Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Observer finds support and skepticism regarding Forest City's modular plans, ignores some lingering questions raised by company's announcement

So, does the New York Observer's 12/7/11 article, The Mod Squad: Will Bruce Ratner Transform the Way New York Builds, or Is Prefab Another Project Too Far?, address some of the issues I raised last month, such as:

  • the curious timing of Forest City Ratner's modular announcement (to distract from a lawsuit)
  • the fact the permit application for the first building doesn't indicate modular
  • the possibility the announcement was meant to achieve union concessions (on a conventional building)
  • the diminished totals of project wages and tax revenues, with a modular plan
  • the amount of time it takes to get a factory up and running
  • the seeming disavowal of a pledge to build larger apartments
  • Ratner's astounding claim that "existing incentives" don't work for high-rise, union-built affordable housing
No.

That said, the article does gather a reasonable range of opinions on a plan that, given the total of 16 towers (nearly all of them housing), might justify factory start-up costs. And here's a tidbit that explains how the prefab plan was chosen:

Indeed, SHoP, the architects behind the arena and apartment towers, had two separate design teams working on the project at once, walled off from each other. They used different engineers and everything, had a mini architecture competition, and the prefab team came out on top.
Optimism

Former Department of Buildings commissioner Patricia Lancaster: "I think prefab is the wave of the future, and I think it will come to New York."

Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress: “They’re between a rock and a hard place, and this may be their only option.”

One labor source: “Unions have never really had any kind of hold in the world of affordable housing. We are taking it slow, but there is huge potential upside here.”

Skepticism

Jerilyn Perine, the executive director of the Citizens Planning & Housing Council: “I’m not against modular. I think it has its place. I don’t think it’s like discovering fire.”

An engineer: “Whether or not you realize those things, it remains to be seen. It’ll be cool if it works, but it’s a pretty heavy lift.”

What's missing

Here's some skepticism from my 10/31/11 coverage of the secret history of Forest City's prefab plans.
So, whatever team Forest City has assembled, it may still be early in the process. "Industrialized buildings hold great promise, but it's not going to happen overnight," observed Garrison. "Forest City is going to have to invest and get involved over a reasonably long time to get the outcome they want."

The XSite story, and intellectual property

The Observer reports:
Once the project is up and running, Forest City believes its presumed success will attract other developers to the modules, which are being built by a firm called XSite. Forest City’s requirements drove off a handful of modular firms considering working on the project, as revealed by the dogged blogger Norman Oder in October. One of these, Kullman Offsite Construction, sued XSite, as a number of the firm’s employees left and ultimately joined Mr. Ratner’s efforts. The suit was dismissed in July.
Actually, the suit was settled, not dismissed.

Forest City's requirements didn't so much drive off Kullman, which had previously worked for Forest City, as lead to a breakdown in negotiations over price and intellectual property.

As alleged by Kullman, FCR "was effectively able to circumvent Kullman's refusal to turn over the ownership rights in this system by the fact that Kullman's key employees collaborated a plan to work directly with [Forest City] under the formation of a new rival company."

And the Observer's syntax seems sloppy, if the project is not yet "up and running," then it cannot be said that "the modules are being built."

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