Building: Will minorities get a decent piece of New York’s action?
As plans accelerate for expansion of New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and construction of a new football stadium for the New York Jets, African-American business advocates fear minorities once again will be shut out of lucrative contracts expected to emerge from the two projects. The concern follows harsh criticism from minority business advocates that minorities were largely absent in the contract letting for the cleanup and rebuilding of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The inclusion, access to contracts and the quality of jobs available are subject to the political powers running the show,” says Roberta Washington, principal of Roberta Washington Architects PC, a 23-year-old firm based in Harlem.
John Robinson, president and CEO of the National Minority Business Council Inc., says minority- and women-owned enterprises generally have not fared well with big construction contracts in New York City. “In the construction industry in particular, the acceptance and reception of MWBEs has not been warm,” he says.
The Javits Center expansion and the new Jets stadium are part of a massive development plan for Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, an area bordered by the Hudson River to the west, Ninth Avenue to the east, 28th Street to the south, and 43rd Street to the north. The Javits plan alone calls for an 80 percent increase in permanent exhibit space, from 745,860 square feet to 1,341,047 square feet, and a hotel with a connecting bridge to the convention center. Officially, the cost of the expansion is still being calculated, although estimates cite a figure of $1.5 billion. The 80,000-seat stadium, which would stretch between 29th and 33rd streets along the West Side Highway, will cost $1.4 billion, with the city and state together contributing $600 million for infrastructure improvements and the Jets organization providing the remaining $800 million for the actual construction.
City lacks an MBE mandate
Of the two projects, the Javits expansion is causing more concern for minority business advocates. New York City has a large and growing MWBE presence, but it has no law or goals for MWBE participation in city-funded construction projects. U.S. Census figures place the city at the top of the list of the 10 cities with the largest number of MWBEs compared to MWBE firms in the state, and number two among the top 10 metropolitan areas with the largest number of MWBEs compared to the total number of firms in the state.
To Gwendolyn Colbert-Kushner, principal of GCK Consulting, a contract compliance and business development firm, the city’s lack of an MWBE mandate seriously puts accessibility and fairness in the bidding for contracts in doubt. “Over the years there have been talks about increasing the numbers [of MWBEs in city contracts]. But what the city needs is to establish goals and match them,” says Kushner, who also is a member of the board of directors of Professional Women in Construction, a trade group in New York City. “The lack of goals at the city level takes way from the importance of inclusion and leaves it up to the major contractors to seek them [MWBEs] out, with their best efforts being lukewarm at best.”
The Javits Center is an economic engine to the city, generating $100 million in business taxes each year and $1 billion in revenues for hotels, restaurants, theaters and stores from visitors. “[Javits] brings over 2.5 million people to the city for trade shows, conventions, special events and the like,” a Javits official says. The expansion project is likely to begin next spring, and bids for a general contractor are expected to go out soon. However, the official says it is still too early to tell how MWBEs will be involved with the project, arguing that plans are still in the preliminary stages.
State’s mandate not enough
According to a New York State official, local and state agencies involved in both construction projects will direct general contractors to reach out to MWBEs in order to comply with Article 15-A of a 1988 Executive Law, the state’s MWBE mandate. “For any project run by the state, we like to have 20 percent MWBE participation, in addition to 25 percent MWBE work force participation,” says Chapin Fay, director of public affairs at the Empire State Development Corp., the agency that oversees state-funded economic projects.
ESDC statistics show that in 2003 there were 2,230 certified MWBEs in New York City, comprising 32.5 percent of all MWBEs in New York State. Of that number, 672 were certified as women owned and 1,468 as minority owned.
While the state’s mandate facilitates MWBE participation in construction contracts, minority business advocates are no longer content to settle for such subcontracting deals. “The type of contracts that these agencies put aside for MWBEs keep you doing the same job over and over, without giving you the opportunity to show your growth. I can do roofing but so many times. Unless you are part of the team, your opportunities are not there. But in the team your work can be insignificant and diminish before the project even starts,” says Washington.
NMBC’s Robinson argues that government agencies should do more than focus on the MWBE certification that enables firms to bid as such on state jobs. “What you ultimately want is for MWBEs to move from second-tier contractors to general contractors,” he says.
Meanwhile, although the Jets organization has not finalized plans for the stadium, Matt Higgins, vice president of strategic planning, says it will aggressively campaign for the involvement of MWBEs in the building of the stadium.
MBEs must be prepared
Turner Construction Co., one of the nation’s biggest construction companies, plans to bid as general construction managers in both the Javits and Jets projects. Richard O. McEachern, director of community affairs, agrees that programs and regulations to include MWBEs are necessary. “Without mandates and regulations, private companies would do whatever they wanted in regards to subcontractors. Given that the state is involved, you don’t have to worry about MWBE participation,” he says.
More important, he notes, is the preparedness of MWBEs. “The real objective should be not whether or not MWBEs will be invited to the bargaining table, but whether their certification is up to date and their track record is positive and that they can do the job,” McEachern says. “Anybody who has been in business for [fewer] than three years might have a problem with such a large job. The bottom line is that we need to be ready with all of our certifications and requirements, so that when the opportunity presents itself, we are able to work in contracts and the bidding process.”
Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields says she will facilitate access to bids for MWBEs, as well as provide them essential information about qualification and accreditation. “I have long advocated for MWBEs to be allowed greater involvement in the various construction projects throughout this city. There are many minority- and women-owned businesses that want to work, that will be productive, and that are absolutely committed to participate in our rebounding economy,” she says.
Even so, Washington of Roberta Washington Architects remains disillusioned and looks to cities outside of New York where she has been given broader contract responsibilities and where her contributions stand out. “On a scale from 1 to 10 [where 10 is excellent] I give the city and state 2.5 for their efforts, because what you really hope for is to be given a chance to direct a project, as opposed to always being under someone else’s direction,” she says.