Tour Recap: Brooklyn Navy Yard

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Tucked into the crook of Wallabout Bay, across from where the East River curves around Corlear’s Hook, sits the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once the site of the first regular ferry service between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the area has long played an important role within the commercial life of the city. The US Navy established the Yard in 1806, and it remained active until it was decommissioned in 1966. In 1981, the city, which by then owned the Yard, created the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), which has since turned the 300-acre site into a model urban industrial park for the 21st Century. On Friday, June 6th, the Navy Yard hosted a tour as part of Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC)’s Making it Here series to give New Yorkers a chance to learn about this extraordinary site, and how different types of manufacturers and other industrial businesses are thriving within the complex.

The tour, part of the Making it Here series organized in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), began in BLDG 92, the only publically accessible building at the Yard and home to exhibition galleries, classroom spaces, a café, small gift shop and the Navy Yard’s Employment Center The original Building 92, also known as the Marine Commandant’s House, was built in 1857; it was renovated and expanded in 2011 with a modular addition designed by Beyer Blinder Belle and workshop/apd. The addition was built by Capsys Corp., one of two modular construction companies located within the Yard, and was assembled on its current site in just under a week.

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BNYDC’s Aileen Chumard and Matt Hopkins started the tour with a visit to the Making it in NYC exhibition in BLDG92. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Two BNYDC staff members, Executive Director of Programs & Exhibits. Aileen Chumard, and VP of Development & Leasing Matt Hopkins started things off with a tour of BLDG 92’s just-opened exhibition Making it in NYC, an overview of the impact that the Maker Movement has had within the city. The show features objects made by dozens of entrepreneurial manufacturing businesses around the five boroughs, including many located within the Navy Yard itself, and helped to set the stage for what participants would see over the course of the tour.

The first stop after BLDG 92 was New Lab, a collaborative incubator space housing twelve innovative new firms just a short walk from the Navy Yard gates off of Flushing Avenue. New Lab is a sort of prototype itself for what will be an 84,000-square-foot high tech design and prototyping facility that will occupy half of the Green Manufacturing Center. The GMC, which is being created by the BNYDC via the renovation of a colossal old ship repair shed, is visible from the New Lab’s current home on one of the upper floors of Building 128; stripped to its steel skeleton at the time of the tour, the cavernous structure will soon house the New Lab along with an 80,000-square-foot facility for Crye Precision, a manufacturer of state of the art gear for the US military.

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The skeleton of the massive Green Manufacturing Center can be seen from all over the Navy Yard (Photo: OHNY)

NewLab and Crye may seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but the pairing tells an interesting story when you consider the fact that Crye started off in less than a thousand square feet of space elsewhere in the Yard—a success story that the BNYDC hopes will be repeated even more frequently in the future. NewLab will function somewhat like a co-working space for industrial start-ups, offering shared working and event space, prototyping and design equipment, including 3D printers, CNC machines, and other tools and services that many small businesses just starting out would not be able to afford on their own. “We’re hoping that NewLab will act as a hub where people get their start,” Matt explained. “From there, they can then branch out into our [BNYDC’s] other available spaces.”

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New Lab is an incubator for new companies that need access to prototyping and design tools; its “beta” space is home to a dozen businesses. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The New Lab space has a frenetic, creative energy; elaborate models created by avant garde architecture firm Terreform ONE jockey for attention with trays of brightly colored prototypes of a popular ergonomic feeding spoon for infants, a sleek modular shelving system, and pieces of kinetic furniture made of wood and magnets that have to be seen to be believed. One of the most remarkable things about the space, though, has nothing to do with technology: ask the tenants why they love being there, and there’s a good chance that they’ll tell you about some of the cool products and projects that the people they share the space are working on. Tenants aren’t just building their businesses here; they’re building networks, partnerships, and sharing ideas.

This mirrors what BNYDC has seen happening in other buildings and amongst manufacturers around the campus. During a bus tour of the Yard following the stop at BetaLab, Matt noted that the co-location of similar or like-minded firms has often happened organically. Smaller firms will commonly use the same suppliers, or share equipment; especially in the early stages of building a new manufacturing business, collaboration makes smart business sense.

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While exploring New Lab, OHNY tour participants heard from tenants about the unique mix of companies, and how they support each other. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

BNYDC actively engages in the social networks that exist within the Yard, and endeavors to build strong relationships with its tenants so that it can be more responsive to tenants’ needs; as a mission-driven non-profit BNYDC is able to look at more than just the bottom line, an important factor when considering the Yard’s success in recent years. In addition, the organization offers a range of public programming at BLDG92, including training courses that help local residents develop the skills required for obtaining stable, good-paying industrial sector jobs at businesses within the Yard. BNYDC also tries to source its own purchases from its tenants. In addition to having BLDG92 built by Capsys, BNYDC also purchased the solar/wind lamps that light its streets from Lumi•Solair, a sister company of the Duggal printing empire, which has several facilities on-site.

In addition to the many businesses already noted, the bus tour of the Yard gave tour participants a sense of the incredible breadth of industrial businesses that are located here on Wallabout Bay. Some of the other notable tenants seen from the bus included Stiegelbauer Associates, which builds all of the sets for Saturday Night Live, and Steiner Studios, one of the largest film production studios in the country outside of Southern California (and the largest single tenant at the Yard). Matt also explained that BNYDC has focused on attracting tenants that provide good-paying jobs, rather than industrial uses like self-storage, a common site in other industrial areas around the city, which offer little in the way of employment.

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BNYDC’s Matt Hopkins led the bus tour portion of the Navy Yard campus, which sprawls over 300 acres. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The final stop on the tour was Situ Fabrication, the production facility for Situ Studio, an architectural firm that designs and fabricates exhibits, installations, and other custom projects. The Situ team was busy working to finish pieces of the Museum of Art + Design’s upcoming NYC Makers, another exhibition focusing on the impact of the Maker Movement, and had recently finished work on the Making it in NYC show over at BLDG92, as well as the new Design Lab at the New York Hall of Science.

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Situ Studio has a design and prototyping center in DUMBO, and fabricates its work in a 10,000-square-foot facility in the Navy Yard. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

After the tour of Situ’s shop, partner Wes Rozen spoke to the group about why Situ chose to locate its manufacturing operations within the city, echoing the priorities of other manufacturers who have hosted Making it Here guests during previous tours. Quality of life for employees was a significant factor, as was the fact that the company caters to a highly specialized local market that could only exist in a city like New York, with its dense cluster of cultural and arts organizations. “A lot of our clients are architects, and most of them are located in Manhattan,” Wes explained. “There’s a great energy in New York, and our work feeds off of that.”

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Situ’s Wes Rozen explains how complex forms are fabricated on a machine that uses vacuum suction to press materials into intricate molds. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is home to 4.5 million square feet of space “under roof,” and the businesses located here employ more than 7,000 people. Within the next few years, Matt told the group, BNYDC will add two million additional square feet of space, and aims to double the number of jobs on-site. As the Yard grows, it is also thinking proactively about how to make the site more livable (or rather, workable) for its diverse community of tenants.

“In the past, new ground-up industrial development didn’t really happen in the Yard,” Matt said. “We’re entering the world of co-working spaces, of less noxious industry … Way back when, you were happy to just have your industrial space, and maybe a bathroom. Today, you need high speed internet, you need parking, you need all sorts of other amenities.”

Back at BLDG92, a food truck could be seen down near the waterfront, where several workers waited in line for lunch—part of a new effort by BNYDC to add more food options on-site. Even surrounded by huge old industrial buildings and dormant smokestacks, that little truck was hard to miss. It was bright and colorful, and softened the scene at an extremely urban site. More importantly, it was an unmistakable sign of how much the city’s industrial landscape has changed, as well as a harbinger of changes yet to come.

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Tour participants file out of the bus after their trip around the Yard. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)


OHNY and NYCEDC thank BNYDC, BetaLab, and Situ Studio for welcoming participants into their spaces for this tour.

Urban Manufacturing Q&A: Jen Becker, Pratt Center for Community Development

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Last February, the Pratt Center for Community Development—one of the leading research organizations focusing on manufacturing in New York City—published a detailed report analyzing the success of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, located along the East River waterfront just a stone’s throw from the Pratt Institute campus, where the Pratt Center is based. The report also identifies and analyzes potential sites in other cities around the US where a similar type of campus could be developed. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between OHNY and Jen Becker, a Senior Fellow for Economic Development at the Pratt Center and the lead author of the Navy Yard report, looking at the trends impacting urban manufacturing in the US today and, specifically, how those trends are changing the shape of manufacturing in New York City.

Let’s start off by taking stock of how the public understands manufacturing: what is the biggest gap you’ve observed between the public perception of urban manufacturing and the reality on the ground, today?

There’s a myth that manufacturing doesn’t exist in a lot of cities—certainly in New York City—because people just don’t see it anymore. Obviously, manufacturing has declined; we have a lot of old sites that aren’t used for manufacturing anymore, and a lot of old industrial buildings that have been converted to residential. And as our economy has changed to more of a service economy, people are not as personally connected to the manufacturing sector as they once were, so it’s become a lot less visible.

In actuality, there’s still a tremendous amount of manufacturing going on in New York. It’s really diverse, it’s very vibrant, and it’s tied to a lot of the more high profile industries that NYC has become known for, like finance and design. Manufacturing is part of [the city’s overall economic] system, but it’s not as visible, so people just aren’t aware that it’s happening and that things are still being made here.

 

There’s also the perception that manufacturing is part of the ‘old economy,’ and the ‘new economy’ is all about creativity, innovation—brain work, as opposed to manual work. But that’s changed a lot, hasn’t it? A lot of the manufacturing that’s happening in NYC today is pretty creative.

In the past few years there’s been a resurgence in the way we value the making of things. I don’t think the public perception has shifted completely, but I think there is more of an acknowledgement of this field than there was a few years ago. I think people still think it’s more of a hobbyist thing, like “Oh, I can take a class,” and the focus is on the Maker Movement, but people aren’t yet aware of the breadth of companies that are here that are creating jobs and employing people.

 

A number of the manufacturers visited so far through Making it Here tours have cited quality of life as a big issue for why they choose to operate here: when people ask, “Why on earth do you want to manufacture things in New York?”, manufacturers respond they want to live in New York and to be here for many of the reasons that anyone else does.

The manufacturers that are here today, in large part, are of a different type than what was here fifty years ago. The vast majority of these companies are not competing just on price or volume. The companies that want to be here, and that are thriving here, are the ones that are more custom oriented. There’s a real benefit to them being close to their market, and being close to designers, to other innovators, and being part of that network.

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In the Navy Yard report, you mention the dynamic clusters that have formed within that campus; can you talk about co-location and some of the benefits of having manufacturing in urban neighborhoods?

The value of clustering is not new. New York City is actually built on that: think of the Garment District, the Flower District. In many cases today that’s dissipated, and a lot of those districts have now become more diverse, in terms of the industries that are there. But companies still find a strong value in being near other similar companies. It doesn’t have to be in terms of ‘we’re making the same product,’ but that there’s a sort of shared, creative energy. Especially for companies that are smaller, or just starting up, I think there are a lot of benefits to being in close proximity to others. They can share resources such as equipment, or work together on particular projects, and that kind of collaboration is really useful, especially for the smaller companies.

 

It used to be that the city had these huge companies doing a lot of manufacturing on one site. As the companies doing manufacturing have gotten smaller, how has that changed the demands for industrial space?

Older industrial real estate often consists of multi-story buildings that people think can’t accommodate manufacturing anymore, and that since we don’t have the space for giant, single-story industrial buildings [like those found in suburban industrial parks], manufacturing can’t fit into contemporary New York City. And that’s true, we don’t have that kind of space, and those companies aren’t going to stay in the city.

But there’s still a way to re-use older, multi-story buildings to meet the needs of these smaller industrial firms that are looking for around 5,000 square feet, by breaking up those spaces. That’s what the Navy Yard has done, and we’re seeing this all across the city. What we’re looking at is that there are going to be a lot more of these smaller manufacturing companies in the future, rather than a few bigger companies. We still need to make sure that we have room for these companies to grow. We need flexible real estate.

 

Why should the average New Yorker care about manufacturing in their city? How does it affect the future of their neighborhoods?

Manufacturing has been, and still remains, one of the best job opportunities for people with limited educational attainment, or limited English-speaking skills; manufacturing pays more on average than jobs at similar skill levels, like retail or hospitality. Entry-level jobs in manufacturing tend to pay better and provide better access to career ladders, so it’s a really important sector to maintain just in terms of economic diversity. From an environmental perspective, we don’t want to just be a city of consumers that’s importing all of our goods. There’s an environmental impact to transporting all of the goods that we consume into the city. It would be unrealistic to say that everything we need is going to be made in New York City, but having some of those goods made here cuts down on transportation and carbon emissions.

Lastly, and this ties into both of those things, is the economic vitality of the city as a whole. Manufacturing has a really significant economic impact, and manufacturing jobs have a really high multiplier effect. The economic impact of a manufacturing job is quite high, and bolsters the economy in a positive way. Having a diverse economy is just really important to the overall health of our city.

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How will manufacturing fit into New York City in the coming years? Will we see more manufacturing integrated back into our neighborhoods? Or is the campus model of something like the Navy Yard more desirable?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution; we need to have a mix of tools at our disposal. There is a real need to have areas like the Navy Yard that are universally acknowledged as places for job creation, not for residential development. Underlying all of this is the real estate pressure facing manufacturing; that’s the number one challenge for maintaining manufacturing in New York. Residential and commercial uses are always going to be able to pay more than manufacturers for real estate, so it’s important for there to be areas in the city where manufacturers know that they can invest in their companies and facilities, to buy new equipment, and to know they aren’t going to get priced out.

Also important are mixed use areas; there are some manufacturing companies that really want to be in those kinds of areas, which have a different kind of vibrancy. It’s really critical that we develop tools to be able to maintain that mix, though. Saying that anybody can be in a given area without some kind of mechanism to balance that mix out over time will lead to the loss of that manufacturing space.

And one concluding thing, for people who haven’t been in a factory before, is that it’s one of the coolest things you can see: watching people make things, either by hand or even by machine. [Manufacturing is something we often] take for granted, and one of the things that I love about my job is being able to go into factories and see how things are made, and to acknowledge that work, and reinforce its value in our community.