Changing Skyline: Sneaking equipment past building-trades protesters

Union protesters blocking suppliers at the Pestronk brothers' construction site at 12th and Wood Streets.
Union protesters blocking suppliers at the Pestronk brothers' construction site at 12th and Wood Streets. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 10, 2012

Mayor Nutter has been boasting about the number of construction cranes appearing on the Philadelphia skyline, a sign of the city's renewal after a long, hard recession. One more arrived Wednesday at the Goldtex site in the Loft District, which since March has been under virtual siege by union protesters.

It was not exactly welcomed with open arms.

The former factory building at 12th and Wood Streets has been the scene of an extraordinary standoff between the Pestronk brothers, two young apartment developers who are challenging the city's labor traditions by employing a partially union workforce, and a large contingent of construction workers dispatched by the Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for the city's unions. One wants to keep costs down by using some nonunion labor, the other wants to keep wages up by retaining the closed shop.

Since the protest began, getting equipment and supplies delivered to the site has become a test of wills. Every time a Pestronk truck turns off the Vine Street Expressway, it is greeted by a phalanx of protesters, who shuffle slowly in front of it, blocking its path for hours. Some suppliers have turned back rather than confront the union workers. Although the tactic falls into a gray area of legality, the Nutter administration has not moved to stop it.

To avoid the same fate for a crucial crane delivery, the Pestronks said they devised an elaborate ruse to distract the protesters long enough to sneak the machine onto the building site. The operation required days of planning, a decoy truck, a private force of armed guards, and an extra complement of city police.

The measures cost them an additional $30,000 on top of the normal $20,000 price, according to Michael Pestronk, 31, who runs Post Bros. Apartments with his older brother, Matt, 35. But they said the ploy was worth it: The crane settled into its berth without incident about 11:30 a.m. Overall, they say, they're saving 25 percent with nonunion workers, even though they've had to hire a private security force and resort to such extreme measures to get supplies.

"The delivery went off without a hitch," Mike Pestronk wrote in an e-mail to Michael R. Resnick, the city's director of public safety, after the crane arrived. "Everything is great. Cops helped."

You could say that all's well that ends well. Except that Wednesday's saga illustrates challenges Philadelphia faces as it attempts to rev up construction, rekindle its economy, and compete for business and residents with other major American cities.

Developers argue that, so long as trade unions have a lock on Philadelphia building sites, the cost of construction will always exceed the payback, and the city will never realize its full potential. The unions counter that, without their representation, construction work will turn into just another minimum-wage occupation with no benefits. Right now, they earn an average of $63 an hour. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

The only certainty is that other developers will surely follow suit if the Pestronks succeed in completing the $38 million Goldtex project without acceding to union demands.

It has not been an easy fight, as Wednesday's delivery proved.

Unlike many of the oversize vehicles that arrive at other Philadelphia construction sites, theirs didn't receive an official police escort through the city or a formal street closure.

Instead, as Mike Pestronk recounted, the crane left in southern New York state at 9 a.m. accompanied by two cars carrying armed escorts and with a security guard riding shotgun in the cab. Hoping to keep the union protesters in the dark about its arrival, he said, the crane owner agreed to travel a circuitous route through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, staying off major highways. The permits were registered under the name of a subcontractor.

As a backup, Pestronk reached out to Resnick, who promised extra police at the delivery point. The crane is crucial for hoisting steel and other equipment onto the roof of Goldtex, where a planted garden, fitness center, and penthouse apartment are planned.

In case the extra police didn't show, Pestronk said, he arranged to have a decoy tractor-trailer travel to Wood Street as the crane drew near. As the tractor-trailer turned on Wood Street, dozens of union protesters made a beeline for it as usual.

Little did they know the crane was approaching on Vine Street. When it reached its destination, the Shell gas station, only a token group of protesters was there. Resnick said the extra police were easily able to hold them back, allowing the crane to drive unimpeded onto the Pestronks' property.

You might think the city would just put its foot down and stop the unions from blocking delivery trucks. Resnick argues that's easier said than done.

"What happens if we go to court and there is a negative outcome for the city?" he asked. The city would then be at risk for a civil-rights lawsuit from the unions, who have a constitutional right to protest. "There are so many things to take into consideration," Resnick added.

Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for commerce and planning, says he's unhappy that protesters are blocking deliveries. "Any illegal activity that gets in the way of construction does not help the city's reputation," he says, and vows not to let the same thing happen again. The Pestronks' next project will be even more high-profile, the former Arco office building at Broad and Spruce.

The other day, Mayor Nutter took my colleague Daniel Rubin to a high-rise now under construction, to show him the growing forest of cranes across the city, 13 so far. While acknowledging the challenges developers face working with the city's unions, Nutter told Rubin, "I haven't seen cranes like this in who knows when."

The Pestronks added one more Wednesday. But just barely.


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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