The history of MetroTech
May 12, 2012
MetroTech Center, occupying ten blocks of Downtown Brooklyn, has become such a major presence that people forget the streets were once lined with homes, churches, factories, and shops. This was one of the earliest sections of Brooklyn to be settled, but unlike prosperous Brooklyn Heights with its grand brick and stone houses, the MetroTech area initially developed largely with frame houses and other modest buildings. For almost 150 years, this neighborhood evolved at the fringe of the Fulton Street commercial district.
In the 18th century, the land on which MetroTech now stands was once owned by the Duffield and Johnson families. It was not until the 1830’s that the property was subdivided into lots and residential development began. These streets, on the edge of the growing city of Brooklyn were soon lined with a mix of wood and brick houses, most in the Greek Revival style of architecture.
Johnson Street was modest, with its 2 1/2 story houses, many with small porches that attracted the families of middle-class, mostly American born professionals and artisans. Many of the residents attended small Protestant churches in the area, such as the Congregational and Baptist churches on Bridge Street, both of which later housed African-American congregations.
Walt Whitman Downtown Brooklyn
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819. He grew up in Brooklyn Heights on Cranberry Street behind the Plymouth Church. As a young boy he worked as a carpenter with his father, building small houses in Brooklyn. In his early twenties Walt Whitman started campaigning for reform, free trade, and against slavery. From 1846- 1848 he became the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle writing popular pieces such as “Are We Never to have any Public Parks in Brooklyn?” He later became a well known poet with works including” Leaves of Grass”, 1855, one of his more famous pieces. He died in 1892.
Change Comes to Downtown: The Late Nineteenth Century
In the second half of the 19th century, the character of Downtown residential streets changed dramatically as nearby Fulton Street became a major shopping district. Many of the old homes became boarding houses for Irish and German immigrants, while commerce and industry made inroads. The opening of the elevated railroad (the “el”) in 1888 on Myrtle Avenue plunged the street into semi-darkness. Factories sprang up near the el, including the Wilcox Millinery Company’s large plant designed by Parfitt Brothers in 1889, with Myrtle Avenue itself becoming the epicenter for local furniture stores.
A Neighborhood Evolves in the Twentieth Century
By the early 20th century, the character of the neighborhood was changing, as small businesses erected storefronts on the lower floors of old houses. Given the significant transportation improvements, large-scale industrial and corporate companies established headquarters in the area. Notably the American Safety Razor Company built a large complex on Lawrence Street. In 1898, architect R.I. Daus designed the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company’s office building at 81 Willoughby Street, with its dramatically curved corner and carvings depicting what were then up-to-date telephones with characteristic wires and earpieces. A block away stands architect Ralph Walkers bold Art Deco-style brick tower of 1931, built for the telephone company’s Long Island headquarters (today’s BellTel Lofts). Until construction of MetroTech, this masterwork was the area’s only skyscraper.
MetroTech: Downtown Transformed
By the mid 1970’s, Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and Polytechnic University President George Bugliarello conceived and advanced the idea for the MetroTech project. They reasoned that creating a center for research and development modeled on the lines of “Silicon Valley”, would be the cornerstone of a revitalized Downtown core. In 1979, the Brooklyn Borough President, commissioned the Regional Planning Association (RPA) to study, Downtown Brooklyn. That study showed that Downtown Brooklyn could be the City’s third central business district (CBD).
In the early 1980’s the City’s Public Development Corporation (PDC) agreed to designate Polytechnic University as the urban renewal sponsor for the MetroTech project. The choice of a developer with a strong sense public purpose was also an important piece to the development. Polytechnic University and PDC chose Forest City Ratner Companies as the developer, proposing a project that would attract new investment and thousands of daily workers.
In the past 15 years, the MetroTech complex has generated over $1 billion in new investment representing over five million square feet of new space. In addition, the successful opening of Renaissance Plaza, to include the New York Marriott Brooklyn Hotel has reinforced the vision of a vibrant Downtown that will continue to thrive. Construction of a new one million square foot consolidated court building at 330 Jay Street, the construction of Nine South MetroTech, 15 MetroTech Center and the new Federal Court buildings have added even greater dimension.
Thus, MetroTech has remade the core of Downtown Brooklyn and has been a major catalyst for the borough’s economic revitalization. As we look to the future our vision is to improve even further in creating a diverse, active, exciting downtown center.