Building Innovation: MetroTech Rejuvenates Downtown Brooklyn

  On Thursdays during the summer, lunchtime crowds at MetroTech gather for performances by musical acts like George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic at the season-long R&B festival. About four blocks away, shoppers stroll Fulton Mall, where towering metal cranes and neon-orange road barrels attest to the construction characterizing downtown Brooklyn today. Later this year popular burger franchise Shake Shack and retail giant H&M will add even more bustle, while nearby the massive, if controversial, Atlantic Yards project, which will relocate the New Jersey Nets basketball team to the borough, proceeds apace.

Surveying the vibrant scene, it's hard to imagine Brooklyn as it was 30 years ago — like many cities across the country, the borough was desolate and plagued by crime, its fire-ravaged buildings proof of desperate measures undertaken: landlords hoping to stay solvent hired arsonists to torch their buildings for the insurance money. Two successive national recessions had sucker-punched the city, with payroll and population plummeting between 1969 and 1976. In those seven years alone, 800,000 people fled New York for brighter economic futures elsewhere.

"The city was on the edge of bankruptcy," says former Mayor Ed Koch, describing conditions when he took office in 1978. By that time, George Bugliarello had already been president of Polytechnic for five years, and he was anxious for change. Despite leading one of the nation's oldest private engineering schools — then a pioneer in polymer and telecommunications research — Bugliarello was having trouble attracting new students and faculty to classrooms and labs many believed to be located in dangerous environs. Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden was experiencing similar trouble: rising office and retail vacancies were threatening to sink the borough's commercial viability. Neither situation improved the area’s financial health. Without the steady contribution of student tuition, NYU-Poly's finances tumbled, while vanishing businesses and residents depleted Brooklyn's tax rolls.

Then Bugliarello had an idea: develop an urban research park that would marry scholarly interests with the needs of industry. If they could establish the proper public-private partnerships, he and Golden believed they could refashion downtown Brooklyn as a Silicon Valley of sorts. They began working towards that goal in the 1970s, but it wasn't until Koch and, more importantly, private developer Forest City Ratner gave their support to the project that MetroTech began to take shape in the late 80s and 90s. With the resources that the City of New York was able to provide and the investments Forest City Ratner contributed, the roughly 22 acres that composed MetroTech came to house the back offices of industry titans JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan and Brooklyn Union Gas (now known as National Grid), among others.

At the time of MetroTech's opening, NYU-Poly occupied just two sides of the project's commons area. This year, though, the Institute leased a combined total of 85,000 square feet in both the 2 and 15 MetroTech buildings as part of its Campus Transformation project. The additional space will accommodate labs, classrooms, and administrative functions and allow the Institute to "own the central square," says NYU-Poly President Jerry Hultin. With a presence on all four sides of MetroTech Commons, the move will facilitate a greater campus-like setting.

The people of Brooklyn have a very special spirit

Cable talked to some of the key players of MetroTech's beginnings and those who continue to influence its future today, as well as those who remember the area before it became a magnet for so many. In the last four years alone, downtown Brooklyn has added 5,000 apartments to its housing stock, reports New York magazine. Koch isn't surprised. "The people of Brooklyn have a very special spirit," he says.