Amid protests, 225 Centre hiring diversity rises

JACKSON SQ.—The housing and retail tower going up at 225 Centre St., the first major piece of the massive Jackson Square redevelopment plan, has set itself to a high standard of hiring diversity. In part, that is because it sits at the heart of a low-income community linking Jamaica Plain and Roxbury that sorely needs a boost.

A third of the way in, the project has struggled to meet that standard, leading to a regular picketing of the site by the Roxbury activist group the Leadership Forum. But amid the protests and ongoing mistrust, the workforce diversity numbers are inching upward, and regular meetings are held by key players to crack the complex hurdles in the world of union contracts and government reporting.

“For as much friction as we’ve seen on 225…that’s a sign of good things happening,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who recently saw her own bill to boost diversity on state construction projects become law. “We’re getting to the level of vigilance that we need” to secure a diverse workforce, she said.

That friction was likely to heat up again at the latest meeting of the Jackson Square Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a City-appointed group reviewing the area’s redevelopment, which was slated for Jan. 16, after the Gazette deadline.

The CAC has kept the heat on the developers, The Community Builders (TCB) and Mitchell Properties, both headed by JP resident Bart Mitchell, and the project manager Walsh Brothers.

Walsh Brothers is contractually obligated to subcontract a workforce that is 50 percent Boston residents, 40 percent minorities and 10 percent women. Those meet or exceed standards set by the City of Boston and the state-affiliated MassHousing, a lender on the project.

Walsh also is required to have diversity in the ownership of the subcontracting firms it hires. The goals there are 25 percent minority-owned and 5 percent women-owned.

The numbers were not close to that when the project began last year, making 225 Centre the “poster child” for local and minority hiring problems in the area, said CAC chair Rodney Singleton.

The numbers took a hit in October, when the City decertified a joint venture by two construction companies that were counting as a minority-owned business. The supposed partnership had been criticized by the CAC. The Leadership Forum began its early-morning picketing of the site that month.

“You have two [public] housing projects on either side of you. How many [local] people are you employing?” said Priscilla Flint, chair of the Leadership Forum’s Economic Development Committee, summing up the issue.

The tension led to conversation. Two weeks ago, leaders of TCB, Walsh, the Leadership Forum and various trade unions met to discuss the hiring challenges.

“There was not a ‘Kumbaya’ moment,” TCB project manager Noah Sawyer said. But, he said, “It felt very productive to me…It was good to get everybody in the same room.”

The unions agreed to boost their local and minority hiring efforts, he said, adding he is “cautiously optimistic.”

Most of the numbers trended upward in December. That month, the workforce diversity numbers were 49 percent local, 51 percent minority and 5 percent women, according to TCB.

The project’s current overall workforce figures are 38.8 percent local, 42.4 percent minority and 5.3 percent women, according to TCB.

The subcontracting diversity numbers stand at 16 percent minority-owned, which is below the goal, and 12 percent women-owned, which is well above the goal, according to data from Walsh.

No one involved is happy with those current numbers. They are part of citywide trouble in local hiring and workforce diversity, said Flint, whose group also has notably protested the Ferdinand Building project in Roxbury’s Dudley Square.

“We want to see community benefits agreements with these developments,” Flint said. “We’re fighting for all Boston residents.”

It is also not about abstract quotas. Singleton and Chang-Diaz both said that there are plenty of qualified workers and firms in the area ready to work if the outreach and support are there.

There is some outright disagreement about the problems. For example, Singleton claims that Walsh is counting some Portuguese-owned businesses as “minority” firms, a claim that Sawyer said has “no validity.”

But mostly there is agreement that a complex array of obstacles and often confusing reporting standards are getting in the way of good intentions.

“Local” jobs means citywide, not in the neighborhood, Chang-Diaz noted. And the City, various state agencies and other organizations have different diversity standards. That has led to concerns about “different sets of numbers” and double-counting at 225 Centre.

People may not understand that workforce diversity on a construction project is a “moving target,” Chang-Diaz said. She explained that the diversity goals are for the entire project-hours of work, not for any particular moment.

Local workers may lack the proper training and local companies may lack insurance bonding.

Construction companies may be slow to seek new workers besides their usual crews. Unions have seniority preferences, and some have a history of lacking diversity and excluding women. Sawyer said that in some cases, subcontractors at 225 Centre just assume they can hit their diversity goals later on instead of working proactively.

Noting that the 225 Centre project has significant union-backed funding, Singleton said it’s a fair question to ask, “Are their hands tied and are our hands tied” in terms of overcoming tradition to increase diversity.

“It’s hard to know what the facts are” driving problems in hitting diversity goals, said Chang-Diaz. That was one reason she introduced the recently approved law, which creates a unified diversity standard for state projects and sets up a transparent reporting system for it. It also requires the state, when it seeks construction bids, to consider a firm’s history of hiring diversity.

A piece of the bill that didn’t survive, she said, is a requirement that when a project is a low-income community, hiring and contracting has to be targeted locally. She said she will refile that proposal.

Meanwhile, TCB, Walsh and the Leadership Forum are slated to meet again next month to check on progress.

“We’ve been honest about where we are,” Sawyer told the Gazette last month. “We expect more from our contractor. We are on track to hit our goals.”

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