Ikea: We won’t promise Red Hook jobs

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Support for a plan by Ikea to build a big-box store on the Red Hook waterfront has been based largely on one factor — much-needed jobs for residents of the neighborhood’s public housing projects, where estimates have put the unemployment rate at near 20 percent.

With Ikea promising to bring 600 jobs with their new store, many have asked the Swedish home furnishings giant to put in writing a guarantee that a certain percentage of those jobs will go to Red Hook residents.

Ikea says it has a company-wide employee turnover rate of 40 percent,

“If the folks in public housing don’t get a certain number of jobs out of this, I think Red Hook is being duped and being taken advantage of,” said Lou Sones, a longtime Red Hook activist and leading opponent of the store coming to the waterfront neighborhood.

The answer from Ikea officials has for months been that federal law bars them from forging such an agreement. Ikea spokesman Patrick Smith repeatedly told The Brooklyn Papers — and an Ikea official stated at a public meeting — that federal hiring guidelines would not allow such preferential treatment based on geography. Smith was never able to cite the law.

That’s because there is no such law, Ikea’s land use attorney, Jesse Masyr, told The Papers.

Federal anti-discrimination laws do not directly prohibit Ikea from guaranteeing jobs to a particular ZIP code, but the company will not sign a document agreeing to hire a percentage of local residents because, Masyr said, there is no way to enforce it.

“The ultimate act of cynicism in this project would be for me to sign this guarantee,” Masyr said.

But according to Steve Landis, a labor and employment attorney with the firm of Shebitz, Berman and Cohen, enforcement mechanisms could easily be written into such an agreement.

“They don’t want to promise anything because they don’t want to comply with it,” said Landis, who lives in Cobble Hill. “Why are they afraid of putting enforcement mechanisms in the agreement when they have made those promises for such a long time?”

“They’re flip-flopping based on what’s convenient at the moment,” said Sones. “I think the people in public housing have been used as a pawn for Ikea to get this piece of real estate.”

Landis accused Ikea of “making empty promises” to garner local support for the store. He further questioned whether company officials had any credibility left.

“What assurances do we have that Ikea will abide by any of its promises when they have made false assertions by previously claiming that federal law prevented them from it?” Landis wondered.

Ikea pans to build a 346,000-square-foot store at the former New York Shipyard site between Dwight and Columbia streets along the Erie Basin. The plan, endorsed by Community Board 6, Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez and Borough President Marty Markowitz, also includes more than 70,000 square feet of additional retail and restaurant space along the waterfront.

The proposal has been tearing at the seams of an already socially and economically divided community, splitting the neighborhood into two camps — those concerned about jobs and those who fear Ikea traffic will overrun the relatively quiet neighborhood and who believe that better uses could be found for the valuable waterfront property.

Ikea officials have promised to accept job applications from residents in the 11231 ZIP code, which includes Red Hook and Carroll Gardens, two weeks before they accept any other applications. According to Smith, all those applications will be considered before any others.

The company has also committed to advance job training in the community and will open a job-training center one year before opening a store in the area, company officials have said.

But Red Hook proponents of the plan, primarily residents of the Red Hook Houses East and West public housing developments, have shied away from asking Ikea to put those guarantees in writing.

“All we have to do is let them know what we want, and we’ll get it,” said Dorothy Shields, president of the Red Hook Houses East Tenants Association.

Roughly 75 percent of the neighborhood lives in the public housing projects, which are home to more than 6,500 residents.

“I have faith and confidence in the people at Ikea. I don’t need it in writing,” said Shields.

Even Councilwoman Gonzalez, who endorsed the project along with three pages of conditions, isn’t pushing for a written contract.

“I don’t think she is,” said Lois Marbach, a spokeswoman for Gonzalez, when asked if the councilwoman was concerned about the lack of a written agreement.

Community benefits agreements — legally binding documents between a developer and a community organization — are used to insure that communities gain from large commercial developments thrust in their backyards. The idea was pioneered in Los Angeles where residents and unions joined forces to demand benefits from the $1 billion Staples Center sports and entertainment arena.

That agreement established that at least half of the complex’s employees would come from the surrounding neighborhood.

Bettina Damiani, project director for Good Jobs New York, a government and corporate accountability organization, says she is keeping an eye on what happens with Ikea.

“Considering the type of economic development happening throughout Brooklyn, public officials are going to need to establish how these projects are benefiting Brooklynites — they need to be able to measure the benefits and make corporations accountable and community benefits agreements are one way to do that,” said Damiani.

Proponents of the plan have discussed the idea of asking Ikea to sign an agreement but have ultimately backed off, said one of those proponents, Ray Hall, a founder of the Red Hook Rise youth organization.

“A lot of companies came in and we didn’t make them sign any agreements,” said Hall. “I don’t think it’s fair. Ikea is going to do their part, I have no doubt in my mind.”

In its efforts to win the hearts and minds of Red Hook residents, Ikea has, over the past year, pumped money into Red Hook Rise, financed part of a senior center renovation in the Red Hook Houses and, just recently, the furniture company sponsored a trip to Coney Island for 100 kids.

“They’re bringing opportunity and you got to seize opportunity when it comes towards you,” said Hall.

Opponents of the plan maintain that without a community benefits agreement, the promise of job applications can be misrepresented as job guarantees in order to foist upon Red Hook a business that many other neighborhoods around the country have fought to keep out.

Said Sones, “If the promise of jobs is not there for the local community then were getting all of the negatives and none of the positives.”

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