By Jared Chausow
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A new 17-story tower now going up on an East Village block has presented a double challenge to both the city's labor movement and to neighborhood residents opposed to high-rise development.
The project on East 10th Street between First and Second avenues is the second major development in less than a year on the Lower East Side to be erected with non-union labor. It has sparked protests by angry union hard hats who say the builder is employing workers who are largely untrained and who are paid wages and benefits far below those required by union contracts. The protests are similar, though far smaller in scale, to those staged last year against another non-union high-rise built at East 14th Street and Third Avenue. Union members held massive rallies at that site and ran a daily picket line manned by a pair of 12-foot-tall inflated rats.
'It's like this giant foot looming over us. It's just inappropriate for this neighborhood. People are hopping mad.'
At the 10th Street project, however, the unionists have gathered some new allies among community residents who say the luxury apartment tower is out of place on what has long been a mostly low-rise tenement block populated by poor and lower- and middle-income residents.
"It's like this giant foot looming over us," said Sarah Wilkins, a leader of a block association on East 9th Street who helped organize a June 30 rally that brought more than 250 people to the block. "It's just inappropriate for this neighborhood. People are hopping mad."
The tower is the result of a City Hall decision to sell development air rights over a two-story former city market building that has housed the non-profit Theater for the New City since 1986. Faced with mounting debt, theater operators turned to the city for help in 1997. In a deal structured by the city's Economic Development Corporation, air rights over the theater were sold last year to a development group for $680,000. The developers, calling themselves New City Associates, also agreed to pay the theater $519,000 for lobby spacefunds used by the theater to pay off its outstanding debts.
The new superstructure, which began to rise this spring above the theater, took residents by surprise.
Councilwoman Margarita Lopez said she voted five years ago against council legislation aimed at allowing such air rights transfers because of concern that it would result in unsuitable buildings. "I was told that wouldn't happen in my community," said Lopez. "Now I see this project, which is inappropriately high. It changes the character of the community. No other building will be as high as that one. To me, the fact that this construction is atop a theater is what I call poetic injustice."
Theater for the New City, an award-winning playhouse, has reacted defensively to the criticism. A sign outside the theater states that the development project is separate from the theater and pleads, "Please don't hate us; we need your support." Theater executive director Crystal Field was away and unavailable for comment last week.
The posted pleas haven't placated the critics. "They should at least step up and acknowledge what they did. This makes it more likely that other projects like this will happen," said Wilkins.
Jerry Rosengarten, one of the project's developers, said objections are premature. "When the building is finished, I think the neighborhood will benefit and not be hurt," he said. "As far as people being upset from a height standpoint, one block away there are two buildings that are that height or bigger," he said, referring to a pair of prewar apartment houses on Second Avenue near 11th Street.
The project may be an even greater challenge, however, to the city's building trades unions. Non-union builders have long been able to operate fairly freely in the outer boroughs on private, non-government-funded projects. When non-union builder Roy Kay Inc. won a multi-million-dollar contract in 1999 from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build a new switching station on Manhattan's West Side, unions responded with a massive, traffic-snarling rally of 40,000 hard hats outside the MTA's midtown offices. That dispute ended months later when Roy Kay officials said they were convinced they could live with the unions after all and signed contracts.
Union workers marched again last year after another non-union contractor, Forkosh Construction, began building an apartment tower on East 14th Street and Third Avenue to be leased to New York University as student housing. That project's successful completion may have served as a green light for other contractors eager to use cheaper non-union labor on Manhattan developments.
"This is like bringing back the dark old days," said Kenny Ladd, a member of Operating Engineers Local 14 who has been organizing protests against the 10th Street project. "It's a direct threat to our livelihood."
"It's all a slap in the face," said Anthony Pugliese, a laborers union official who has opposed the project. "You want to build with safe, responsible contractors."
"Everyone has the right to do what they have to do," responded John Marra, the head of New York Construction Collaborative, the general contractor for the project. "What's un-American is not having freedom of choice."