Developer Abruptly Halts Conversion of St. James Hospital into School for Trades

On Thursday, at its monthly meeting, the school board voted to increase the amount of money it is paying its own architect for services at the 155 Jefferson Avenue property.

In December of 2021, the district entered into a $160 million, 20-year lease with 155 Jefferson St. Urban Renewal LLC to turn the former hospital into a school for architecture and trades like HVAC, plumbing and electrical. 

But since early this year, the project has been mired in a dispute over whether non-union laborers working at the site should have been paid prevailing wages. 

TAPintoNewark first reported two weeks ago that Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund, or LEROF—the organizing arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America—filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development alleging laborers are not being paid prevailing wages as required by law and were working in unsafe conditions. 

The project has generated other controversy. TAPintoNewark reported that private investors stand to make millions from the project. TAPintoNewark also reported on a lawsuit involving the last remaining tenant on the site that described claims of Soprano’s-like intimidation and harassment, which culminated in a judge issuing a temporary restraining order against the developer.

Superintendent Roger Leon couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. 

Paul Roldan, Business Manager at LIUNA Local 3 said he was “disappointed to hear the developer is walking away from its obligation to this project and the City of Newark.” 

Roldan said the developer “should still be held accountable for their actions” and that “no worker deserves to be underpaid and working in an unsafe environment.”

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he did not want his teachers working in a building that was built with “scab labor.”

"If you don't want to do business here in Newark on the level, good riddance. We can survive without you," Abeigon said. "I don't think the developer has learned anything from this. He just wants projects that are more profitable. You can never expect a developer like him to change his ways."

The district’s sole financial presentation about the lease at 155 Jefferson happened in February of 2021 and lasted two minutes and 18 seconds. At the time, the district said the lease would cost the district $160 million, but offered few details beyond that.

On Thursday, the district voted to amend the architecture contract it signed in January of 2022 “for inclusion of additional specialized Career Technical Education spaces not included in the original scope of services.” That contract, with RSC Architects, Hackensack, N.J., was authorized to increase from $137,000 to $185,720 on Thursday, an addition of $48,000. 

The district is also on the hook for other costs, even if the deal doesn’t go forward.

Even though the landlord was handling all of the construction of the project, in May of 2022, the district decided to hire its own construction manager “to provide onsite construction management services” for up to $672,000.  

It is unclear why NPS would have needed its own construction manager and how that firm was interacting with the developer’s construction manager. The firm it picked in May, six months after it signed the lease with the developer and well after construction began, is Remington & Vernick Engineers, Cherry Hill, N.J. 

Together, the two additional contracts related to the 155 Jefferson project amount to $857,000. 

After news broke that the workers were not being paid the state mandated prevailing wage, Supt. Leon said during a WGBO interview that the news was “scary and appalling” and that he would be ensuring that there would be a resolution. 

Union officials have shared emails that show the superintendent and the school business administrator were informed of the prevailing wage situation as early as February 1, 2022. 

Meanwhile, Abeigon said the school proposed for 155 Jefferson was superfluous.

"Our message from the union to the school board and the superintendent is this—there is nothing that was going to be taught in that school that can't be taught in the high schools that exist already,” the teacher’s union leader said. “With the tens of millions of dollars that were going to be spent at 155 Jefferson Street, we can teach those building trades skills in the schools that exist now."

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-08-28 03:55:18 -0700