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Forest City releases designs for first residential tower, which would be modular (unless it's not)

In an announcement that just might have been timed to deflect attention from the lawsuit filed against Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner and longtime Community Benefits Agreement partner BUILD, the developer today released renderings for the three arena block residential towers, and said they'd be built modular--unless they're not.

Given the lack of certainty about the production plan, and no mention of financing, there's reason to think the press announcement was a strategic move, either to deflect attention or to put pressure on construction unions.

Images by SHoP architects. Note the rectilinear nature of most buildings, a far cry from some of original architect Frank Gehry's more irregular renderings.

The Times is given the scoop

The news was broken by the New York Times, in a CityRoom post headlined Design for Tower Unveiled at Atlantic Yards. (There's no mention of the business relationship between the developer and the New York Times Company, partners in building the newspaper's headquarters.)

Reporter Charles Bagli, who has the habit of personalizing Forest City's moves by attributing them to the firm's CEO, writes:
The developer Bruce C. Ratner unveiled the design Thursday morning for the world’s tallest prefabricated steel structure, a 32-story residential building at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street in the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project.

The 350-unit building uses rectangular shapes, colors and glass to break up the mass of the structure, which would sit snugly up against Barclays Center, the new arena of the Nets basketball team that is scheduled to open in September 2012. Mr. Ratner, chief executive of Forest City Ratner, said that prefabrication or modular construction could save time and cut construction costs by as much as 25 percent. Fourteen other residential buildings would be built at Atlantic Yards using the same technology.

Forest City Ratner is also negotiating a labor agreement with construction unions, which have supported Atlantic Yards, but could end up with fewer jobs and lower wages for some workers if the project goes forward.

Mr. Ratner said Thursday that he hoped to begin construction early next year. But the start date has been a moving target for more than a year now. The developer ultimately may instead decide to build the first tower conventionally. 
Hold on. Actually, the permit application points to conventional rather than modular construction.

The risk

Bagli points out that modular construction is "largely untested at this height," with the tallest building 25 stores:
The challenge for developers, architects and engineers in building taller modular buildings has been to design an economical bracing system that would protect the structure from wind shear and seismic forces. The developer is working with SHoP Architects, Arup structural engineers and XSite Modular. “If anybody can crack the code,” Mr. Ratner said, “this group can.”
This is the first Times mention of XSite Modular, which can work with Forest City thanks to the settlement of a contentious lawsuit.

The money

The article ends with a mention of discussions between the developer and construction unions. “We are in the process of attempting to reach an agreement that will work for the building trades and Forest City in an effort to create permanent employment,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said obliquely.

Not only would wages for workers be lower, and the number of workers (likely) decreased, so too would expected tax revenues to the city and state--another project selling point.