LONG ISLAND CITY — The controversial developer building two apartment towers at the former 5Pointz graffiti site is under fire again for failing to employ all union workers to construct the new properties — despite earlier promises to do so, critics charged Tuesday.
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, union leaders and dozens of workers held a raucous rally outside the construction site at Jackson Avenue and Davis Street, where they slammed developer Jerry Wolkoff of G&M Realty for reneging on a pledge to create 1,000 union jobs through the project.
"He went back on his word, he lied to everyone," said Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council. "This man was in my office, shook my hand and said, 'I give you my word, this will be a union project.' Where are you now, Jerry?"
Van Bramer says Wolkoff agreed to the union provision in 2013 when he was seeking city approval for a special permit to build the 41- and 47-story apartment towers bigger than current zoning allows.
The City Council voted in favor of the plan after Wolkoff agreed to increase the number of affordable units, include more space for artists and to use union labor to build it.
"Jerry Wolkoff came to me and wanted to build a building here, and I said to him, 'I will not permit you to build the building that you want to build unless you build 100 percent union, and unless you staff the building 100 percent union,'" Van Bramer said Tuesday.
His office provided a letter Wolkoff penned to the councilman in 2013 in which the developer said it was his "intention to engage contractors to employ individuals" represented by the Building and Construction Trades Council unions, as well as 32BJ.
"Only because he did that did we approve this project," Van Bramer said.
A spokeswoman for Van Bramer's office said that other than public pressure, the city does not have a way to force Wolkoff to deliver on the union pledge they say he made.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Wolkoff denied he broke any pledge, saying it was and still is his "intention" to employ as many union laborers as possible, but that doing so completely was too expensive.
"One contractor alone was close to $20 million more than a non-union," he said, adding that he's used a mix of union and private workers on construction of the buildings, which are set to contain around 1,000 apartments, 210 of them affordable.
The developer declined to reveal exactly how many union workers he's employed for the project.
"I'm hiring people," he said. "Don’t they have a right to work also?"
The construction site where his properties are rising was surrounded Tuesday by giant inflatable rats, where union workers held up signs and led a chant calling the developer a "piece of sh*t."
Union leaders questioned if those employed at the site are paid a fare wage, and if working conditions are safe without union oversight.
There are two open violations at the property, issued earlier this month — one for failure to erect a required sidewalk shed and another for a worker who did not have the correct OSHA training credentials, Department of Buildings records show.
On Aug. 5, a boom truck tipped over at the site while workers were pouring concrete, though no one was injured, a DOB spokesman said at the time.
Wolkoff said his workers are paid more than the minimum wage — though he did not offer specific pay rates — and said he follows proper safety procedures.
"I have everything that a union job would have," he said. "It's as safe as any job."
This isn't the first time the developer and his firm, G&M Realty, have been caught up in controversy.
The city's art community waged a long campaign against Wolkoff's plan to tear down the graffiti-covered warehouses that he'd previously owned at the site, where artists painted for years, turning the space into a major cultural attraction.
In 2013, he abruptly painted over all the artwork there ahead of demolition, further angering artists.
At Tuesday's news conference, Van Bramer vowed he would never approve another of Wolkoff's projects.
"If he lied to us once, and he's lied before, he will lie every single time," the councilman said.