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Ratner's modular tower release and the mostly compliant press: an FAQ on timing, misdirection, jobs, the lack of larger apartments, and Ratner's astounding admission

Well, Forest City Ratner yesterday announced plans for Building 2, a 32-story, 350-unit tower with half subsidized apartments--the world's tallest modular tower--and the press piled on.

They just didn't answer all the questions.

Why were the renderings released yesterday?

No report explained that. There's no financing for the first building. The modular plan isn't final.

I'd bet that the release was strategized to deflect any lingering attention from the lawsuit filed two days earlier by construction workers charging they didn't get promised jobs and union cards after going through a selective training program mandated by the Atlantic Yards Community Benefit Agreement.

And to put pressure on construction unions. Remember, Ratner stopped building the Beekman Tower (aka 8 Spruce Street) midway to renegotiate with the unions.

What kind of pressure?

Well, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building Building and Construction Trades Council, said, in a statement, "We are in the process of attempting to reach an agreement on modular construction that will work for the building trades and Forest City in an effort to create permanent employment opportunities for our members,"

Is Ratner definitely building modular?

Not at all. "We intend to do it modular," he told the Wall Street Journal, but said the decision isn't final. Indeed, you have to watch his language. In November 2009, after the state eminent domain decision, Ratner said they had the "intent" to move the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn for the 2011-12 season.

Didn't the permit application describe a non-modular process?


Did any press outlet mention that?

Not yet.

How much does Ratner want to save?

According to the Wall Street Journal, 15%-20%. If he can get that through labor concessions, he'll do that first.

When will the tower break ground?

According to the Daily News, "early next year." The Wall Street Journal said "the spring."

Did anyone point out how late that was?

Well, the Journal said that it's a year late compared to what was pledged at the March 2010 groundbreaking. No one pointed out how the goalposts have moved even compared to what Forest City executives said in July and in early November.

How long will it take for Ratner to get a factory up and running?

Nobody asked. But it can't be simple. The Journal reported that Forest City is looking at three sites in Brooklyn and Queens.

"The challenges are those of engineering, assembly, and production," architect Jim Garrison said in an interview for the article I wrote about the "secret history" of Forest City's prefab plans. "Industrialized buildings hold great promise, but it's not going to happen overnight."

Did anyone mention XSite, the firm helping Ratner plan its new modular construction process and the subject of a contentious lawsuit?

The Times mentioned it as an aside. Curbed offered an effusive

quote from Ratner.

What's the benefit of a building method in which some 60% of the construction is done in a factory?

Crain's, quoting MaryAnne Gilmartin, cited less congestion, noise and pollution around the building site, and a safer, more stable environment for construction workers because they are protected from the elements and on stable ground.

How much less would workers earn?

According to the Times, a union carpenter in the factor would earn $35/hour, versus $85/hour at the construction site.

Will there still be 17,000 construction jobs? (That's job-years.)

So claimed Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco. Ratner told the Times that modular construction would "probably" require the same number of workers. "Probably" is a word like "intend."

Ratner also said there would be 190 factory jobs. Curbed said only 40% of the labor force would work onsite, which suggests another 127 jobs at the site and 317 jobs for this building.

Let's say each building takes 18 months (which is probably way too long for all the workers to be working, given that the actual assembly work on site is faster). At 15 buildings, 320 workers, and 1.5 years per building, that's 7200 job-years. Add the arena jobs and the jobs for the office tower, and it seems unrealistic to reach that 17,000 number. Maybe reporters can ask DePlasco for a spreadsheet the next time he makes that claim.

Did the development once promise “upwards of 17,000 union construction jobs and over 8,000 permanent jobs," as the Times put it?

Yeah, but those numbers were bogus and/or dubious. The Times shouldn't have printed it without skepticism.

What's most noticeable about the plan?

Bruce Ratner told the Daily News, “What you’ll notice is really better quality . . . (with) less dust, less gasoline, less trucks.” Maybe, but for now, everybody's noticing the boxy, rectilinear renderings.

What's the configuration of the tower?

The Post reported "130 studios, 180 one-bedrooms and 40 two-bedroom units."

Is that what was promised?

No, in 2006, the developer and ACORN promised that "approximately 50% of all affordable apartments will be 2- and 3-bedroom units."

Was that in terms of number of units, or in overall floor area?

Area, not units. But still that would mean, according to my calculations, that studios and one-bedrooms would make up 64% of the affordable units, while two- and three-bedrooms would make up 36% of them. In the first building, studios and one-bedrooms make up 88.6% of the units.

Who loses out?

All the families who supported ACORN, expecting larger units.

Was that in the 50/50 Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding (part of the CBA) signed by ACORN and Forest City?


Does this announcement represent an about-face by Ratner? The Daily News said "project opponents saw another about-face by the developer." The Times quoted Council Member James, "who denounced what she described as the growing distance between the promise and the reality of Atlantic Yards."

It's another example of journalists pitting Ratner against "opponents" and maintaining what Jay Rosen calls the "View from Nowhere," the false middle, the inability to do any analysis. Actually, Bruce Ratner said it himself, that "existing incentives" don't work for high-rise, union-built affordable housing.

He said that?

Yup. Of course, he proposed--and the state approved--high-rise, union-built affordable housing.

Does that mean all the promises about Atlantic Yards residential rental towers, and the approval of those promises, were bogus?

Uh, yeah.

Is it unrealistic to criticize Forest City Ratner for changing its plans?

That's what one Wall Street Journal commenter said, suggesting that "Projects are dynamic and fluid, and an assumption at one point in time doesn't necessarily hold at a later date."

I pointed out that this project had already changed, and that it was re-approved in 2009 based on predicted community impacts and public benefits--and that if that was unrealistic, we should have been provided best-case and worst-case scenarios.

How much would affordable and market-rate one-bedroom units cost?

$528 to $2,245, according to the Daily News, while one-bedroom market-rate units will be about $3,300. (Curbed reported that the market-rate units would be condos.)

Can they get $3300 for a market-rate one-bedroom in the area, especially using untested technology to build the world's tallest modular building?

Seems dubious, for now. Well, you can rent a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1007 square foot unit at the relatively new 230 Ashland Place condo in Fort Greene for $3200.

How did the Times describe the recent lawsuit?

"This week, seven Brooklyn workers who participated in a Forest City job-training program sued Mr. Ratner, Forest City and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development [BUILD] over unpaid wages and damages for what they said was the false promise of jobs. Forest City disputes the claims, saying it never promised union membership. As of September, it said, 19 of the 35 people who went through the program were working in related jobs."

What's wrong with that description?

The term "related" is a weasel word. The jobs are "related" in that BUILD helped them find jobs. But a job at McDonald's cannot be compared to what was promised in the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which stated, "Commencing upon execution of this Agreement, Developers and BUILD shall initiate and coordinate a job training program to train Community residents for construction jobs within the Arena and Project."

What's wrong with that journalism?

The View from Nowhere, again.

Should any of Forest City's numbers on jobs related to the CBA be trusted?

No. The CBA requires an Independent Compliance Monitor, which Forest City hasn't hired.


  1. thanks for the great coverage. I have written this:


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