Two trade organizations sued the New York City Department of Buildings, charging it ignored plumbing and fire safety code requirements when it approved developer Forest City Ratner Cos.' plan for a 32-story modular apartment building next to the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn using unlicensed and unsupervised workers.
Plumbing Foundation City of New York Inc. and Mechanical Contractors of New York Inc. filed the action Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.
The trade groups allege that building department Commissioner Robert LiMandri welshed on a December 2011 promise to use only licensed master plumbers and fire-suppression contractors for related work.
They are challenging the department's April 9 determination that a city code requirement that licensed plumbers and fire-suppression contractors supervise related work does not apply to modular or prefabricated buildings, in which parts are built in factories, then assembled onsite.
"Most troublingly, it appears that the final determination was not the product of respondents' good faith to interpret the code," the trade groups said in court papers. "Rather, the final determination was part of a transparent effort to accommodate the cost-cutting needs of a single developer -- Forest City Ratner Cos."
According to the lawsuit, deputy buildings commissioner Thomas Fariello, speaking before a City Council oversight committee in January, compared the construction of modular units to the assemly of a "small scale" project, like a Jacuzzi tub "being done in Kentucky or whatever state." According to court papers, it prompted one council member to say: "There is no other city like New York, and particularly as vertical as we are."
The groups asked to require the city to enforce the code, which they called "absolutely critical to the integrity of the city's high-rise buildings, hospitals and commercial spaces, and to the safety of city residents."
Cohen & Gresser LLP is representing the trade groups.
"We don't begrudge anyone making a profit, but we take exception when the building code is circumvented in order to do it," Tony Saporito, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association, said in a statement.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Forest City Ratner broke ground in December on what they said was the world's tallest and city's first modular high-rise. The city, through its Housing Development Corp., funded the first mortgage, raising $92 million for the 363-unit high rise through the sale of tax-exempt bonds. It also provided a $11.6 million low-interest subordinate loan to the project.
The building sits at 461 Dean St. in Bruce Ratner's namesake company's Atlantic Yards development next to the Barclays Center, which opened in September and is home to the National Basketball Association's Brooklyn Nets and the future home of the National Hockey League's New York Islanders. The Brooklyn Arena Local Development Corp., a state agency created to help finance the arena, sold $511 million in tax-exempt bonds in December 2009.
"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," the building department said in a statement.
"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."