Tech start-up incubator heralded as sign of things to come

New York City Mayor Eric Adams called the new Civic Hall in Manhattan’s Union Square, a “laboratory for the entire country."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks that the debut of Civic Hall in Manhattan’s Union Square on Wednesday

New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks that the debut of Civic Hall in Manhattan’s Union Square on Wednesday Ethan Geringer-Sameth

A sprawling electronics store in Union Square has been replaced by a tech start-up incubator and training campus, a $30 million project hailed by city officials as a sign of things to come for the booming sector.

On Wednesday, Mayor Eric Adams and his top economic development officers joined nonprofit collaborator, The Fedcap Group, to cut the ribbon on the new center, dubbed “Civic Hall,” which its architects believe will serve as a model for other sectors and cities to follow. When it reaches full capacity, the hub will serve 3,000 to 4,000 students a year with free or subsidized training programs aimed at getting New Yorkers of diverse backgrounds into the fast-growing industry.

“If you have companies and problem solvers, and the people look the same, talk the same, walk the same, eat the same food, and listen to the same music and view the same things, you are not being a leader of today and of tomorrow,” Adams said to a room full of industry insiders and local leaders gathered in one of the building’s new conference spaces, calling it a “laboratory for the entire country.”

“These civic halls are going to be popping all over the globe,” he said.

The project was a pillar of a 2017 jobs plan launched by then Mayor Bill de Blasio, called “New York Works,” that was aimed at creating 100,000 new jobs over ten years, a third of which would be in tech. Those plans were severely disrupted by the pandemic, which devastated the job market, paused construction and choked the supply chain. At the ribbon-cutting Wednesday, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which helped spearhead the 2017 blueprint, couldn’t say the status of the overall plan or whether it was still being pursued.

“What I can tell you is that New York City has more jobs today than on any day in its history,” Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Andrew Kimball told City & State. “We’ve not only gained back all the jobs lost during [the COVID-19 pandemic], but we’re exceeding that and we’re just getting started. We know there’s a lot more work to do to build that equitable and inclusive economy that we all want. One of the great things about EDC is we work through multiple administrations on very long term projects.”

A spokesperson clarified by email that while some goals are still in place, de Blasio's plan was supplanted by the new administration's "'New' New York" agenda and its Economic Recovery Blueprint. From 2017 to 2022, the city added over 46,000 tech jobs, the spokesperson said.

New York’s tech sector is both one of the fastest growing and most exclusive industries, suffering from lack of diversity in the relatively high-wage trade. Pre-pandemic, fewer than 30% of tech jobs in New York City were held by women and fewer than 10% of tech employees were Black, according to a report from the state Comptroller.

The new hub will provide state of the art classroom space at below market rates for companies offering workforce development programs in tech. Four for- and non-profit organizations, including LaGuardia Community College, will serve as anchor tenants at the site, operated by nonprofit Civic Hall, a subsidiary of the Fedcap Group. The building will also lease space to other tech companies that officials say will serve as a landing point for participants in the program pipeline.

“There are all these companies here in the tech space that we’re building relationships with so everybody getting trained here gets a job afterwards,” said Fedcap’s Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Vice President of Education Jim Malatras, the former SUNY chancellor and Director of State Operations under former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The project was funded with $14.5 million from Civic Hall and its partners and $15.5 million in city funds, according to Seema Shah, Civic Hall’s executive director. The building housing the center, a new 21-story tower on East 14th Street called “Zero Irving,” was built on city land with the backing of local Council Member Carlina Rivera. Civic Hall founder Andrew Rasiej proposed the effort to the city and spearheaded a unanimous ULURP approval process.

The launch comes less than two weeks after Adams celebrated the return of nearly 1 million private sector jobs lost during the pandemic and a total jobs number reaching 4.7 million. The administration has attributed the recovery in part to major economic development projects like a planned life sciences hub in Manhattan and plans to redevelop Broadway Junction in Brooklyn and Staten Island’s North Shore.