The Real Deal New York

Power lunch

Construction big shots talk about scandals, big projects and union clout over chicken, cod and monkfish at Craft in Gramercy Park
By Kathryn Brenzel | February 01, 2019 09:00AM

Sabrina Kanner, Jonathan Resnick, Carlo Scissura, Milo Riverso and Frank Sciame (Photo by Emily Assiran)

Five construction professionals recently sat down for The Real Deal’s inaugural “Power lunch” feature and discussed a scandal surrounding one of their own.

That morning, coincidentally, former executives at Turner Construction, Bloomberg LP and their subcontractors were indicted in a bid-rigging and bribery scheme that allegedly netted them tens of millions of dollars by overcharging for renovation work at Bloomberg’s Manhattan offices.

But the group that gathered later that day in mid-December — Brookfield Properties’ Sabrina Kanner, Jonathan Resnick of Jack Resnick & Sons, New York Building Congress’ Carlo Scissura, STV Group’s Milo Riverso, and Frank Sciame of Sciame Construction — agreed that Turner emerged from the flurry of press coverage largely unscathed. After all, the company and its CEO weren’t accused of wrongdoing.

“You know, when you have thousands and thousands of employees, there’s always going to be a few bad apples,” Sciame said. “Unfortunately, you get bad raps with these incidents that happen.”

He added that it’s not unusual for construction agreements to happen informally with a phone call or handshake, but in some unforeseen cases, “rogue employees” take advantage of how the industry works.

The five met at Craft in Gramercy Park, a restaurant on the ground floor of a limestone co-op building on East 19th Street that celebrity chef Tom Colicchio opened in 2001. Most of the table ordered braised chicken thighs, though Kanner opted for cod and Resnick went for the monkfish.

The group spoke about the year ahead, which the Building Congress forecasts will bring $50.1 billion in construction spending in the city — slightly down from 2018’s $52.5 billion. Part of the reason for the projected dip is the softening residential market, Scissura said, though infrastructure projects are expected to help fill the gap.

In fact, when he asked the other guests, “What project would you most like to see get done?” Kanner said the redevelopment of Penn Station and Riverso responded, a “true one-seat ride” from Penn to JFK. Scissura chimed in with “burying the Gowanus Expressway” — a project he’s previously pushed for that would fill in six miles of the highway. He said that would accommodate some 40 million square feet of development.

The executives also talked about the latest shifts in construction labor.

Kanner, who’s working on the overhaul of 666 Fifth Avenue with Kushner Companies, said that nonunion shops seem to be catching up to their union counterparts in terms of safety and skill level. At the same time, construction unions are finding ways to stay competitive by changing work rules and making other concessions, she said.

That kicked off a discussion about the trades.

Scissura: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I feel like everyone I knew was a bricklayer. So many bricklayers. Now you can’t find them. But it was an art.

Sciame: The laborers’ union is really called the mason tenders’ union. If you were a true mason tender, no laborer ever worked that hard. Now it’s different — now they’re just sweeping and cleaning.

Riverso: I did a summer as a mason tender. It was hardest job of my life. I did two or three summers as a bricklayer.

Sciame: I can’t picture you laying brick.

Riverso: I can hang doors, I’ve been a carpenter, I’ve been an apprentice electrician. Do you know how I learned brick? My grandfather was a mason tender, and he [showed] me in the backyard. We didn’t use cement; we used lime, sand and water. He would have me build the corner, build the line in between it, put in a window, and when I was done take it all down.

The conversation, near its end, turned to everyone’s favorite vacation spots, and Resnick told the group he usually retreats to Vermont or Massachusetts. Kanner said she takes a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts every weekend in the summer.

Scissura: From 34th Street in Manhattan?

Kanner: Yessir.

Sciame: How long does that take?

Kanner: Five hours. I work for an hour and a half, I read my book, I bring a little summer salad. And when I step off, I’m in a different world.

Sciame said he recently went on a cruise to Greece and was unimpressed when he saw the Parthenon.

Sciame: After the initial “Wow, this is great,” then I said, “This isn’t so hard. There’s no air conditioning. There’s no audio-visual.”

Riverso: There were no cranes, either.

Kanner: The logistics …

Sciame: There’s no owner’s rep or litigator looking over your shoulder.

Sciame said he later saw the Pantheon in Italy and was more impressed. He also noted that recent marketing materials for Harry Macklowe’s 432 Park Avenue compared the condo tower’s design to the Roman temple.

“The windows are ‘modeled after the Pantheon.’ Give me a break!” he exclaimed.