Labor, developers at odds on River Street

A developers' decision to use a non-labor contractor to complete a major project in Lower Mills has drawn loud protest from the Carpenters Union Local 67 and inspired City Council President Maureen Feeney to consider legislation that would hold developers more accountable for promises they make to community groups when seeking city approval.

A major housing development now under construction at 40 River Street began more than three years ago when John Judge, who at the time was leading a team of three co-developers, approached neighborhood leaders from the then-dormant Lower Mills Civic Association for community approval of the project.

A community process that included the work of activists Mike Mackan and Richard O'Mara as well as input from Feeney resulted in approval of a plan that included 62 units of housing and relocating the historic Stoughton School &endash; which has occupied the site since the middle of the 19th century &endash; to the front of the property. Feeney and Mackan said this week that it was their understanding that union labor, particularly involvement from carpenters to oversee the relocation of the fragile wooden schoolhouse, was part of the agreement that eventually won community approval.

"There was a promise at the table that the project would be union built… and [the developers] agreed to it right away," said Mackan. "When the civic group was back up and running, we met with them and moved forward on the project, but they didn't keep their promise about union labor. There was nothing in writing you can hold somebody to, but I just have to trust people at their word."

But Judge says that union labor was discussed as a preference, not a strict tenet of support, and after he left the project in the hands of remaining developers Robert Gatnick, and Vincent Norton a year and a half ago, the pair chose Callahan Inc., a non-union contractor, to complete the job.

"At every discussion I had we never made any commitments, I can say that for myself," said Judge. "We never made any guarantees, all that was said was a question asking us to consider using organized labor."

Reached on Tuesday evening, Vincent Norton said that members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, another Dorchester union, were recently hired to do the project's electrical work. He declined to comment further. Gatnick did not return phone calls.

Chris Shannon, business manager for Local 67, said he believes that Suffolk Construction, a union employer, was once close to securing the River Street contract, and faulted Gatnick and Norton for choosing Callahan.

Judge said that no contractor had been chosen by the time he chose to leave the project a year and a half ago. But an ISD permit for construction at the site dated January 14, 2005 does list Judge's name as owner of the property and Suffolk Construction as the permitted contractor.

Shannon estimates the project could have supported between 50 and 60 union jobs at various stages of construction. In protest, union members have been picketing the worksite periodically for the last three months, a display that he says will continue until the project is complete.

"Nobody needs a developer like this in the community, that comes in and makes lots of promises and then doesn't live up to the promise they make," said Shannon.

Feeney says that she, too, believed that union labor was an understood contingent of community support. She fears that 'flipping,' or the act of passing a community-approved project on to a second developer who will disregard the agreement, is becoming a trend across her district. She listed a handful of recent projects where a developer with community approval passes a property along to a second developer, such as ongoing work at the corner of Adams Street and Gallivan Boulevard and another project at the corner of Ashmont and Adams Streets.

She's considering legislation that would strengthen the weight of civic groups and neighborhood activists by holding developers to their word.

"I would like to see the efforts of the community be represented in any final decision regarding a project," said Feeney. "It's a matter or respecting the time and investment that people volunteer to all of these projects and developments."

She said it still unclear whether such an action would mean changing city zoning and building codes or require broader state legislation.