Construction of Union Square’s tech hub begins, with applause and laments

Officials begin digging at the construction site of the forthcoming Union Square Tech Training Center.
Officials begin digging at the construction site of the forthcoming Union Square Tech Training Center. Photo Credit: Jasmina Tomic

The city broke ground Monday on a tech training center in Union Square amid opposition from preservationists who say the project should have been accompanied by more limits on development in the area.

The Union Square Tech Training Center is slated to debut by 2020 at the former P.C. Richard & Son location, on East 14th Street near Irving Place. The 21-story building will include a digital-skills training space operated by the nonprofit Civic Hall, as well as coworking space for startups and established companies in the tech field. One floor will be available to community organizations and a food hall and retail space will feature small businesses and first-time entrepreneurs, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

“There are so many people around this city who are eager to learn new skills so that they can access the higher-paying jobs in tech,” Vicki Been, the city’s deputy mayor of housing and economic development, said during a ceremony Monday morning. “And in two years they’ll be able to come right here to build the skills that 21st century jobs demand, empower themselves and find a path into the middle class.”

The center “will provide free and subsidized tech training to thousands of low-income women and people of color,” the area’s councilwoman, Carlina Rivera, said in a statement.

The center, which Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration proposed as part of a larger job development plan, should create more than 550 permanent positions as well as 600 construction jobs, EDC said.

The City Council unanimously approved the tech hub in August 2018. Since the project’s inception, however, some East Village and Greenwich Village residents have decried it as an extension of “Silicon Alley.” They fear the project will lead to more high-rise development and ultimately transform the neighborhood into one that resembles Midtown South.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, for one, had hoped the City Council would only approve the proposal if it included height restrictions for future construction in the neighborhood, among other protections.

In a statement released minutes before the groundbreaking began, GVSHP maintained the Council approved the center “with just a fraction of the promised neighborhood protections.” The group also raised concerns about donations the developer, RAL Development Services, made to de Blasio’s now-defunct nonprofit, Campaign for One New York.

GVSHP’s East Village & Special Projects Director Harry Bubbins was among more than a dozen protesters gathered near the groundbreaking. 

“We’ve demanded neighborhood protections be part of the approval process of this controversial tech hub for over two years,” Bubbins told amNewYork.

“Unfortunately, [Rivera] and the mayor did not live up to the promises made to the community, and the tech hub was approved, given to the mayor’s donors, and no neighborhood protections are in place,” he added.

The EDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on GVSHP’s concerns. Rivera previously maintained the protections lumped into the approved plans would help preserve affordable housing and historical sites in the neighborhood.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, meanwhile, addressed the opposition while speaking at Monday’s ceremony. 

“No development in New York City goes without controversy — especially in Manhattan,” Brewer said, while describing the tech hub as a "big win" for the city.

"It’s the sort of initiative that the city should be supporting — space for nonprofits, small businesses, and the most up-to-date job training."