Joseph Williams gleams with pride anytime he drives by the new CAMBA Gardens II development in Brooklyn with a friend or family member.
“I say to them, ‘My company did the electrical work [for that complex],’” he says. “A lot of people look at me twice when I say it.”
With its office about two and a half miles away in another part of Brooklyn, Williams’ JW Electric Corp. is a certified minority-owned subcontractor hired to set up the building’s electricity. The firm got $5.1 million in subcontracts for CAMBA Gardens II, its largest contract since Williams founded the business in 2002. The project employed up to 25 of his workers — most of them Brooklyn residents.
“It has helped [the neighborhood’s] economy because these guys were well-paid,” says Williams, who moved to the U.S. from Grenada nearly 35 years ago and has worked as an electrician for close to three decades.
After 27 months of construction, CAMBA Gardens II celebrated its grand opening earlier this year. The 100-percent below-market rate housing project includes nearly 300 studio, one, two, and three-bedroom affordable apartments, all designated for households making between about $30,000 and $59,000 a year. The LEED-Gold certified property includes over 60,000 square feet of open space, including a nicely manicured front lawn, and a “butterfly garden” that also nurtures bees.
CAMBA Housing Ventures, the local nonprofit developer that built the CAMBA Gardens II, partners with the Horticultural Society of New York to offer guided planting activities as well as cooking and nutrition classes to its residents. Sculptures, imported from artists in Zimbabwe, accent the public spaces in and around the central Brooklyn housing complex.
From both inside and outside, the development is a vast transformation for a site that, up until 2009, housed the neighboring Kings County Hospital’s former psychiatric center (made obsolete by the hospital’s new behavioral health center).
“Some folks have said they felt like they could see a museum, every day when the walked into the lobby — which is exactly [the feeling] we want to provide,” says Margaret Taddy, vice president at CAMBA Housing Ventures.
Besides the impact of the final product’s new housing and programming, the project also put some 160 Brooklynites to work — at least two dozen of them from minority or women-owned businesses.
“Affordable and supportive housing is a big job creator in these communities,” says Taddy.
In compliance with the mandates of state- and city-sponsored financial assistance programs, CAMBA Housing Ventures utilized minority or women-owned enterprises, certified as such by the city or the state, and it paid all the project’s laborers prevailing wages.
The project’s general contractor, Bruno Frustaci Contracting, found his subcontractors through previous development projects and the use of online business directories of city and state governments. Consequently, CAMBA Housing Ventures ended up surpassing the minority or women-owned business goals of New York State’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program and its Homes and Community Renewal program — which provided loans for the project — by more than $4 million.
Hiring minority- or women-owned businesses is important to CAMBA Housing Ventures when undertaking its development projects, according to Taddy.
“It’s something we work with the general contractor to ensure that it’s their priority,” she says. “When they are awarded the contract, we make it clear that the project’s financing requires a certain percentage of the [government] agencies’ money to be awarded to [minority- and women-owned] firms.”
Joseph Williams, founder and CEO of JW Electric Corp., which got $5.1 million on subcontracts for electrical work on CAMBA Gardens II. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)
All told, about a third of the $100 million CAMBA Gardens II was awarded to Brooklyn-based subcontractors, and an additional $1.3 million was spent on Brooklyn-sourced materials and equipment. That includes $8.6 million in subcontracts for certified minority- or women-owned subcontractors, including Williams.
In addition, more than 50 of the 160 local laborers lived within approximately two miles of CAMBA Gardens II.
Alex Vigario was another local subcontractor who worked on CAMBA Gardens II. Vigaro’s Double A Concrete Corp. was awarded over $1 million for building the foundation of CAMBA Gardens II. Vigario, who founded his company in 2000, has been in the business for nearly four decades. Traveling back-and-forth 11 miles to the Brooklyn project from the company’s yard in Jamaica, Queens, with his 20 or so workers was easy, Vigario says. “Sometimes you need to pick up some other material,” he says, “and it’s good when we’re close by and can just go back to our yard and come back.”
CAMBA Housing Ventures assembled state, city, and private financing for the project, and it was completed in partnership with New York City Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, which still owns the property. According to Taddy, the public-private partnership facilitated CAMBA Housing Ventures’ access to the necessary loans from both state and city housing agencies to make the project work. The developer and the city both sought to convert what was vacant hospital land into low-income “supportive” housing, or housing that streamlines residents’ access to primary health care. Together with CAMBA Gardens I, the projects are a model for co-locating housing and health care services.
“There was a shared goal and understanding of the importance of reutilizing this public land to contribute to the [city’s] overall goal of affordable housing,” Taddy says.
Aline Reynolds is a New York-based journalist and urban planner. As a staff editor and reporter, she has chronicled the post-9/11 revitalization of Lower Manhattan, including the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Her work has appeared in the American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine, Agence-France Presse, and Newsday.