And they’re off! Record-setting PLA to guide Suffok Downs redevelopment

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Suffolk Downs was the place to be. Horseracing was wildly popular here (and throughout the country), and tens of thousands of visitors regularly jammed the racetrack’s stands. In the following decades, attendance dropped off, slowly at first and then more dramatically. By the time Suffolk Downs ran its final live race last June, the crowds had dwindled to a trickle.

But crowds of people will once again be flocking to the site.

When a deal to build the Boston-area casino at the forlorn racetrack fell apart, the HYM Investment Group swooped in with plan B: an enormous development project that will essentially create a new neighborhood from the ground up. How enormous? At 161 acres, the property is about the size of the North End. Plans call for 16 million square feet of development. That’s more than double the size of the Boston Seaport development, which, up to this point, has been hailed as the largest single real estate project in the city’s history. Suffolk Downs, therefore, will handily take the crown as Boston’s largest redevelopment project.

“We’re used to working on big projects. But, I can’t think of one that comes close to this,” says Tim Fandel, business manager for Local 12. Estimated to take about 15 years to fully build out, the Suffolk Downs project will create 14,000 construction jobs. “It will literally mean millions of hours for Local 12 members,” Fandel adds.

To launch the massive project, HYM, general contractor John Moriarty & Associates, and the area’s building trades unions worked together to develop a project labor agreement (PLA). The pact is the largest private sector PLA ever signed in the region.

A huge boost for Building Pathways

The Suffolk Downs redevelopment will be entirely union-built. The agreement spells out collective bargaining provisions for the building trades that will work at the site.

“The PLA guarantees living wages with benefits, support of apprenticeship programs–all the things that unions represent,” says Fandel. It is also a document that all parties will be able to use as a collaborative tool throughout the lifecycle of the project, an important consideration given the extensive duration of the buildout. “Because the project will span so many years, the PLA will allow for continuity and consistency, regardless of changes in leadership, changing economic conditions, contract negotiations, or other factors,” Fandel notes.

Straddling two communities, 60% of the Suffolk Downs site is located in East Boston with 40% of it based in Revere. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, and Boston City Councilor (representing East Boston) Lydia Edwards were supportive of all stakeholders and the project’s community process and strived to ensure that all voices were part of the discussion. In addition to involving the leaders, HYM has conducted extensive outreach to engage the community at large. The company has worked hard to get organizations and individuals to buy into the project.

According to Tom O’Brien, HYM founding partner and managing director, he has held over 450 meetings over a two-year period to discuss the proposed Suffolk Downs redevelopment. Some were large-scale community meetings, others were one-on-one chats across a kitchen table. Those give-and-take discussions helped shape the plans and goals for the project. Community issues also factor into the PLA governing the project.

For example, HYM is committing $2 million to equity and inclusion initiatives as part of the agreement. $1 million will be targeted to Building Pathways, an apprentice preparedness program that provides training and advocacy for women and people of color seeking employment in the construction industry. Its graduates have joined the ranks of Local 12. Mayor Walsh founded the program when he was head of the area’s building trades.

“Building Pathways is the vanguard for outreach and recruitment to underrepresented groups in construction,” says Brian Doherty, the current secretary treasurer and general agent of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District. “It’s been such a game changer and has made a huge impact for a lot of people as well as the industry as a whole.”

Since its launch in 2011, Building Pathways has enrolled 343 participants, 86% of whom are people of color and 42% of whom are women. It boasts a graduation rate of 93% and a placement rate of 80% in union apprenticeships or industry-related employment.

Mary Vogel, the executive director of Building Pathways, is grateful for the PLA earmark and says that it will be used to sustain and expand the organization and its mission. She hopes to move into a larger space that can better accommodate the growing program. On her wish list is an in-house shop facility that could be used for hands-on training.

Beyond the financial support, Vogel notes that the Suffolk Downs PLA addresses important issues such as specifying that a percentage of the project’s construction jobs be reserved for apprentices and that a percentage of the apprentices be Building Pathways graduates. “The PLA’s equity provisions will not only increase participation of women and people of color in the building trades, but also help create a respectful and welcoming workplace,” she says.

“We worked collectively, all parties, to make sure diversity and equity are front and center in this pact,” Doherty adds.

Two Blue Line MBTA stations are located on the site.

Housing will be a key component

So, what will be built at the former racetrack? 10 million square feet, or 63% of the project, will be devoted to housing. The new construction will make a significant dent in the area’s acute housing needs. Commercial, office, and lab space, will account for 5 million square feet, and hotel and retail will occupy the remaining 1 million square feet of development.

“The retail is what we would call ‘neighborhood retail.’ It’s restaurants and small shops, not big-box retail,” says HYM’s O’Brien. That makes sense, because there will be lots of neighbors moving onto the site.

10,000 housing units, including apartments, condos, townhouses, and single-family homes, are planned and an estimated 15,000 people will eventually live in the new neighborhood. 930 of the on-site units will be affordable. HYM is pledging to build and preserve another 500 units of affordable housing offsite in East Boston. The Suffolk Downs redevelopment will create more affordable units in Boston than any other single project.

Bounded by major roads, the site, as it currently stands, is physically cut off from East Boston and Revere. HYM has plans to connect the new neighborhood to the larger community via infrastructure improvements valued at $367 million. “It’s our obligation to build all of the roads, parks, water, sewer–everything,” O’Brien says. A quarter of the site will be dedicated to open space. “We think that’s a terrific way to build community and make sure that even if you don’t live or work there, everyone will be welcome there,” he adds.

One of the ways that the Suffolk Downs site is connected to the community, and one of its greatest attributes, is that two Blue Line MBTA stations are located on its eastern border. It is a short ride to Logan Airport and about a 15-minute ride to downtown Boston.The project is scheduled to break ground later this year.

What is a project labor agreement?

Representing 16 million square feet of development across 161 acres that will span two communities and require 14,000 construction workers over the course of 15 to 20 years, the project labor agreement for the construction of the Suffolk Downs redevelopment will be the largest agreement of its kind for a private-sector project ever in the region. But what is a project labor agreement, exactly?

“Project labor agreements are good, sound public policy,” says Brian Doherty, secretary treasurer and general agent of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District. “They ensure that all stakeholders involved with construction projects benefit. PLAs are good for developers, contractors, workers, and surrounding communities.”

The concept of a project labor agreement (PLA) dates back to the 1930s, when it was first introduced to help guide complex and massive public projects such as the Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. A PLA establishes the terms and conditions of employment for construction workers prior to breaking ground on a project. It defines a set of agreed-upon expectations for all parties.

To draft a PLA, union labor organizations negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the owner of a project, whether it is a public or private entity. In some cases, general contractors and/or representatives of the communities in which projects are based are also involved in the negotiations. For the Suffolk Downs PLA, general contractor John Moriarty & Associates participated in the development of the agreement along with the project’s owner, the HYM Investment Group, and the building trades unions.

Included among agreements’ terms are elements such as employee wages and benefits, budgets, timelines, accountability and transparency provisions, and community benefits. More recently, issues such as pay equity, gender equity, and diversity equity have been addressed in PLAs, including the one negotiated for the Suffolk Downs project.

By considering and standardizing terms and conditions up front, PLAs help promote productivity, efficiencies, and stability, which engender the quality of the work and the timely completion of projects. The agreements dictate minimum standards that translate into fair treatment for workers, including assurances that they will not be locked out of their jobs. In exchange, workers agree not to strike or picket during the term of the PLA. Should disputes arise, resolution mechanisms are included in the agreement.

“The best way to develop a PLA–and it’s worked for nearly 100 years now–is to anticipate any issues that might come up and resolve them before the project starts,” Doherty says.

The benefits flow in all directions. “The PLA gives us predictability in terms of cost, schedule, and quality,” says Tom O’Brien, HYM founding partner and managing director. “We build all of our jobs with union construction trades.”

While Suffolk Downs is enormous, PLAs are not necessarily used just for large projects. The advantages that they bring can be scaled for projects of any size.

Through the years, PLAs have weathered some storms. In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-worker forces challenged their legality. The issue made its way through the judicial system, ending with the Supreme Court hearing a case regarding the Boston Harbor cleanup in 1993. The court voted unanimously to uphold the use of PLAs on public projects based on the fact that they make sense for both business and labor.

“PLAs just make sense,” Doherty says when asked why the agreements have stood the test of time and remain vital today. “They’re critical to the democratic process. They ensure that when there is economic development, everyone has a seat at the table and shares in economic prosperity.”

Day care that works for parents in the trades

–Suffolk Downs redevelopment PLA to support new program

Interested in early-morning childcare? Indicate your interest at the Care that Works site.

For any parents of young children, finding good, affordable day care can be a challenge. For plumbers and other people working in the building trades, it can be especially difficult to locate providers that can care for their children. That’s because their workday begins much earlier than most other people in the workforce, and the day care industry just isn’t designed to accommodate them.

What if there was a network of family childcare providers ready to welcome kids into their homes starting at 5 a.m.? Parents would be able to drop off their children and make it to the job site on time. That’s the idea behind Care that Works, a new program developed by Community Labor United. Part of the funds that HYM Investment Group is targeting to equity and inclusion initiatives in the Suffolk Downs project labor agreement will support Care that Works.

“For women in particular, childcare can be a barrier to getting access to good union jobs,” says Lindsay McCluskey, deputy director at Community Labor United. It’s a problem for people currently working in the trades as well as for people wanting to get into the trades. The problem boils down to who is going to watch their kids in the early morning, or what the day care industry refers to as “nonstandard hours.”

To address the issue, Community Labor United formed a coalition of community organizations concerned about childcare, including the apprentice preparedness program, Building Pathways, and unions representing childcare providers. “Together, we thought these groups could really make an impact and come up with solutions,” McCluskey says.

Caring for kids–and childcare providers

Care that Works is assembling a group of family childcare providers that would agree to accept children beginning in the early morning each day. As opposed to large group childcare facilities, family childcare providers are licensed by the state to care for up to 10 children in their home. This spring, Care that Works plans to launch a pilot program that would include five to ten family childcare providers.

At the same time, the organization is reaching out to construction workers and people enrolled in union-affiliated training programs to determine the need for early-morning childcare. To find out more information and to indicate your interest, go to carethatworks.org.

Once it has gathered families seeking childcare and providers that want to offer early-morning care, it will match them up.

“It‘s both about making sure that families working in construction have access to the childcare they need and recognizing that childcare workers deserve to have a living wage,” says McCluskey about the goals of the program. In recognition of the sacrifices that family childcare providers would make in changing their schedules and waking up earlier, Care that Works would compensate them with a rate differential. “Our campaign has a workers-rights perspective for childcare providers,” McCluskey adds.

In addition to the Suffolk Downs redevelopment PLA, other projects are supporting Care that Works. For example, MP Boston will be providing funds to the program through the project labor agreement it signed with the building trades unions for Winthrop Center, a building now under construction in downtown Boston.

Community Labor United works with grassroots organizations and labor unions on a variety of campaigns and initiatives. Among its programs is the Green Justice Campaign, which brings energy efficiency upgrades and jobs to Boston’s low-income communities and communities of color, and Public Transit, Public Good, which advocates for an affordable and efficient public transportation system that invests in workers and meets the needs of riders.

America’s most famous tool was invented here

The next time you reach for a pipe wrench, you might want to consider that you owe a debt of gratitude to Daniel Stillson. He was an engineer at the Boston company, J.J. Walworth Manufacturing, and invented the Stillson wrench in 1869. Some 150 years after he helped revolutionize plumbing, modern-day versions of Stillson’s ubiquitous tool remain virtually unchanged.

A recent Boston Globe article written by Michael Fitzgerald featured the Stillson wrench. Bearing the headline, “The best local invention we’ve forgotten,” Fitzgerald traced the tool’s development. He indicated that the wrench gained such currency, people referred to it generically as a “Stillson,” much the same way that we use the term “Google” today. According to the writer, it became America’s most famous tool.

Stillson did not invent the first adjustable wrench. Credit for that goes to Solyman Merrick of Springfield, Massachusetts, who, in 1835, patented a wrench with jaws that could be moved by turning a screw. What Stillson did was add angled teeth to the jaws and make the head loose. Those two innovations enabled his wrench to more firmly grip metal pipes, which were replacing wooden pipes in the plumbing trade. The versatile tool allowed plumbers to work with a variety of pipes and fasteners, including ones that were worn. Because of its flexibility, plumbers could replace whole sets of fixed wrenches with a single Stillson.

According to Fitzgerald, “In the mid-19th century, there was no more exciting place to work in the plumbing industry than Boston.” In addition to the Stillson wrench, the Walworth company also developed the concept of steam heating systems and manufactured the Walworth radiator. The Trimont Company, based in Roxbury from 1902 to 1954, was also known for its wrenches as well as other pipefitting tools.

Following the conventions of the day, when Stillson brought the prototype of his wrench to his bosses at Walworth for consideration, they insisted that the inventor apply for the patent and own the tool. Through a licensing arrangement with the Boston company to manufacture and sell the wrench, Stillson earned fees estimated at $100,000 throughout the course of his life. That’s equivalent to $3 million in 2020.

Walworth relocated to Texas in the 1950s and then to Mexico in the 1970s. After the patent expired, other companies issued their own versions of the Stillson.

Interestingly, Walworth’s factory was located in Cambridge in a building that had previously housed a horse-drawn carriage manufacturer. Later, Edwin Land bought the building and used it to develop his Polaroid instant camera. Today, MIT owns the space and runs a company known as the Engine there. It welcomes tech startups in the energy, biotech, and manufacturing fields.

Who knows? One of them may develop something as game changing as the Stillson wrench.