THE DEMOLITION work is complete. But there isn’t a soul to be found in the fenced-in block in the center of Quincy where steelworkers, steamfitters, laborers, and other tradesmen should be well along in the construction of the first phase of the $1.6 billion revitalization project in this South Shore city of 91,000.
The 2010 agreement between the New York-based developer Street-Works LLC and the South Shore Building Trades Council requires the exclusive use of union construction workers on the first five buildings in the project, including a 15-story apartment building originally slated for this site. But last month, the developer declared a temporary halt to the project, citing runaway labor costs. Union leaders scoff at such claims. They say the developer has failed to communicate concerns with them. But the real losers in this game of back-and-forth are Quincy residents whose downtown has become blighted and obsolete.
Many medium-sized cities in Massachusetts have big — and unrealistic — development dreams. But Quincy makes a stronger case based on its seaside location, easy subway access to Boston, stable political leadership, and middle-class tax base. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the creation of 1,000 residential units, several office buildings, two hotels, and scores of new retail shops spread across the downtown area. Street-Works saw the potential and stepped up with a clever financing structure. The developer would secure private financing for new utilities, roadways, sidewalks, and public spaces. Quincy would buy back the infrastructure after revenue started to flow from new property taxes and public garages.
Sadly, momentum on this project has been lost, even though the market demand for apartments in the area is sky high. Last month, Street-Works told the Quincy City Council that the anticipated $130 million cost to build the first phase of the project had jumped to $170 million in just three years, based largely on labor costs. The developer is trying to reconfigure the project with smaller buildings. But there is no guarantee that the redesign will be affordable, either.
One obvious solution would be to renegotiate the deal. Reducing hourly wages for union workers, opening up job sites to non-union construction workers, or some combination of the two would help to get the project back on track. And the world wouldn’t end if union electricians worked side by side with non-union plumbers.
The unions, however, want no part of it.
“Why is it that the working guys take it on the chin?’’ demanded Robert Rizzi, president of the South Shore Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for 16 unions.
It’s a fair question. But the answer in this case is that union workers aren’t exactly lining up for jobs in Quincy Center. The super-heated Greater Boston construction market means there is plenty of work right now in downtown Boston and other places that yield equal or better wages. Quincy, it appears, has become something of an afterthought.
“It’s my understanding they did not get a lot of bids,’’ said Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.
And those bids that did come in, according to the developers, were too high to be taken seriously.
This is a moment of truth for the building trade unions. Many of their members were suffering from painful unemployment a few years ago when this deal was inked. It is understandable why they were so keen back then to lock down jobs in the Quincy redevelopment plan. But those same workers aren’t available now, and the provision in question keeps others from being hired. At least 40 percent of the construction workers in the state are non-union. There are plenty of qualified construction workers — including Quincy residents — who would jump at the work at a lower but still reasonable wage.
Street-Works managing partner Ken Narva said that investors will balk at a project requiring developers to pay Boston-level construction wages for a Quincy development capable of generating only about two-thirds of the rental income.
Still, Quincy’s mayor remains optimistic that the trade unions will recognize that the improving economic climate means there is enough construction work to go around.
“I think we are going to get there,’’ said Koch. “But everybody in this deal may have to give a bit.’’
If the union building trades still can’t bear to let go, they should at least consider investing their pension funds in the project and accepting a lower rate of return than traditional investors.
Downtown Quincy can be made anew. But not under the current labor agreement, which spells further delay and decay.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.