Announcing Phase 2 of Making it Here: Learning from New York’s Industrial Legacy

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Industrial map of New York City : showing manufacturing industries, concentration, distribution, character / prepared by the Industrial Bureau of the Merchants' Association of New York. Via NYPL: http://maps.nypl.org/warper/maps/14895 

The explosive growth of manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an indelible mark on the five boroughs. While New York is now known for its dominance in fields like finance, media, and design, it grew up as a city of industrial districts. Back when the manufacturing sector was one of the primary forces driving the city’s economy, residential and commercial development often followed the factories. This was a time when neighborhoods were known as much for what they produced as for who lived there.

As shown in the infographic above [NYPL], which is exhibited in Vertical Urban Factory, the city’s core circa 1919 was a melange of crosshatched manufacturing clusters. Not only did many of these clusters overlap with each other, they mixed right in with the city’s residential and commercial sectors. In 1919, New York City was home to 32,590 factories in neighborhoods across the city, employing a total of 825,056 people. But while this meant that many New Yorkers were able to walk to work, the soot, smells, and clamorous sounds of the factory also followed them home. The city’s earliest zoning regulation, in part, was intended to create more distance between noxious industrial sites and the places where people lived. “Until the early twentieth century most urban areas had unrestricted uses,” explains Vertical Urban Factory‘s Nina Rappaport. “The first zoning regulations in New York were put in place in 1916 to separate noxious uses from residential areas, to provide for healthier living. This gradually placed noxious uses in low income areas, or the industrial areas that developed became sequestered. This separated industry and workers from the everyday, removing diversity from city life.”

Much of the industry that once defined neighborhoods across the city is gone. Today, more than 75,000 people are employed in the manufacturing sector in New York, less than 10% of the number from 1919; relative to population, 14.6% of New Yorkers had manufacturing jobs in 1919, while that number is now just 0.8%. Not long after World War II, the creation of the Interstate highway system, the rise of container shipping, and suburbanization all worked in tandem to decentralize industrial production across the country. Many manufacturers—in New York and nationwide—decamped from urban centers for cheaper quarters on the edge of town.

More recently, the value of the land under New York’s old industrial districts has gone through the roof as those areas have been re-zoned to make way for residential and commercial re-development. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a simple case of supply and demand: industrial businesses left the city, and the city, in turn, re-zoned its land to respond to changing needs. The truth is a bit more complicated. While some firms were happy to leave, the story on the ground within the five boroughs in 2014 is not one of manufacturers searching for exit strategies.

In fact, the opposite is true. Today, revitalized factory complexes like those explored during the first phase of Making it Here, which have been retrofitted to provide small and mid-sized spaces needed by contemporary manufacturers catering to specialized niche markets, are typically at or near 100% leased. For a variety of reasons—including, increasingly, quality of life—these manufacturing businesses want to stay in New York. The trouble is, neighborhoods that once welcomed them have changed so dramatically that the demand for usable manufacturing space is acute. Far from fleeing the city, many companies are actually being pushed out.

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The second phase of Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation‘s Making it Here series will take New Yorkers into the streets of historically industrial districts with expert guides to better understand how these areas are changing, and how the city could incorporate manufacturing spaces back into mixed-use neighborhoods. This phase will also give New Yorkers a chance to walk the factory floors of legacy manufacturing companies to learn about how businesses have adapted over time in order to remain in New York—and why they chose to stay in the first place.

Why has space for manufacturing businesses disappeared so quickly that demand now exceeds supply? And what can we learn about the nature of that demand from the legacy manufacturers who have overcome so many challenges in their effort to stay put? This summer, Making it Here will visit the following sites in search of answers to these questions:

Edison Price Lighting Factory Tour
Long Island City, Queens

Wednesday, July 16 / 2:15 PM
Edison Price Lighting has designed and manufactured innovative, energy-efficient architectural lighting fixtures since 1952. Join Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport for a tour of the Edison Price factory to learn about how the company adapted its business model over time, working directly with architects and designers and specializing in highly customized lighting fixtures. Click here to purchase tickets for this tour.

National Elevator Cab & Door Factory Tour
Woodside, Queens
Friday, August 1 / 9:00 AM & 11:00 AM
In an old art deco factory building off the R-train in Queens, National Elevator Cab & Door Corp builds the elevator cabs that carry millions of New Yorkers every day. Learn about how the city’s uniquely robust demand for vertical transportation has allowed this family-owned and operated manufacturing business to grow in place during its more than eighty-year history.

Red Hook Neighborhood Tour
Red Hook, Brooklyn

Friday, August 8 / 3:00 PM
Walk the streets of Red Hook with urban manufacturing experts from the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation to explore a unique mix of historic spaces and innovative businesses.  This tour will focus on land use issues in an industrial neighborhood and the relationships between design and production.

Port Morris Neighborhood Tour
Port Morris, Bronx

Friday, August 15 / 12:00 PM
In response to increasing real estate speculation in industrial districts amidst the re-zonings of the mid-2000s, the Bloomberg Administration created sixteen Industrial Business Zones (IBZs) in the four outer boroughs that are preserved for industrial uses. Join Stephane Hyacinthe of SoBRO, the organization that manages all five Bronx IBZs, for a tour of three factories in the historic Port Morris area to learn more about how space for manufacturers is being safeguarded in the South Bronx.

Martin Greenfield Clothiers Factory Tour
East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Monday, August 18 / 10:00 AM
Martin Greenfield, a Brooklyn manufacturer of hand tailored men’s clothing, founded Martin Greenfield Clothiers in 1977 when he bought the factory from his former employer, GGG Clothes, which had occupied the site since 1917. Tour the factory floor with Vice President Tod Greenfield to learn about how this family-owned and operated business has survived in New York by focusing on high-quality production, and how the company has worked with other local manufacturers to help protect industrial space in the neighborhood over the past several decades, despite mounting redevelopment pressures.

Long Island City Neighborhood Tour
Long Island City, Queens

Late Summer / Date & Time TBD
Vertical Urban Factory’s Nina Rappaport leads a walking tour of Long Island City that looks at the area’s history as an industrial powerhouse, and its evolution into a high-density, mixed-use neighborhood today. Explore a series of artisanal manufacturing spaces to see how the area’s status as a hub for the arts and design community has allowed certain types of manufacturing to thrive here despite the massive changes experienced over the past few decades.

Please visit the Schedule page for more information about registering for individual tours.

 

Tour Recap: Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center

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A dignified old brick structure in the long-time industrial stronghold of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tells an interesting—and hopeful—story about the transformation of urban manufacturing over the course of New York City’s history. Built as a rope factory in the mid-19th century (and subsequently expanded a number of times), the building at 221 McKibbin Street came to house a furniture manufacturer in the latter half of the 20th. After that business moved its offices to Long Island and sent a hundred manufacturing jobs to Asia, the building was purchased by the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a non-profit industrial developer best known for its flagship facility further north along the Newtown Creek, which renovated and re-opened the space in 2009. Since then, the GMDC has used its unique development model to revitalize the facility, sub-dividing the 72,000 square feet of usable space for a dozen smaller manufacturers. Today, once again, the site hosts just shy of a hundred industrial jobs (95, to be exact).

On June 20th, the GMDC team hosted a tour of their McKibbin Street building as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series. GMDC’s CEO, Brian Coleman, started off by speaking with participants about how and why his organization has taken on the task of acting as a landlord for manufacturers in a city where less and less space is available for industrial activity, never mind affordable.

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“If we didn’t know that we’d be able to stay here,” explained Twoseven Inc.’s Franco Götte, “we never would have invested so much in our facility.” (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

“There are three main differences in the GMDC model,” Coleman explained. “The first is that our rents are 15-25% below market. The second is our lease terms: we have a minimum of five years, for new leases, with an option for five more, which creates real estate permanency. The third thing is that we are mission-driven; we’re here because we care about these businesses. People have a hard time wrapping their head around why a non-profit would be helping for-profit companies. The reason that GMDC is in this is that those businesses create good jobs.”

The average annual wage in GMDC’s buildings (there are five scattered across northern Brooklyn) is $47,000/year, which is considerably higher than wages in other sectors where jobs are available for people without a four-year degree. This echoes what many of the experts that have been involved in the MIH series so far have said, time and again, about the importance of manufacturers in creating living wage jobs for working class families and, by extension, supporting stable working class neighborhoods. 92% of the people who work in GMDC buildings are New York City residents, according to Coleman, and 70% walk, bike, or take transit to work. (For more information and stats on GMDC, click here to download a copy of their latest Annual Report). While the challenge of housing affordability within the city is more frequently (and loudly) discussed, in terms of preserving New York’s socioeconomic diversity, the importance of providing space for the kinds of businesses that create good-paying working class jobs can’t be understated.

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92% of the people who work in GMDC buildings are New York City residents. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

That’s exactly where GMDC comes in. When renovations were just beginning on McKibbin Street, for example, a woman from the neighboring NYCHA development stopped by and spoke with Coleman about the building, and the recent changes in the neighborhood. East Williamsburg and neighboring Bushwick, which begins a just few blocks south of the GMDC building, went from a relatively unknown industrial corner of the city to a white-hot hub of Brooklyn’s exploding arts and cultural scene in just a couple of years, as the development of Williamsburg-proper has pushed artists to move a few stops further down on the L-train. Changes along McKibbin Street have been particularly intense, as the GMDC building sits on the line where the area’s Industrial Business Zone ends, and residential zoning begins, allowing as-of-right conversions of older industrial buildings into lofts for new residents.

“‘Another condo?’ she asked me, sounding kind of sad about it,” Coleman said, relating the story. “And I said, ‘Nope, it’s still going to be manufacturing space.’ She was thrilled. ‘You mean my brother can get a job here?’ I told her I couldn’t promise he would get a job here, but that it was going to be a place where he could, potentially, depending on what the tenants needed. That’s not an uncommon reaction. When we develop new buildings, we voluntarily go to the Community Boards to tell them what we’re doing, and people generally welcome us with open arms because we’re bringing jobs into the community, or keeping jobs in the community, which is not the norm these days.”

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On the day of the tour, workers at Twoseven Inc. could be seen fabricating pieces of a new window display bound for a Manhattan department store. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Indeed, many of the businesses in the GMDC’s McKibbin Street building take on seasonal and contract help depending on their workload; the number of jobs on-site goes up and down depending on the season, but there is plenty of room for more than a hundred people to work here at any given time. The largest tenant on-site is Twoseven Inc., a design/build firm that specializes in the creation of store window displays, retail interiors, and showrooms for high-profile fashion and cosmetics companies around the city. One of the co-founders, Franco Götte, led tour participants on a walk around the factory, explaining that it was a slow period, since a number of jobs had just shipped out. Even still, more than a dozen workers could be seen fabricating pieces of a new window display bound for a Manhattan department store.

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OHNY tour participants explore the Twoseven Inc. factory floor. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Twoseven signed its lease at McKibbin Street fairly soon after the building opened, at the height of the recession, in 2009. Franco noted that that the availability of adjacent space encouraged he and his partner to expand their factory space, allowing them to grow their business—all of which would have been unlikely had they not found their way to a GMDC-owned facility. “If we didn’t know that we’d be able to stay here,” he said, “we never would have invested so much in our facility.”

Still, it is not common for businesses that locate within GMDC facilities to be in expansion mode, as Coleman explained it. “We’re sort of the opposite of an incubator. The average age of one of our tenants is 16-17 years. GMDC buildings generally attract mature businesses that have trouble finding space elsewhere in the city where they know they can stay put.”

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The average age of a business in one of GMDC’s buildings is 16-17 years. “We’re sort of the opposite of an incubator,” says CEO Brian Coleman.

Upstairs, tour participants had the chance to peek inside the Woodwrights, a woodworking shop run by Wyeth Hunnable, whom the GMDC team refers to as “Tenant #1,” as he was the first to sign a lease at McKibbin Street. The high, airy space was mostly occupied by three large workstations where Wyeth was making custom wooden panels for an artist with a studio nearby. Many of the Woodwrights’ clients are artists, and Wyeth’s space reflects the adjacency of his business to the art world. Far from the sawdust-coated room one might imagine upon hearing the term “woodworking shop,” the Woodwrights space is painted in bright colors, from the yellow and green loft structure that provides additional storage space, to the pastel mural stretching across the floor, from wall to wall.

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The Woodwrights space in the McKibbin Street building reflects the adjacency of his business to the art world, with its brightly painted interior. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The final stop on the tour was Alchemy Paintworks, a fine art finishing business that works on paint finishing projects for metal sculpture, as well as the repair and restoration of large scale works of art. “Most people don’t realize that a lot of artists don’t actually do all of the work by hand anymore,” said Alchemy’s James Terrani, in describing what the company does. “Artists are job creators, now, as well. They employ lots of other creative workers. In the US, artists come to New York; this is where most of the talent is, so this is where the work is, for our company.

Both Alchemy and the Woodwrights are part of a robust ecosystem of manufacturing businesses that play an integral role in supporting New York’s world-renowned arts community. Like many of the niche manufacturers that pay a premium to locate and work within the five boroughs, their business models respond to unique market conditions created by New York’s exceptionally dense, diverse urban fabric. “A lot of the tenants in our buildings have arts backgrounds,” noted GMDC Senior Project Manager Cassandra Smith, near the end of the tour. “Many of their businesses exist because they were able to find commercial applications for their arts skills. We are the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and our tenants tend to do some of both of those things.”

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“Most people don’t realize that a lot of artists don’t actually do all of the work by hand anymore,” said Alchemy’s James Terrani (center). (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Today, manufacturers in New York City tend to be smaller, more nimble, and more integrated with design, the arts, and other creative industries. Factories aren’t necessarily just places where objects are made; they are places where new products are dreamed up, prototyped, and then manufactured, all within the same facility. If the GMDC offers any indication, there is a bright future for these types of hybrid manufacturing businesses, if the city is willing to make room for them: as of the tour date, GMDC’s five buildings, which together contain almost 600,000 square feet of space, are 100% leased.

“We’ve heard the argument that, since the land our buildings are on is so valuable, we should sell it off and use the proceeds to develop new industrial properties farther out from the core,” said Smith. “But people like our tenants want to live and work in New York City, and we think it’s good economic policy to make space for manufacturing so that they’re making their money here, and spending their money here. So we like to think we’re standing on the right side of economic development policy.”

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“We like to think we’re standing on the right side of economic development policy,” explained GMDC’s Cassandra Smith (left). (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

OHNY and NYCEDC thank the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, Twoseven Inc., Alchemy Paintworks, and the Woodwrights for welcoming participants into their spaces for this tour.