By Winnie Hu and J. David Goodman
Not long after Google moved into the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, its billionaire co-founder, Sergey Brin, went on a private tour of the old elevated freight line that would become the celebrated High Line.
Mr. Brin looked over the barren landscape that would be filled with lush greenery and made a suggestion: How about a Frisbee golf course?
That would not be a good idea, he was politely told during that walk in 2008. Frisbees would probably go flying off and strike people on the street below.
It was the kind of small but telling lesson Google had time to learn. The company’s slow expansion over two decades in New York City — from a single employee in 2000 to more than 7,000 today — gave the tech giant the chance to adapt its West Coast ideas to the confines of crowded New York City.
The relatively quiet rise of Google could not be more different than the approach taken by Amazon, a corporate giant that led a nationwide search for new offices, pitting cities against one another in a kind of beauty contest. The hunt for a new outpost culminated last month with Long Island City, Queens, selected as one of two victors. Amazon plans to base at least 25,000 employees there, in return for as much as $3 billion in state and city incentives.
“They’re running their own play and it’s a very different play than ours,” said William Floyd, the head of external affairs for Google in New York. “We’ve been growing steadily for the past 18 years without heralding trumpets, or asking for support from the government. We’ve done it by the dint of our own work.”
Google has also avoided the furor that has surrounded Amazon, which riled people by seeking to avoid public scrutiny over its move.
Still, not all has gone smoothly. Some residents complain that Google’s robust expansion in Chelsea keeps driving up the cost of housing, while small businesses say the company’s free-food-at-work culture has taken money out of the pockets of local eateries. Others say Google has not opened up its wallet as much as it could.
But in a city where almost any change is met by fierce resistance, Google has drawn relatively few complaints as it has made itself at home in Chelsea, a neighborhood where public housing projects sit beside luxury buildings, art galleries and trendy restaurants and clubs.
Along the way, it has acquired a multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio, including two of the neighborhood’s best-known buildings.
Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker and a Chelsea resident, was unequivocal that Google has been “a good neighbor.”
In contrast, Amazon was not off to a good start, he said. “This is how they want to be a neighbor in Long Island City?” Mr. Johnson asked, referring to the lack of community input on the deal to bring the company to the neighborhood.
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company was “excited to learn more about the Long Island City community, to find out how we can best support residents.” The company has also hired high-powered lobbying firms to help contend with local political unrest.
Google arrived in Chelsea in 2006 with no fanfare. Its real estate broker did not even identify the company at first when calling about space at 111 Eighth Avenue, a hulking building that covers a full city block and is larger than the Empire State Building. It once housed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey but had emerged as a hub for telecommunications and media companies, including Lifetime Entertainment.
Google made a statement simply by moving in. “It said to the world: This is where technology meets cool,” said Paul Pariser, the co-chief executive officer of Taconic Investment Partners, which owned and redeveloped the building and still manages it today.
Smaller technology companies soon followed in Google’s wake. “There is a certain brand that comes with being in the area,” said Mike Rudoy, 33, the chief executive of Jetty, an insurance start-up that moved to a nearby Chelsea building in 2017. “It’s less about customers and more about recruiting. It all comes down to recruiting.”
These newcomers helped accelerate the gentrification sweeping Chelsea, especially after the High Line opened in 2009 and drew tourists and developers alike in what residents have called “the High Line effect.”
The median household income in Chelsea has soared to more than $104,000 in 2016 from $78,000 in 2000, according to an analysis of census data by Social Explorer, a research company. The neighborhood’s 58,000 residents have become increasingly white and Asian. College graduates now outnumber those without a degree nearly three-to-one.
The changes have divided residents of Chelsea, which had long been a hub of gay culture and night life. “There’s been a massive exodus of gay people from Chelsea,” said Allen Roskoff, a resident and gay rights activist. “What caused it? I don’t know, but Google coming in there will further the need for luxury buildings. It will further gentrify the neighborhood.”
Against this sometimes turbulent backdrop, Google was expanding rapidly. But some Chelsea residents said they did not notice until the company bought the entire Eighth Avenue building for more than $1.8 billion in 2010, and later hung its name in big white letters. (Some in the area still don’t notice.)
The company has gone on to open offices in three additional buildings as it doubles its size in New York City. This year, it spent about $2.4 billion to buy one of those buildings, Chelsea Market, an old Nabisco factory that has become a destination for artisanal food shops.
Google is also leasing office space on Pier 57, a commercial hub on the Hudson River. As part of that move, Google said it would pay for the construction of a ferry dock for water taxis or a cross-Hudson ferry.
Google workers have generally fit right in. They are typically young and educated and well paid. They favor jeans, shirt and no tie. They pack the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Eighth Avenue building. They browse at the T-Mobile store next door. The morning a new android phone with a Google operating system was released, a Google employee was waiting by the door to snap up the first one, a T-mobile sales associate said.
In recent years, Google’s growing empire has started to attract the attention of its neighbors — some of whom point out that the company has not contributed as much as it could, given its extraordinary wealth and status.
“They would be much more welcome in this community if they would do their part,” said Pamela Wolff, 83, a Chelsea resident who struggled to name a big-ticket Google project for the entire neighborhood. “I think any business that comes in with such a huge footprint should be offering more.”
Google’s largess, for the most part, has been directed to specific groups and organizations. It outfitted a youth technology center with new laptops, smartboards and a music studio. Google employees have taught computer science in after-school and summer programs and have helped older immigrants learn to use Google translate.
After the email system kept crashing at Hudson Guild, a nonprofit that offers social services, a Google team was dispatched to upgrade it for free. When the Guild needed a meeting place for its 175 employees, Google supplied an auditorium, as well as breakfast and lunch. It again lent space — and some glamour — for the Guild’s “friend-raiser” for potential donors.
“Who doesn’t want to go to the Google office?” said Ken Jockers, the Guild’s executive director. “I think they are an engaged and thoughtful neighbor.”
But though Google has been generous with its time and space, it has been less so with its money, according to Brad Hoylman, the local state senator. “There’s a sense in the local community that they could ramp up their giving,” said Mr. Hoylman, a Democrat. “Technology hasn’t yet figured out that New York City is their home, too.”
Google said it gave $150,000 in 2017 to Hudson Guild. In contrast, Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, which is planning to move into offices at Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan, gave $500,000 to the nonprofit.
Google has also given $1 million to build the High Line and another $1.5 million to a cultural preservation project for the Stonewall Inn, a West Village bar and a symbol of the gay rights movement. In addition, the company has provided free Wi-Fi across broad swathes of Chelsea, including inside the subway station below its offices.
Increasingly, Google has sought to deepen its community ties, including to two housing projects with more than 4,500 residents. Darlene Waters, the tenant association president for the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, said a Google worker introduced himself this year at an art gallery and told her to call. “Google and I, we’re going to be close,” Ms. Waters said.
Local residents were invited into the Eighth Avenue building, which came across to some as a giant playground. Google workers whizzed through the halls on scooters with their own docking stations. There were Ping-Pong and pool tables, a rock-climbing wall and a virtual reality room with special glasses. Food pantries were stocked with chips, candy, soda and juice for the taking. Afterward, residents were treated to lunch in a company cafeteria at Chelsea Market, where servers doled out steak, salmon, salads and desserts.
“I felt kind of good because they don’t do this for everybody, but they did it for the neighborhood,” said Sam Rosedietcher, 64, a carpenter, who lives at the Fulton Houses.
Miguel Acevedo, 58, the president of the Fulton Houses tenant association, said Google supplied 980 turkeys this Thanksgiving. Its workers donated more than 100 dresses and shoes in the spring during a prom-dress drive. He now brags that Google is next door. “We have Google; you don’t have Google,” he said. “Everybody uses Google one way or another.”
But as Google has expanded, it has also replaced smaller companies, including some that have left the neighborhood. Workers from those companies are no longer around to support local restaurants and stores. And Google workers, supplied with free food and entertainment, have not taken their place. As a result, some businesses are not as enthusiastic about Google.
“I wish they had given a little consideration and support to the food vendors,” said Howard Nourieli, a co-owner of Bowery Kitchen Supplies in Chelsea Market, who figured that his sandwich counter has lost thousands of dollars a month in sales. “It would have been the right thing to do. Everyone’s suffering here.”
Some residents also worry that Google is taking over too much of their neighborhood. Its purchase of Chelsea Market comes with the right to build additional space on top, which residents said could block sunlight on part of the High Line.
Ms. Wolff, a member of Save Chelsea, a preservation group, said she did not object when Google first came to Chelsea, but that now it needs to be “watched like a hawk.”
“I’m afraid of any business that comes into Chelsea and grows exponentially,” she said. “I feel like we’re going to be devoured.”
source : Medium