The Plumbing Foundation City of New York, Inc. and the Mechanical Contractors of New York, Inc. are suing the city for allegedly flouting safety procedures to allow developer Forest City Ratner to built North America’s first high-rise modular apartment building.
But both the city and the developer have come out swinging, accusing the unions of outright lying.
“It is simply outrageous that anyone would suggest that FCRC would violate the building code and do anything to compromise safety,” said a spokesman for Rattner. “It is false and they know it.”
The groups have started Article 78 litigation proceedings against the New York City Department of Buildings in State Supreme Court charging that it ignored plumbing and fire safety code requirements when it approved Ratner’s plan for a 32-story, 363 unit building at the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn using unlicensed and unsupervised workers.
The lawsuit alleges that DOB violated the language of the code by approving the plan to construct the building without the supervision of licensed master plumbers and licensed master fire suppression contractors for plumbing and fire suppression work.
The city’s Administrative Code requires that all plumbing, including natural gas lines for heating and cooking, and sprinkler work be performed under the direct supervision of licensed plumbing and fire suppression firms and that the work be performed only by employees of those firms.
In December 2011, representatives of the licensed plumbing and fire suppression trades met with DOB staff, including Commissioner Robert LiMandri, in connection with the modular project.
Plans called for plumbing, gas and sprinkler piping and related work to be installed into units in a factory in Brooklyn. These units would be later assembled at a building site.
At the meeting, the unions say the DOB assured them that the work in the factory would have to comply with the existing code provisions requiring that the licensed work be performed by employees of licensed firms.
Department of Buildings even issued a draft bulletin requiring that a licensed plumber and fire suppression contractor attest that the plumbing, gas and sprinkler work in the factory comply with the code.
In their suit, the unions claim that one week after circulating the draft bulletin, officials from Forest City Ratner paid a vist to the exeuctive offices of the DOB whereupon the bulletin was subsequently quashed.
Instead, Forest City Ratner was permitted to move forward with the modular high rise project without being required to employ licensed master plumbers and licensed fire suppression contractors at the fabrication site.
“The Department of Buildings decision to allow plumbing and fire suppression systems to be constructed off-site by unlicensed assembly-line workers, as opposed to licensed professionals appears to be a response to accommodate the cost-cutting needs of developers,” said Tony Saporito, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association.“We don’t begrudge anyone from making a profit, but we take exception when the building code is circumvented in order to do it.”
The contractos say that allowing unlicensed workers could result in serious injury or fatalities.
“We are not opposed to modular development in the city, however, New York City has the most stringent building codes in the world, including plumbing and fire safety, specifically to protect its residents,” Stewart O’Brien, executive director of the Plumbing Foundation. “It’s a dangerous path we walk down when the city appears to be willing to circumvent the clear words of the law so that wealthy and influential developers can make a few extra dollars by using lower paid and untrained assembly line workers over skilled and licensed trades people.
“Everyone should be concerned when gas pipes are installed by unlicensed people rather than employees of trained and licensed plumber or fire suppression contractors. This is how accidents happen and people die.”
The Building Trades Employers Association — which negotiated for a year over union contracts — did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
A spokesman for FRC commented, “The work in the factory is completed by union labor and approved by a licensed engineer, all according to City building codes. The units are then delivered to the building and installed and all plumbing connections are made by licensed plumbers.ˮ
And in a statement the DOB said, “Licensed plumbers and fire suppression contractors in New York City are responsible for installing these systems at a construction site, not the manufacturing or assembly of these systems before they reach the site.
“For any modular project, the Department requires the on-site installation of plumbing or fire suppression systems to be performed by a licensed tradesman, and those systems must meet the standards in the City’s Construction Codes — regardless of where the parts are assembled.”