A look inside the rebranding of MetroTech, an outdated corporate campus from the early 1990s.
New York City’s most populous borough has many crowd-pleasing attractions: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Nets.
Now there’s Brooklyn Commons.
It’s better known as the MetroTech Center, a dull and insular back-office hub for financial firms and city agencies in Downtown Brooklyn that many New Yorkers have largely ignored — unless they’ve worked or studied there — since the early 1990s. Now, a $50 million renovation aims to transform it into a leisure destination, with trendy cafes, cultural programming and refreshed green spaces.
The old MetroTech had something of an image problem. The inward-facing complex was not seen as particularly welcoming, even though it was open to the public. Brookfield Properties, a real estate company that acquired part of the complex in 2018, is trying to fix that by overhauling MetroTech’s public spaces, including a courtyard with a mini-forest of 110 honey locust trees (it’s keeping those). Out will go the hard green metal benches, dim lamppost lighting and kitschy, oversized shrubs. In their place: comfortable wooden benches, modern lighting and more natural-looking plantings.
The pandemic also brought new and expanded programming to the courtyard, like Zumba classes, badminton, ice skating, movie nights, art exhibits and a pop-up beer garden. Blank Street Coffee and restaurants like Naya and Chinah are moving in.
“I would come back here again,” said Adineek Singh, 19, a college student from Queens who did not ignore the MetroTech courtyard the other day, but instead took time to discover and enjoy it, while walking to a job.
The dated, blocky office park, with its 11 buildings and 3.5 acres of public space, is ripe for an update, as the clamor for more elbow room in a crowded city grows. City and business leaders have increasingly recognized the health and environmental benefits of parks and plazas, as well as their economic value in attracting companies, boosting foot traffic and luring workers back to the office.
Several recent high-profile additions to New York’s streetscape were part of commercial building projects, including a lush public garden under a soaring steel-and-glass canopy on Madison Avenue and a pedestrian plaza carved from a car-clogged street beside Grand Central Terminal, both in Manhattan.
One of the city’s most popular green spaces, Domino Park in Brooklyn, was created in 2018 as an $80 million “upfront investment” in part to attract tenants to nearby buildings, said David Lombino, a managing director for Two Trees Management, the developer. The plan worked: The buildings are fully leased with waiting lists.
“There’s an unlimited demand for quality open space in New York City,” he said.
The history of MetroTech coincides with the rise in Brooklyn’s popularity. “Today, Brooklyn is such an asset,” said Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank. “It is seen as the city’s biggest and most important hub for talent. Companies increasingly want to be in Brooklyn, and they don’t need tax incentives to get them there.” Major businesses like Kickstarter, Etsy and Vice Media have headquarters in the borough.
But three decades ago, when MetroTech first opened as a billion-dollar gamble in urban renewal, Brooklyn was seen as a backwater to Manhattan. Although MetroTech never quite became the sought-after tech hub that was originally envisioned, it survived, while neighborhoods surrounding it — Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights — filled with a new generation of young professionals and entrepreneurs.
Brooklyn became a destination. But MetroTech? Not so much.
Dream of a Silicon Valley in Brooklyn, delayed
MetroTech was the vision of Dr. George Bugliarello, a former president of Polytechnic University, an engineering school with a campus in Downtown Brooklyn. Dr. Bugliarello wanted to build a Silicon Valley-like technology park that would attract companies and serve as a real-world laboratory for faculty and students.
Polytechnic partnered with the developer Forest City Ratner to build the complex, while city officials helped secure the 17-acre site. In 1984, the MetroTech project was announced at a City Hall news conference by Ed Koch, then the mayor, and city leaders who crowed that it would create or retain thousands of jobs. “This is like Brooklyn winning the World Series,” President Howard Golden, then the Brooklyn borough president, said.
Still, the massive project faced opposition and lawsuits brought by residents and business owners who were to be displaced by the new complex, which were settled by the developer. In 1989, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the first two buildings.
MetroTech soon filled with workers. But at a time when the city’s high-tech sector was languishing, the companies that Dr. Bugliarello had hoped to attract did not come.
“It kind of worked out, but not the way he envisioned it,” said Kurt Becker, the vice dean of research, innovation and entrepreneurship at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, who arrived at MetroTech in 2007 to teach at Polytechnic. “It largely wasn’t tech companies that moved in. It was financial services.”
The first tenants were the Securities Industry Automation Corporation, which operated the computers and communications systems for the New York and the American Stock Exchanges, and the Brooklyn Union Gas Company.
Bruce Ratner, who led the development, said he saw an opportunity to target financial firms that were moving their back-office operations from Manhattan to New Jersey and elsewhere to save money. He dangled low rents while the city provided millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies.
“I used to call myself ‘Crazy Eddie’: We will beat any price,” said Mr. Ratner, referring to a popular electronics store chain. “We had to be cheaper than all of them.”
They succeeded. Chase Manhattan decided to move 5,000 workers from Manhattan, followed by Bear Stearns & Company, which relocated 1,500 workers after Mr. Ratner sent an 18- by 18-inch model of MetroTech to the firm’s chairman.
These days, JPMorgan Chase still has offices there, as do several city agencies, including the Fire Department. Newer companies like Slate have also moved in.
In 2014, Polytechnic merged with N.Y.U. MetroTech has since become home to N.Y.U.’s Tandon School of Engineering, which has grown to over 7,800 students. The university owns three buildings there and leases space in two others.
Brooklyn changes, MetroTech stays the same
Downtown Brooklyn — home of Borough Hall with its courthouses and municipal offices and a bustling shopping scene on Fulton Street — has long been the civic and commercial heart of the borough. But when MetroTech entered the picture in the 1980s, the neighborhood had become rundown.
Casey Terry, 57, who worked as a security guard back then at the Abraham & Straus department store, said that Downtown Brooklyn emptied out at night. “People came to shop, and then they went back to their neighborhoods,” he said.
Decades of ambitious plans to redevelop the neighborhood largely faltered despite its many selling points, including proximity to Wall Street; access to multiple subway, bus and train lines; and cheaper office rents than those in Manhattan. But MetroTech gained traction after an influential 1983 study cited Downtown Brooklyn’s potential to become the city’s third major business district after Midtown and the Financial District.
“MetroTech was built at a time when the idea of a rebirth of Downtown Brooklyn was a big, risky idea,” said Regina Myer, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, an economic development group.
By the early 1990s, MetroTech was up and running. Around the same time, more companies started to move to Downtown Brooklyn, which helped spur more commercial development, including the first new hotel in decades. Then, in 2004, a large-scale rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn set off a residential building boom that eventually transformed it into a thriving 24-7 neighborhood.
Today, more than half the residents are under the age of 35, and the median household income has risen to $121,594 annually compared to $67,046 citywide, according to Social Explorer, a research company.
Though MetroTech sits at the center of this growing neighborhood, it did not always feel like part of it.
“It was developed with its back to everything around it in Brooklyn,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Art Society, a leading public space advocacy group. “It was an enclave. It didn’t feel like a place where everyone was welcome.”
MetroTech gets a glow up
Since the 1960s, privately owned public spaces, known as POPS, have been a popular incentive for developers to build larger towers. There are hundreds of them across the city. The majority of POPS — 366 out of the 392 — are in Manhattan. Queens has just five POPS, and Brooklyn has 16. MetroTech is one of the largest POPS in the city.
In recent years, some developers and landlords have sought to update older POPS by adding shopping, food and activities, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate firm.
After all, it can be good for their bottom line. In 2015, Brookfield remade the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan into Brookfield Place with new shops, restaurants and public programs. Within 18 months, rents and leasing rates had increased, Brookfield executives said.
This is why the company is rebranding MetroTech as Brooklyn Commons.
“People didn’t want to come here,” said Callie Haines, an executive vice president at Brookfield. “We are giving people reasons to come here.”
The pivot to Brooklyn Commons is a smart way to attract younger workers and companies that are looking for lively neighborhoods and street life, said Mr. Bowles, of the Center for An Urban Future. “They’re not looking for an office park,” he said. “They want to be in the center of things.”
Still, Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of city planning at Cornell University and author of the 2019 book, “Brooklyn: The Once and Future City,” said that he would miss the “gritty authenticity” of the old MetroTech, whose distinct late-1980s aesthetic is rapidly disappearing in a city being remade with Shake Shacks and Starbucks on every corner.
“I just hope it doesn’t become an overly curated destination space that is self-consciously aware of its own good taste,” he said.