Construction was a washout, but hopes are high for service
By Scott Eidler
In a classroom on the 10th floor of the Metro Tech Center, in downtown Brooklyn, two dozen adults are engaged in an exercise. The assignment? After hearing a list of workplace hiccups—unanswered phone calls, pushy customers, tardy co-workers—they must decide, in order of importance, how they should be handled. And quickly.
“It’s piling up now!” says the instructor, after a few of the scenarios have been read aloud.
“You have to respond to the telephone!” suggests one woman in the class.
Charles Torres sits in the back of the room, taking it all in. He likens the customer service class he’s enrolled in to a slice of “humble pie.” He used to manage the Off Track Betting center on Delancey Street in Manhattan, until 2010, when the city closed it down. Customer service wasn’t the field Torres hoped to fall into, but he’s had to swallow his pride. He thought his experience managing an O.T.B. site would qualify him for banking jobs, but so far, he’s been told otherwise. After nearly two years of struggling to find work, he’s been forced to reinvent himself, at 53.
Torres, like many among the unemployed in Brooklyn, connected with Build (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), an organization that pushes development as a job creator and to help Brooklyn residents land those jobs. Most of the students have been laid off, and they see customer service as a second act. They hope to be hired at the Barclays Center, the new basketball arena poised to be the cornerstone of the Atlantic Yards project when it opens in the fall.
After legislators criticized Build and the site’s developer, Forest City Ratner, for failing to hire enough Brooklyn residents for construction jobs, Build’s president and CEO, James Caldwell, says more may be hired at the arena. He also argues that Brooklyn residents will be better suited for the housing construction phase of the project than they were for the arena construction.
Though Build instructors say they can’t promise students a service job with the arena, they’re certainly showing them the way there. At the end of the course, graduates of the training program are invited to attend a hiring event for the Barclays Center, where they can meet prospective employers. “They’re an inside link to the Nets arena,” says Torres.
Build was formed in 2004, and a year later signed the community benefits agreement, where it was tasked with leading workforce development initiatives for the Atlantic Yards project. It is funded by Forest City Ratner and through other contracts with the city.
Daisy James, one of the instructors for the course, says the class will give students a competitive advantage in the hiring process. After this week, about 100 students are expected to have completed the training since a version of the class was first offered in September. Even if they’re not hired at the Barclays Center, James says, the skills from the class will prove useful in the marketplace. “There’s a paucity in customer service,” she said. “We have an opportunity to connect people with gainful employment.”
Providing gainful employment is exactly what critics of the Atlantic Yards project say the real estate developers haven’t accomplished so far. And some of those critics fault Build, too.
Last month, state legislators blamed Forest City Ratner for reneging on a community benefits agreement that it signed in 2005. The agreement says that the developers must make “good faith efforts” to ensure that, of the total number of construction workers on site, 10 percent are women, and 35 percent are minorities. So far, according to a report the consulting firm Merritt & Harris conducted and shared with bondholders, the developers have fallen short. As of December, minority workers made up only 16.3 percent of the workforce; women comprised 6.3 percent.
Legislators also expressed frustration that fewer Brooklyn residents were working on the arena’s construction than expected. The Empire State Development Corporation, the quasi-public authority that oversees the project, reported in December that an average of 529 employees worked on the arena during the work week, of which only 167 hailed from Brooklyn.
“There are more than 2.5 million people in Brooklyn and hundreds of thousands of folks are either unemployed or underemployed,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “The Atlantic Yards Development Project promised to make a meaningful difference in addressing the employment crisis in central Brooklyn, but that has not happened.”
Gib Veconi, the treasurer of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development, points out that although the developers may have promised jobs for Brooklyn residents, they may not be legally bound by their words. “There’s no question that lots of commitments were made in speeches, presentations, and promises,” Veconi said. “But when push came to shove, and the documents were signed, few of the public commitments that were made really made it into the documents.”
According to the agreement, the developer must make “good faith efforts” of “employing, or causing to be employed” the target levels for minority and women workers. “It’s talking about things that the developer will do for training,” said Veconi. “But training is different from jobs.”
Assemblyman Jeffries introduced a bill last year that critics of the project hope will make developers more accountable to the community. The Atlantic Yards Governance Act calls for the creation of a subsidiary corporation that would allow another group, in addition to the Empire State Development Corporation, to oversee the project, which many view as an opportunity to bring in members with experience in the local community. So far, no luck. After a successful vote in the Assembly, it still awaits passage in the State Senate, where its outcome is less certain.
Jim Vogel, a spokesperson for Senator Velmanette Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor, said that its passage might prove difficult since the senator—a Democrat—is in the minority. So instead, he said the senator is appealing to Governor Andrew Cuomo to bypass the legislature, and enact the governance bill as a part of his annual budget. But up until now, says Vogel, Montgomery has had little success in even talking to the governor about it. “We have requested many meetings with, at this point, four governors,” Vogel said. “Not one of those governors has ever given us the time of day.”
James Caldwell, the president and CEO of Build, says that the underperforming housing market and lawsuits against the developer have delayed the development process, resulting in low job numbers. Last year, participants in a pre-apprenticeship training program filed suit against Build and the developers, claiming that they were not paid appropriately.
“Had the project started on time, we probably would have had 1,500 jobs,” he said. “But that didn’t happen.”
Caldwell argues that there were fewer Brooklyn residents building the arena because they weren’t as qualified for the positions as out-of-towners. “Arenas are not built in New York City every day,” he says. “We don’t have experts here in Brooklyn that know how to build arenas. That means they’ve got to bring them around from all parts of the United States.”
But Veconi strongly objects to that reasoning, arguing that’s exactly what Build was supposed to prevent—by preparing residents for the arena construction. “If people are not qualified, they should train them,” he said.
However, Lance Woodward, Build’s chief financial officer, says that it wasn’t necessarily Build’s job to train them. “We try to help the individual get to the next level,” he said.
But they faced a stumbling block in the unions that controlled construction hiring. Explains Woodward, “They’re very territorial.” Most workers weren’t union members, and getting membership, Woodward says, can take several years. “We have a lot of people in our community who have done this type of work,” he said, before adding, “There are challenges with getting people into the union that we have not been able to overcome at this point.
Caldwell claims that Brooklyn residents will be far more capable to handle housing construction, the next phase of the project that could start as early as June, and includes a 32-story apartment complex. “It’ll be a different story when they start building the houses, because that’s what we specialize in” in New York, Caldwell said.
For now, the focus is on the arena jobs. Assemblyman Jeffries said he intends to meet with the developers to make sure more Brooklyn residents are hired going forward.
“The arena is not the end or the beginning of the end,” said Jeffries. “If anything it’s the end of the beginning.”