Note: This article has been updated since its Sept. 3 publication as indicated below.
Among the many wrinkles in the saga of Atlantic Yards complex (now known as Pacific Park Brooklyn)—the controversial 22-acre mega-redevelopment of the area around the old Long Island Railroad terminal in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn—has been the absence of any actual housing to date. As is typical for almost all urban renewal projects, new at-market and low-income residences were naturally a central feature of the scheme from project developer Forest City Ratner Cos. (FCRC) when it first garnered public approval—and public funds—in 2006 (Atlantic Yards B2 Owner is the single-purpose entity formed by FCRC and its affiliates for the project according to a Bloomberg article). The Barclays Center sports and entertainment arena—the glitzy marquee component of the master plan originally devised by architect Frank Gehry, FAIA, and ultimately designed by SHoP Architects and AECOM—has been open since 2012. However, the arena’s immediate surrounds remain a desolate no man’s land, without a single new rental or condo property in evidence.
Apparently that’s going to remain the case for a while longer. On Aug. 27, project contractor Skanska USA Building (a New York–based business unit of parent company Skanska, based in Stockholm) halted all construction on B2 BKLYN, the first of three residential towers designed by SHoP to surround the sports arena and provide 1,500 units of mixed-income housing through landmark modular construction technology. Scheduled originally for completion in early 2014, B2 has only 10 stories of its ultimate 32 stories to show for almost two years’ work.
The culprit, according to the formal complaint FCRC filed against Skanska to the New York State Supreme Court on Sept. 2 (see below), has been the contractor’s failed modular construction process, the innovative building system that Skanska had initially hoped might be able to deliver the project in as little as 14 months. With delays and cost overruns on the initial $117 million budget having long since eclipsed that possibility, FCRC has stated in an article in The New York Times that it will take over construction of the remaining two towers itself, supplanting the modular construction system with conventional construction. In the meantime, the developer is suing Skanska to recoup their losses, with FCRC claiming that Skanksa failed to adequately train its workforce and Skanska countering that FCRC’s plans were faulty from the outset.
The 346,000-square-foot B2 BKLYN was to feature 363 apartments. But more exciting, at least for those in the building industry, was the potential use of modular construction technology, a process that FCRC's filed complaint states that SHoP Architects and engineer Ove Arup & Partners developed in collaboration. Because modular construction hasn’t been completed at this building height before, the project first required the construction of a separate factory in which an estimated 60 percent of the residential modules' construction process would be completed off-site in environmentally controlled conditions. Skanska also won the contract to build the modular construction factory, which it did on the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard.
For architects, modular construction has long been something of a design-world Holy Grail, a low-cost, fast-paced model for building complex structures out of easily replicable units. Notably espoused by the Japanese Metabolists of the 1960s, the technology seemed a perfect architectural response to the modern consumer economy, holding out the promise of affordable mass housing that could be modified at will, added onto or subtracted from, simply by craning in another prefabricated box.
As the Metabolists themselves demonstrated, however, modular construction for multi-unit housing has proven considerably more difficult in practice than in theory. The Nagakin Capsule Tower from designer Kisho Kurokawa, one of the movement’s banner projects, was none too well received on its 1972 debut and now has fallen into considerable disrepair.
The housing at Atlantic Yards was never projected to be anywhere near so ambitious, nor so architecturally avant-garde, as Nagakin. SHoP's simple glass-and-steel structures, with their mildly contextual façades, might as easily have been built using conventional methods. But FCRC and Skanska saw an opportunity to have what one FCRC representative referred to as an “iPhone moment,” a breakthrough demonstration of the economy and efficiency of the modular approach.
Together, the builder and developer had hoped to turn out the three housing towers in record time and at a reduced cost, and provide employment to 157 local workers to run the modular fabrication plant. At the very least, the idea was one way to sweeten what has seemed to many Brooklynites a rather bitter pill: Both the original Gehry plan—as well as the Barclays Center, which SHoP ultimately designed—faced considerable public protest, with demonstrations taking place even during Jay-Z’s inaugural concert at the arena two years ago.
For Brooklyn, this latest setback is just one more in a long series of frustrations with the Atlantic Yards over the last eight years, one that leaves a giant hole in the middle of a promising neighborhood. But the greater disappointment, perhaps, is for advocates of modular building, an architectural mode that seems always on the cusp of greatness. FCRC, perhaps predictably, remains bullish not just about the project, but about the prospects for modular in commercial development. In the aforementioned New York Times’ Aug. 28 article on B2’s shutdown, FCRC president and CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin said, “This is not a referendum on modular, it’s a monetary dispute. We’re confident we’ll get the building built.” But whether modular construction is the route that FCRC takes is far less certain.
*Update, Sept. 5, 2014, at 4:25 p.m. ET: When asked for comment, Skanska USA Building provided this statement from co-COO Richard Kennedy:
"By issuing this letter to the press prior to even sending it to its partner, Skanska Modular, Forest City has proven it is more interested in engaging in a propaganda exercise to take the public’s eye off the serious consequences of its failures at the B2 Project instead of simply fixing the commercial and design issues that led to the unfortunate need to shut-down the project and factory on August 27. As for the letter itself, it is completely devoid of substance and Skanska Modular will address it consistent with the parties’ partnership agreement. Again, Skanska remains hopeful commercial and economic sensibilities will prevail and that Forest City will resolve its problems at the B2 Project so we can get back to building and get the factory workers back to work. But, Skanska simply will not be coerced into surrendering its contractual rights by Forest City’s inappropriate tactics."
*Update, Sept. 5, 2014, at 5:32 p.m. ET: FCRC Modular has filed a complaint against Skanska Modular and Richard Kennedy.
*Update, Sept. 23, 2014, at 3:15 p.m. ET: FCRC says that the New York County Supreme Court judge hearing the case "granted a preliminary injunction forcing Skanska back to the table to … restart the dispute process mandated in agreements between the companies." The blog Atlantic Yards (& Pacific Park) Report (AYPPR) reports that Justice Saliann Scarpulla urged the parties to consider mediation "to resolve differences over running the FCS Modular factory," which was jointly created by Skanska and FCRC, but was run primarily by Skanska.
FCRC released this statement from MaryAnne Gilmartin, FCRC president and CEO:
“Today Skanska terminated their contracts as construction and factory manager for B2, making clear again that they have no intention of moving this project forward. We believe in modular and have worked tirelessly to get B2 back on track since Skanska blind-sided us by ceasing construction and putting 157 workers on the street last month. Skanska has responded with inaction and inertia, trying to leverage us financially by stonewalling B2's progress. These are deplorable and disappointing tactics that show remarkable indifference to the wellbeing of these workers and the project. We will continue to rigorously pursue our options through the courts to get B2 built."
Skanska USA Building co-COO Richard Kennedy issued this statement:
“Today is an incredibly disappointing day. Our company has a long history of working with our clients through all kinds of challenges so, at the end of the day, we deliver the best product possible to our clients and the communities in which we live and work. In New York alone, we have worked on some of the city’s most iconic structures and with each of those projects, we have finished the job. While the B2 project certainly has its issues, we were hopeful that our client and partner would address them so we could move forward with building much-needed affordable housing in Brooklyn. But we could not continue to incur millions of dollars in extra costs with little hope that Forest City would take responsibility for fixing the significant commercial and design issues on the project. We pride ourselves on being an innovative company and we will continue to build using prefab and modular techniques to move the construction industry forward. This issue will not deter us from continuing on that journey of innovation.”
AYPPR reports that since Skanska terminated its contracts for B2, Skanska lawyer Bruce Meller said that FCRC, as the entity Atlantic Yards B2 Owner, can offer the B2 project back to the independent entity FCS Modular as a job. That is, FCRC could restart the modular building factory. FCRC lawyer Harold Weinberger said that Skanska would still have leverage because it controls the project's intellectual property.
With additional reporting from the ARCHITECT staff.