April 19, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Bronx, NY – The new outlet mall slated to replace the Whitestone Multiplex Cinemas on Bruckner Boulevard promises a spate of new construction jobs, and has some elected officials practically giddy with anticipation. But the developer’s suspect record of building in New York City has others convinced that those same jobs will both exploit workers, and negatively impact the surrounding community.
The Lightstone Group, headed by CEO and Chairman David Lichtenstein, bought the 19-acre site at 2505 Bruckner Boulevard last year for $30 million, and plans to build a Woodbury Commons-like shopping center on the heavily-congested location.
It is just one of four major projects the Lightstone Group is now developing in each of the five boroughs save Staten Island, which raises red flags for organized labor.
The New York District Council of Carpenters, for instance, calls the Lightstone development project at 50-01 2nd Street in Long Island City, Queens a non-unionized “construction sweatshop” that fails to extend area standards, wages and benefits to its carpentry employees.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn labor watchdogs say they already had an agreement with the original developer slated to bring a sprawling new housing complex to the banks of the Gowanus Canal – but that all changed abruptly when the Toll Brothers organization bowed out and the Lightstone Group took over the reins.
“We had negotiated with Toll Brothers to discuss how using union labor would be a community benefit as well as a benefit to the laborers,” said Melissa Shetler, construction marketing representative with Greater New York LECET. “They were in agreement. But when the project got passed over to Lightstone, there were no longer any conversations.”
The New York City Council of District Carpenters is now urging Bronx officials supportive of the Lightstone project because of the perceived benefits a new shopping center could bring, to also consider how non-union “sweatshop” jobs will negatively impact both workers and the public at large.
“To build this at low wages and no benefits only places a further burden on the city’s social services in the Bronx,” New York District Council of Carpenters Representative Eddie McWilliams said. “It also makes union or other legitimate contractors totally uncompetitive. We’re not only advocating for union members, but also for legitimate contractors that provide these benefits to their employees. Are they no longer going be competitive in New York City? Are they going to go out of business?”
Union representatives have already discussed the problems of using non-union labor at the Bruckner Boulevard site with both Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and New York City Councilman James Vacca. Those meetings, however, did not produce the kind of support the carpenters had hoped for.
New York City Councilman James Vacca could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson for Diaz insisted that the Bronx borough president is still sympathetic to the carpenters’ concerns.
“Our office is pro-labor, and understands the importance of our unions,” Communications Director John DeSio said. “We will continue to encourage the use of union labor at the Whitestone Cinema location, as we have for numerous other projects that have been constructed in the Bronx over the past four years.”
The carpenters aren’t sitting on their hands, however. Instead they're imploring members who live near the Bruckner Boulevard site to speak out. They also plan to start picketing in front of more Lightstone construction sites in the future.
Union member Norman Saul said that in addition to urging elected officials to insist on area standards, wages and benefits for workers, he is also calling on members of the Bronx clergy to get involved as well.
“I want to get these people who are building these projects to guarantee fair wages and benefits,” Saul said. “These developers don’t care either about the community or the customers that are going to rent their space. They’re going to sell it off, make their money and disappear.”
Ethan Geto, the designated spokesperson for the Lightstone Group, said that it is “premature to address the labor issues at this juncture.”
“The project is far from having shovels put into the ground,” Geto said. “They’re still in the mode of identifying and recruiting prospective tenants for what is going to be an outlet mall.”
As for Lightstone’s controversial venture in Brooklyn, Geto insisted that the developer will, in fact, consider hiring union as well as non-union labor.
“But that does not mean that they will necessarily go with with non-union labor because it’s cheaper,” Geto said. “Lightstone takes the position on that project that they are going to look at a lot of things – capabilities, credentials, track records and skill. When they are ready to start talking to contractors, they indicated that they would bid out the job to both union and non-union contractors – and take the union bids, if they are at all competitive, very seriously.”
Labor groups, however, also doubt that very seriously.
“We see that as a problem across the board,” Shetler said. “When you’re competing against companies that not only build low road, but are also robbing wages from workers, then good contractors can’t compete. They can no longer bid because the bids don’t reflect the real cost of the project.”