(Opinion) Union Square Tech Training Center: Good for Our Community, Good For Underserved Youth

Rendering of new Union Square Tech Hub. Image via NYC EDC.

Rendering of new Union Square Tech Hub. Image via NYC EDC.

The following op/ed was written by Meghan Joye, a member of Community Board 3 and chair of CB3’s Economic Development Committee. It concerns the Union Square Tech Training Center, a new facility on 14th Street that was approved by the New York City Council last monthThe Lo-Down accepts op/ed submissions relevant to the Lower East Side community. Opinion pieces do not reflect the editorial position of The Lo-Down, but only the viewpoints of each individual author. To submit an editorial/letter to the editor, use the following email: info@thelodownny.com

As a member and now Chair of CB3’s  Economic Development Committee, I have listened to the struggles of our small businesses for the last seven years. Many of the complaints were about lack of daytime foot traffic. Eating and drinking establishments dominated our retail landscape and many stores were left gated until early evening. Vacancies were high because small retail could not pay the rent. Another factor was the lack of office space in our neighborhood. Most of our residents leave the area to go to work and few come here to work.

One of the ways in which the Economic Development Committee decided to remedy daytime retail problems was to encourage more office space in the neighborhood and to support new local entrepreneurs. We asked the city for a business incubator in our District Needs Statement in the hopes of revitalizing a stagnant retail scene. When the city presented the committee with a tech training proposal on the current PC Richards site, we sat there waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Of course we had concerns and asked for protections. We had more than our fair share of liquor licenses and wanted to be sure new tenants would not be more of the same. We made sure roof use would not add to late noise complaints. For the most part, though, we were being offered a building chock full with amenities in exchange for a relatively modest increase in bulk and height.

The tech training center will provide three floors of free or scholarship-based digital workforce development. There will be five floors of “step-up” office spaces offering flexible lease terms to companies that have outgrown their We-Work spaces but cannot commit to a 20-year office lease. There will be a marketplace on the ground floor leased solely to businesses with 5 or fewer locations with 25% of leases reserved for first time entrepreneurs. In addition, the tech training center will provide free community event space. The remaining floors will be market rate leases to established companies.

We were impressed, but as advocates for our community, we wanted to maximize the community benefits.  We worked with our City Council member, Carlina Rivera, to press the developers for increased community benefits. She did, and she was successful. The developers have committed to additional free community event space, additional incubator space and an annual contribution of $200,000 towards tech scholarships. Companies leasing space in the building will be subject to NYC’s living wage requirements and will participate with the LES Employment Network and HIRE NYC to help local low-income New Yorkers find employment. Council member Rivera has negotiated that 25% of all tech trainees be District 2 residents from underserved communities and set goals for the the number of incubator leases given to M/WBE tenants. In addition, the site itself will create almost 1400 jobs, 615 of which will be permanent.

Not everyone sees the tech training center as an important step in our community’s economic future. Instead of seeing the project as a pathway for our underserved youth to become members of the middle class or as a support system for local entrepreneurs, there are claims that it will turn Union Square into the next “Silicon Alley” that will displace residents and local businesses. It is important to know that not everyone agrees. Tech is already well established in the area with the likes of Dropbox, Hulu, Ebay and Facebook having taken root in Union Square.  Before we paint this industry as “evil tech,” we should remember that Tech largely kept this city afloat economically after the financial collapse of 2008.

Tech isn’t just an industry in itself, it permeates all industries. If we are not educating our at-risk communities in these skills, they will continue to be left behind. If we’re looking to “break the cycle of poverty” and create “pathways to the middle class”, this is one viable solution. The starting salary for a coder in NYC is $60,000 per year.  That’s twice the amount of a full time minimum wage job. This project is also huge step forward in creating a more diverse tech industry in NYC. Technology fosters change and change must come from a collaboration of many voices, not a few. The tech training center is one step forward in achieving that goal.