The Return of MetroTech

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The meeting room of the old Board of Estimate must have been packed back on June 30, 1987. Almost 80 people turned out to speak on a massive new development intended to repel New Jersey’s assaults on New York City’s jobs. The Metropolitan Technology Center, as the development was first known, would transport the wonders of suburban office parks to downtown Brooklyn: 4.2 million square feet of floor space spread over eight new high-rise buildings grouped around a landscaped courtyard. It was radically different from the patchwork of houses, warehouses and ratty storefronts that made up downtown back then.

Over the next five hours, about half of the speakers argued that MetroTech was the city’s best hope to provide the cheap back-office space that investment banks needed. Then the other half said that it was a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle. All through the night, then–Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden negotiated an agreement to guarantee apartments for the elderly and poor people who would be displaced. With that piece in place, the Board of Estimate, a now-extinct oligarchy that used to make policy decisions, unanimously approved the plan at 10 o’clock the next morning.

The new housing commitment got a lot of press the next day, but neither Golden nor anybody else did much to address another big concern that opponents raised: whether any of MetroTech’s jobs would go to people who lived nearby, especially those in the Fort Greene public housing complexes on the other side of Flatbush Avenue.

Seventeen years later, while the buildings are still enjoying a property-tax holiday, no one knows how many low-income residents of adjoining neighborhoods are working at the complex. But business leaders and community activists agree that the number is very low.

Today, downtown Brooklyn sits on the verge of similarly ambitious new economic development projects poised to transform the area. The area around the Fulton Mall is being rezoned to promote office and retail redevelopment. MetroTech’s builder, Forest City Ratner, is planning a 13-acre office and apartment complex with a basketball arena attached. A couple of miles away, Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings giant, is opening its first New York City store.

To win the support of surrounding neighborhoods that will be affected by the projects, developers have been pledging that they can deliver jobs to unemployed and underemployed Brooklynites. Ratner is promising to hire local residents for construction work. Ikea has vowed to give priority to job applicants living in and near Red Hook.

Brooklyn will also reap the benefits of the federal government and Bloomberg administration’s investments in workforce development–notably a new “one-stop” career center that the city Department of Small Business Services opened downtown last April, which has already served more than 10,000 job-seekers. The office will be in a strong position to make jobs available this time around to low-income, low-skilled residents of central Brooklyn who need employment.

But only to a point. The one-stop has been successful in getting applicants jobs in retail operations, like the new Target store that opened this summer. It’s well equipped, too, to send job-seekers to specialized training programs.

What SBS has never done, however, is link significant numbers of job-seekers with positions at financial services corporations–the very companies that anchor MetroTech and are envisioned as the major tenants for the new downtown Brooklyn.

These real estate projects present the same challenges that MetroTech did. They were never intended as job-creation enterprises. The overhaul of downtown Brooklyn is designed to keep Wall Street firms from moving to New Jersey. Ratner’s apartment and office complex is meant to provide the revenue to support the adjacent basketball arena. Most of the new jobs that will be created by each will be beyond the reach of many of the low-income people who live nearby.

As Brooklyn harvests its crop of new opportunities, the big test for SBS and business leaders will be finding ways to get local residents to fill the relatively few new entry-level openings for which they qualify. The new downtown will have to succeed where MetroTech failed.

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The idea that MetroTech should benefit local neighborhoods came about early on. The project, after all, was going to have a catacylsmic impact: To make way for the complex, the city had to invoke eminent domain, displacing an estimated 250 residents and 750 jobs that were there before. In addition, MetroTech would increase traffic and congestion. “Imagine,” says Darnell Canada, at the time a member of the Ingersoll Houses Tenants Association in Fort Greene. “There are some people cooking in your kitchen, and somebody else comes in, and this new person starts serving food to all the other people in your house aside from the people who are cooking?”

MetroTech boosters, back in 1987, suggested that at least some of the dishes would make their way around. “Proponents maintained that there will be a total of 14,000 jobs, of which 5,800 will be retained and 8,200 will be newly created,” according to the minutes of a Planning Commission public hearing. “Many of these jobs will be entry-level positions providing employment opportunities to Brooklynites.”

MetroTech’s has grown beyond its original plan, to 5.8 million square feet. Its total job count has grown, too, to 22,000 today. But most, business leaders acknowledge, were positions that moved in from elsewhere in the city. “Those were not new jobs,” says Michael Burke, director of the Brooklyn Downtown Business Council, an offshoot of the borough’s chamber of commerce. “A lot of those jobs existed when the buildings went up. For the most part, they were relocated jobs.”

That was because MetroTech went up during the early and mid-1990s, when the city’s economy was sluggish. “What happened was that many people followed their jobs to Brooklyn,” says Jan Rosenberg, a Long Island University sociologist who has studied the project. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. People had thought, ‘Why would anyone leave Wall Street to go work in Brooklyn?'”

MetroTech boosters say that as those relocated employees leave, they are being replaced by local residents. It is a contention that’s hard to prove. The city Economic Development Corporation reports that 33 percent of MetroTech employees live in Brooklyn but cannot say where in the borough. James Stuckey, executive vice president for commercial development at Forest City Ratner, refused to answer whether MetroTech provided jobs to local residents. Instead, he said, the real benefit was a trigger effect that the complex had on other downtown development. “None of that would have happened if we hadn’t planted the seeds of MetroTech to show a place that was in the eyes of many corporate executives a war zone,” says Stuckey, who was president of the city’s economic development agency when MetroTech was approved.

He gives as an example two shopping malls that opened in the past 10 years at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, a half-mile away, which so far employ 1,600 people. Yet the malls, Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal, are in fact economic development projects of their own, created by urban renewal plans and built by Forest City Ratner itself.

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The demographics of the neighborhoods around MetroTech are not enviable. About 17,000 people live in the 10 poorest Census tracts close to MetroTech, which include parts of downtown and the Fort Greene public housing developments. In 2000, about 22 percent of adults were unemployed. A third had not graduated from high school or attained a GED, and 45 percent were living below the poverty line.

When MetroTech opened, the Dinkins administration had an ambitious employment strategy: It would train local residents until they qualified for MetroTech’s office jobs. The city undertook two costly and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to accomplish this.

In return for a city subsidy, the investment firm Bear Stearns agreed to spend $2 million on a training program for local residents on public assistance. The 10-month program graduated 80 people over 10 years, and about 50 of them went on to get jobs. It wasn’t cheap–about $40,000 in training and stipends for each job netted. (It was, however, less expensive than the $51,000 in tax breaks that the city awarded for each employee that Chase Manhattan Bank moved to Brooklyn.)

And not many of those 80 graduates were from downtown or Fort Greene. According to Yelena Melikian, who supervised the effort as director of the Business and Industry Training Center at the City College of Technology, the program ended up taking applicants from all of Brooklyn because not enough nearby residents applied who fit the criteria–high school diploma, skills proficiency at a 10th-grade level, and motivation. In the end, only seven trainees ended up at Bear Stearns, and only a few others at MetroTech companies.

A broader job-placement effort came through a nonprofit organization, the Workforce Development Corporation, established by the city in 1991 to house an agency called the Downtown Brooklyn Training and Employment Council (now TEC Brooklyn). Funded with about $2.5 million that MetroTech contractors paid the city in lieu of sales taxes on construction materials, TEC Brooklyn is not well known, and observers question its effectiveness. “I think it was moderately successful,” says Burke. “I don’t think anyone would say it was completely successful.”

In 1995, the organization began a six-week job training program called Classroom Without Walls, serving 18 students a year. The results mirror those achieved by the Bear Stearns internship: a 65 percent placement rate. Yet only a handful of graduates ended up at MetroTech companies. TEC Brooklyn also prescreened candidates for jobs at the Marriott hotel downtown, which opened in 1998. That effort yielded 183 hires and is hailed as TEC Brooklyn’s major achievement. Just 10 percent of those new employees came from Central Brooklyn.

Edwin Alicea, TEC Brooklyn’s director since last spring, concludes that the agency came along too late in MetroTech’s history to do much good. “If a development of this size comes along, either you’re ahead of it or you’re behind it,” Alicea reasons. “If you’re behind it, there is only so much you can do, and I think that is what happened. The corporations already had their people.”

LIU’s Rosenberg believes the problem was TEC Brooklyn’s decision to operate as a “labor broker,” learning from employers what sort of people they were looking for and communicating those preferences to organizations that provided job training, instead of placing trainees directly. “They didn’t ever want to see individuals who wanted jobs,” she says. “They only wanted to deal with companies, the bigger the better. They liked having lunch with corporate executives.”

Rosenberg argues that TEC Brooklyn should have set its sights lower, to get people placed in jobs for which they were already substantially prepared. “It’s easier for companies to take qualified people and train them into real jobs than for job training organizations to give people skills that may or may not be what employers want,” she explains.

The major corporations that moved to MetroTech did not make their own local recruitment efforts. Instead, area leaders report, they sought to raise their profiles as supporters of community improvement, by funding and serving on the boards of nonprofit neighborhood development groups. (Spokespeople for JPMorgan Chase, Bear Stearns and the Securities Industry Automation Corporation would not answer questions on the subject.) They saw their surroundings as an object of charity, not a source of labor.

The head of one community-based organization says that she gets grants from one MetroTech corporation and an executive of another sits on her board, yet neither company comes to her with help-wanted notices, even for entry level jobs that her clients might qualify for. “We’ve been pleased with the kind of support we’ve received from these businesses,” says Georgianna Glose of Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership, a multiservice organization that offers employment assistance. “But there hasn’t been follow-through on the part of personnel departments.” A jobs specialist at a major Brooklyn social service agency, who does not want to be identified, says, “They send us tutors. We go over there for field trips. But we have placed very few people in jobs at MetroTech.”

One of the big obstacles, the job specialist notes, is that the marquee companies like Chase and Bear Stearns are not doing the hiring for low-skilled cafeteria, custodial and security jobs. Those jobs are outsourced, which means she has to find out which service company has the contract, and then find out from that company when jobs are open. Over the past several years, she says, she has placed just one client in an outsourced position at MetroTech.

Community residents and groups have their share of unfulfilled responsibility, too, notes Lois Blades-Rosado, the dean of SUNY’s Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center and chairwoman of the workforce development committee at the Downtown Brooklyn Council. “I don’t think MetroTech has benefited the community at all,” she says. “But it takes a lot of work to pull people out of the developments and into the opportunities that are out there.” Her job training center opened a computer lab in a public housing development that would help residents get their GEDs and apply for jobs. But aside from tenant association officers, their friends and a few others, few residents take advantage of it.

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This phase of Brooklyn’s new era will be different, city planners and business leaders vow. There are three major economic development projects underway, and three different methods by which new jobs could get to neighborhood residents.

The largest of the projects is the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, through which the city would seize property throughout a 60-block area to the south of MetroTech and lease it to developers in order to accommodate financial services firms that would otherwise move to New Jersey. Over the next 10 years, the plan, which was approved this June by the City Council, is expected to create or transplant about 18,000 jobs. Some of those will be in retail and therefore immediately accessible to workers without higher education: The Downtown development plan envisions one million square feet of selling space, enough for a couple thousand jobs.

No one knows exactly how the incoming companies will staff their new offices, but business leaders expect that the new Workforce1 Career Center will play a big role. Sometimes called “the one-stop,” the career center is located on Bond Street downtown. One of five such centers in the city, it is a result of the Clinton-era Workforce Investment Act, which gives states federal dollars to establish coordinated job training and placement services. A job seeker who registers with one of these centers can search job listings, submit a resumé to a database, speak with a job counselor, apply for a $2,500 voucher for tuition and even seek social services–like substance abuse counseling–that help remove barriers to work.

The most promising characteristic of the one-stop is that it aims to marry job creation with economic development. It is run by the city Department of Small Business Services, and every time the department learns, through the Economic Development Corporation, of a business opening or expanding in Brooklyn, it runs down the company’s personnel director and offers to take over part of the recruitment effort for free by publicizing jobs at the one-stop and digging through resumés already on file. Its first assignment came last summer, when it prescreened applicants for Target, Daffy’s and other tenants of Ratner’s Atlantic Terminal mall. As of this past fall, 159 of the 550 employees at the mall came through the one-stop. Some of these workers had burnished their qualifications by going through a short “retail readiness” course before applying.

On the face of it, the placement record does not look better than TEC Brooklyn’s record at the Marriott, and it is not possible to determine how many of the new shopping mall hires came from neighboring areas–only that 80 percent of them came from Brooklyn. But the advantage is that the one-stop is set up to do this type of screening again and again.

Another project is Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, about half a mile further out across from its malls. The proposed complex will feature an arena to house the New Jersey Nets basketball team, recently acquired by Forest City CEO Bruce Ratner, but it will also include office towers. If approved, it will compete for the same back-office tenants that are expected to rent space downtown.

Atlantic Yards is not as far along as the downtown plan, and it has encountered far more opposition: It would be built over train yards and on space that would require the clearing of apartments and businesses. To gain support for its passage, Ratner has begun negotiating a community benefits agreement that would create a binding contract to force Forest City to provide jobs and affordable housing. Exactly who is negotiating on behalf of the community is secret. So, largely, is the agreement itself.

The details that have emerged suggest that the community benefits agreement would create some sort of geographic affirmative action program. Forest City wants to replicate or improve upon its record of giving local residents construction jobs at MetroTech, according to Darryl Greene, a consultant who runs the firm’s minority, women and community involvement initiatives. Over the past decade, says Greene, 379 Brooklynites have gotten construction jobs with Forest City contractors at MetroTech and the company’s two shopping malls. (He does not have a firm number for neighborhood residents hired.) For Atlantic Yards, he says, Forest City will also create an apprenticeship program with the Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group, which will give training spots to residents of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and other adjacent communities. This is no small commitment: Construction jobs may lead to an upward career track, and they pay significantly better than retail work. Ratner has been less explicit so far about whether he’ll promise permanent jobs.

Finally, the Ikea furniture company recently gained approval from the City Council for its first New York City store, to open in Red Hook by 2007. The passage depended on Ikea’s promise to open up the job-application process two weeks early for residents of the local zip code, 11231, and also permit those people to attend, for free, an intensive job preparedness course in order to bolster their candidacies. Ikea expects to employ 600 at the store, 60 percent of which will be full-time and only 30 or 40 of which will be transferred from other stores, according to Pat Smith, the company’s real estate director. Ikea is also doing something unique and necessary: It has hired STRIVE, a Harlem-based job training program, to conduct outreach to get public housing residents motivated to compete for those jobs.

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At the Downtown Brooklyn Council, Michael Burke imagines the recruitment effort for incoming businesses will embrace several different strategies. In many cases, he anticipates, it will be easy to match applicants with the jobs they are qualified for. Other job seekers will get training to make them more appealing candidates, either for those same jobs or for more specialized, higher-paid positions.

Above all, the job recruitment system will have to appeal to employers in a way that TEC Brooklyn did not. Companies prefer to work with agencies they already have a relationship with, Burke notes, which means a job recruitment system run by a known entity–like the Chamber, which has a placement organization for small businesses called Good Help, or the Department of Small Business Services and its one-stop–will likely do better than TEC ever could.

Yet Burke does not have a single-minded focus on providing jobs to local residents. “We want to see all of Brooklyn benefit,” he explains, “not just low-income residents and not just upper-income residents.” The one-stop has a similar geographic neutrality. It does not favor local residents over inhabitants from other parts of the city. Robert Walsh, commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, says, “We’re one city. We can’t start putting limitations on geography.” By contrast, the strategies envisioned for Ikea and Atlantic Yards do favor neighbors.

On all three fronts, people involved say that what is happening in Brooklyn is an experiment, and it is unclear what will come of it. “This is the first time we have done something like this,” Ikea’s Pat Smith says. “If it works, it will be something we will want to try in other places.” And while many of the specifics sound vague at the moment, the numerous players believe their projects will pay off more than MetroTech ever did. “We really do want to have a cadre of people ready for businesses when they come here,” says Blades-Rosado of the Downtown Brooklyn Council. “There are a lot of efforts, and we are hoping it will pan out. I will have to tell you in 10 years if it did.”

Matthew Schuerman is a Crown Heights–based freelance writer.