a prefab skyscraper work well with the urban landscape? "You can, but it's not been done yet," professor tells Brian Lehrer

The biggest Atlantic Yards news this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show was the blunt statement by Rafael Cestero, Commissioner of the city Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development, that his department felt an additional housing subsidy request by Forest City Ratner "was not a good public investment."

But there were some enlightening moments in another segment, Pre-Fab At Atlantic Yards, notably observations that it's difficult to create an esthetically satisfying modular tower, and Forest City Ratner is working in uncharted territory.

Lehrer started off the discussion by pointing out that the developer is considering a 34-story modular tower, the tallest in the world. Modular construction is untested at this height and, while it could cut construction costs in half, unionized construction workers would lose many jobs they expected.

"Charles Bagli joins me now," Lehrer said. "He's the reporter at the New York Times whose been covering the many twists in this troubled development project."

Actually, Bagli's covered the project quite episodically, and was never seen to a court hearing or public hearing of the Empire State Development Corporation. (He did go to some hearings and meetings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)

What's in the plan

"The steel is already rising for the arena, but there's another part of the project that people were promised, 6300 some [actually 6430] units of housing, at least 30 percent of which would be for poor, working class, and even middle class New Yorkers. They would be subsidized apartments," Bagli said.

"Ratner's had a difficult time getting the financing for even the first of those residential buildings," he added. "So, in the course of sorta scrambling around, he came upon this idea of doing a modular building, as a way of cutting down his labor costs, his construction costs, and making good on his promise to build housing."

"But it presents a number of challenge, both technology wise, and, on the other hand, this project was supposed to provide thousands and thousands of construction jobs. This is one of the reasons why state and the city agreed to provide the project with about $300 million in direct subsidies."

The city now calculates that at $279 million, though the numbers are questionable.

Fewer jobs

Lehrer asked how many fewer workers.

"It's hard to say, but it would be substantially fewer," Bagli said. "The 17,000 jobs, they add every year so many thousands of jobs, and it all adds up to 17,000. The actual number of workers at any one time is considerably less. "

First, it's job-years and second, it doesn't. The 17,000 figure is only if the project is built as proposed and even with that, the estimate may be way overoptimistic.

The modular construction jobs, Bagli said, might be union jobs, "but the rate of pay is much lower in a factory than it is out on a construction site... maybe $34 an hour in wages and benefits versus $84 an hour."

"I know that the Ratner team has looked at a variety of ways of doing this: one is do that sort of factory shop rate; another is to have a mix of workers--some would be on-site carpenters, construction workers, some getting in neighborhood of $80 an hour, and then a bunch of factory workers. They have not looked at doing it all on-site, construction rate."

The urban design perspective

Aseem Inam, associate professor of urbanism at Parsons The New School of Design, was asked about prefab.

"Prefab has been around for a very long time, including high rises... one of the first skyscrapers to be built with prefab elements was the Empire State Building," Inam responded. "The most famous prefab multi-story apartment building is from 1976, Habitat 76, in Montreal... so the question becomes, why has it not caught on? One of the reasons is because of a certain stigma to it, in terms of people wanting to actually live there."

"I think one has to be very cautious not to obsess only with the technology, but the design of it, both in terms of the people who will live there, and the neighborhood," he added.

Lehrer noted that the tallest current modular building is a 25-story dormitory (right) in England. "Are there structural concerns?"

Inam didn't answer the question but focused instead on the design: who's going to live there and what's the neighborhood going to look like.

"Can you make a good looking prefab skyscraper that works well with the urban landscape?" Lehrer asked.

"You can, but it's not been done yet," Inam responded. "The obsession with cost and technology, which is legitimate, is at the cost of the design." He noted that, with a student dormitory, the residents have no choice.

I'd point out that those seeking subsidized housing also often have no choice. The challenge for Forest City Ratner would be to rent market-rate units in the pre-fab buildings. Or maybe the rents would be so low--thanks to new construction techniques--that they'll draw people.

Ratner's record

Lehrer returned to Bagli and asked, "Politically, who trusts Bruce Ratner to be the first person to build an esthetically pleasing prefab tower that fits in with the urban landscape?"

"He definitely up to this point has not scored a lot of points on esthetics," Bagli responded. "Mr. Gehry, the world famous architect that started with the project, of course, is gone now. His arena was redesigned by another firm."

Note that that's Forest City Ratner's record in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, Frank Gehry designed FCR's Beekman Tower, and Renzo Piano did the Times Tower.

"In the abstract, the notion of building modular housing is a good one, because we're going to need more housing and theoretically, it could be more cost effective," Bagli added. "But I also wonder, as you were talking about the dormitory in England, I see how the steel frame system works for dormitories, or maybe even for one-bedroom apartments, but how do you start building two- and three-bedroom apartments with that? It really complicates the logistics, I'd imagine."

Subsidy issues

Lehrer asked if the city could reevaluate subsidies in light of the reduction in construction costs.

Bagli pointed out that the "cash subsidy of $300 million from the state and the city has already been delivered," but Cestero was referencing standard housing subsidies.

"At Atlantic Yards, Mr Ratner has tried to get an additional sum of money to make his project work financially, and the city has turned him down," Bagli said. "Who knows what will happen in the future."

Presumably, Bagli's "make his project work financially" referred to Ratner's perspective on desired returns; the city made its own evaluation. And Bagli's "who knows" statement leaves open the opportunity for Cestero's successor, nudged by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, to add new subsidies.

"He does have deadlines, the first building has to be started by 2013. They had told us earlier that they would start it by this time," Bagli added. "Now they're talking about starting the first residential building by the end of the year. But I think that's really still up in the air.

New modular business?

Lehrer asked if modular construction could be a locally-based export business.

Inam was skeptical. "One of the biggest costs of modular is transportation. So where the factory is located," he said, "there's a limitation of how far they can supply those modular units."

"The construction industry is changing, in terms of cost and technology," he added. "One of the things the union might consider is training the union members for these new kind of jobs. Some of them may be more high skilled: using computers to design and build these kind of units."

Betraying the unions?

"The construction unions were among the biggest supporters of the Atlantic Yards project when it was going through the approval process. because they were expecting all these jobs," Lehrer asked. "Has he sold the unions down the river with this new plan, and I know the opponents of Atlantic Yards are out there saying, if this is how he treats his friends, dot dot dot."

"Well, I think that, at least initially, there's a sense of betrayal there, you went to all these stormy Community Board meetings, that went on for years, you had the opposition with their chanting, and then you had the construction workers, these brawny guys, taking up a lot of chairs, and they're chanting jobs, jobs, jobs,' so there is a sense of betrayal, at least initially," Bagli responded.

Hold on. Most of those meetings were hearings sponsored by the Empire State Development Corporation, as the project evaded the city's land use review project, so Community Boards had no official role and a very light presence. Bagli himself never went to a meeting in Brooklyn, as far as I remember.

And the construction workers weren't just shouting about jobs. They were shouting nasty things about Atlantic Yards opponents like "[Daniel] Goldstein's got to go."

"On the other hand, when you're talking about building this, it is sort of an interesting opportunity for modular housing," Bagli said in closing, "because he's going to build, what, 17 buildings there, and he's looking for a factory in Long Island City, where you would be creating these steel-framed boxes that would be stacked on top of each other."

"He doesn't have to go out to Long Island, he doesn't have to go out to Jersey. That's if you can make this cost effective. The taller you go, the more you lose some of the gains as opposed to regular construction."


  1. I don't know what I'm capable of hurting or helping.

    I'd be in favor of taking any money we saved by going overseas for the steel beams and then taking an amount that would have gone to Americans or unions and then giving them a 40th of what was saved and give it to them for doing nothing. Or, if a guy says, I won't work but a tenant says I'll pay for 40 years to have that unit then the tenant signs a document that he owes that worker a percentage saved for making the building as fast and as cheap as possible. some kind of terms that work for people...a blend. But easier said than paperworked and divied. How would each union worker like to have a temp. assistant or apprentice?

  2. FYI, the factory would be local, not overseas.


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