Tour Recap: Red Hook’s Industrial Waterfront

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The construction of the Erie, Atlantic and Brooklyn boat basins, along with the development of pier and dock infrastructure in the 1840s, set the stage for the peninsular enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn, to develop rapidly into one of the United States’ most important maritime hubs, shipping and unloading cargo from all over the world. But by World War II, Red Hook began to experience a decline in maritime use due to inadequate infrastructure. This began a domino effect of changes in industrial activity as many of the businesses opted to relocate to New Jersey for more space. Abandonment and degradation eventually led to the demolition of many industrial buildings under the Urban Renewal Act, while the development of the Gowanus Expressway in the 1960s magnified the area’s sense of isolation. By 1990, high crime, drug violence, poverty, illegal dumping, and overall decay of the built environment became the new character of Red Hook.

Today, Red Hook is experiencing a remarkable resurgence. Notably, the industrial business community—which shrank (following citywide and national trends) but never abandoned Red Hook entirely— is playing a significant role in the area’s revitalization and lending it a distinct sense of place. Red Hook is still home to a significant Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), managed by the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC), but non-conforming uses are starting to chip away at available industrial land, leaving less and less room for the activities that have shaped Red Hook’s identity as a center of creative production.

On Friday, August 8th, SBIDC Executive Director David Meade and the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Josh Eichnen led a walking tour of Red Hook as part of Open House New York’s and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series. The tour took participants through a range of different types of industrial spaces, illustrating how areas like Red Hook—longtime industrial strongholds with a diverse building stock directly adjacent to mixed-use working class neighborhoods—can support diversified, resilient economic ecosystems.

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Linda Tool manufactures precision machine components for clients like NASA and Boeing, just blocks from Gowanus Bay. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

The tour started off at Linda Tool, a factory that makes precision machine components. Founder and owner Mike Di Marino took a break from moving heavy machinery via forklift to show the group around; the largest and most expensive piece of machinery that he’d ever bought was to be delivered at 6 AM the following morning. Right away, participants were able to see why the city’s IBZs have been so important in recent years: at a time when huge chunks of the city’s stock of industrial land have been rezoned for different uses, the IBZs have provided the stability that manufacturers need to make significant investments in (often very large, expensive) equipment in order to incorporate new technologies and grow their businesses.

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Our guides, left to right: Josh Eichen (Pratt Center), David Meade (SBIDC), and Mike Di Marino (Linda Tool). (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Of course, Mike was quick to point out one of the main challenges of the IBZs: they aren’t permanent, which can allow an industrial area’s patterns of use to shift despite their designation. In fact, Industrial Business “Zones” are not a form of zoning at all—they essentially represent a promise from the city that an area already zoned for industrial uses won’t be rezoned. And while that promise has generally been kept since the IBZs were created in 2005, industrially zoned land still permits a whole host of non-industrial uses, including commercial facilities like hotels, big box retail, and restaurants. As these types of businesses become more prevalent in changing neighborhoods (see: Greenpoint-Williamsburg), it makes it easier for developers proposing “non-conforming uses” to chip away, bit by bit, at the available land within industrial districts.

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Loopholes in industrial zoning make it ever more possible for non-conforming uses, like the new private school being built in the heart of Red Hook’s IBZ, to chip away, bit by bit, at the available land within industrial districts. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Case in point: just around the corner from Linda Tool, a new private school (with tuition well above the level affordable to the average family in Red Hook, which is home to the largest NYCHA project in the borough) is going up. The school’s developers had to appeal to the Board of Standards & Appeals for a special permit. While SBIDC and many local business owners fought it, the permit was approved, and construction was already well underway on the day of the tour. “The school is absolutely going to change the use of the area,” Josh explained. “On top of that, that new building is also taking up space that would have been used by an industrial business. Every time there’s a special permit or variance within an IBZ, land for industry shrinks. There’s no new space for industrial businesses being created.”

The new school won’t just change the use of its lot and immediate environs, but has the potential to throw off the rhythm of the entire industrial community in Red Hook. The influx of children into the heart of an IBZ will inevitably create new political struggles for businesses like Linda Tool, impacting delivery times, truck routes, safety regulations, and a whole host of other factors.

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Tour participants learn about the distilling process at the Van Brunt Stillhouse. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

After exploring Linda Tool, the participants had a chance to visit the nearby Van Brunt Stillhouse, located on the same block as the non-conforming school, and learn about the distilling process while sampling some locally produced whiskeys and rums. From there, it was time to head down to the waterfront. Along the way, David and Josh pointed out many of the area’s historic industrial buildings (including a century-old ship repair facility that now houses a scene shop producing sets for film and theater), helping participants to get a sense of the uniquely diverse building stock that the area’s history of industrial and commercial uses had created.

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The Van Brunt Stillhouse has been producing whiskey, grappa, and rum at its current location for two years. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

One of the neighborhood’s most distinctive landmarks is undoubtedly the O’Connell Organization’s historic Red Hook Stores complex, a cluster of Civil War-era warehouses that are now home to a mix of small-scale craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses. “Greg O’Connell is a prime example of a private developer investing in industrial space and preserving space for legacy manufacturers while also making space for newer craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses and other supportive industrial uses,” Josh told the group.

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“It’s amazing to see and realize how much you’re saving, that would have been just thrown into a landfill otherwise,” says Amber Lasciak of her company’s work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

The first stop in the Stores was REDU NY, a business run by designer Amber Lasciak, whose flexible team of 6-12 employees (depending on the production schedule) produces one-of-a-kind furniture from materials from across the New York metropolitan area, often designing and building entire interiors for restaurants, bars, and the like. Occupying one of the top levels of a building off Van Brunt Street, REDU NY has subdivided their space into a series of fabrication areas, rooms for material and fabric storage, studio spaces, and a “design loft” in a small glass room perched up on the roof, with sweeping views out over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The loft is where the team meets regularly to brainstorm design concepts, and turn salvage into inspiration.

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REDU NY’s “design loft” looks out over New York Harbor. To the upper-left, you can just make out the base of the Statue of Liberty and imagine the inspiring view from those windows. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In a similar building nearby called the Liberty Warehouse (still part of the O’Connell complex) is the Red Hook Winery. On the day of our visit, the winery’s proprietors were in the midst of the first bottling since Hurricane Sandy, which devastated many waterfront businesses like theirs a year and a half before. Several of the other businesses visited, including REDU NY (then located in a ground-floor space) and the final stop, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie, had also taken on significant water during the storm. But rather than wipe out the industrial community in this fast-changing area, Sandy helped to prove the resilience of Red Hook’s finely grained economic ecosystem. “I think it speaks volumes about this community that after Sandy, 90% of businesses have stayed,” David told the group.

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The barrel room at Red Hook Winery, the only winery in all of NYC that is focused on New York grapes. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Steve, of Authentic Key Lime Pies fame, highlighted a unique strength that allowed a production-oriented business like his to get back up and running (and contributing to the local economy) more quickly after the storm. “The good news for us after Sandy,” he explained, was that “a lot of food related businesses [restaurants, bars, et al] relied on people coming into the neighborhood. We had a lot of customers outside of the neighborhood that we’ve been selling to for 15, 16 years that were waiting with their orders as soon as we were back up and running.”

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Red Hook Winery’s founders, Mark and Sandra, pass around samples in the tasting room, which is fitted out in many places with wood salvaged from wine barrels destroyed by the flooding cause by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

While Red Hook may never again be the hotbed of industrial activity that it was a century ago, the neighborhood’s strength as a manufacturing center today is more about quality than quantity. The businesses that opened their doors for the Making it Here tour all emphasized that they choose to do business in Red Hook because it is a place that they love, and a community that they are proud to be a part of. This is a common refrain amongst manufacturers in neighborhoods across the city: that manufacturing in New York today isn’t just about making a living, but about making a life.

“Red Hook is all about crafting a product that you believe in,” explained Sandra, one of Red Hook Winery’s founders. “We’re so fortunate to be able to be here.”

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Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies is a family business with about eight employees. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

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.

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.

Tour Recap: Brooklyn Army Terminal

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While many of New York City’s waterfront neighborhoods have undergone dramatic change over the past decade, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, still looks and feels like a solid, working class industrial neighborhood. The streets are lined with simple but attractive rowhouses, alternately framing views of ships passing by on the harbor, or the towering facades of industrial complexes like Industry City and the gargantuan Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT).

At BAT, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has spent the past three decades on a multi-phased renovation, re-activating more than three million square feet of once mothballed industrial space. Today, the usable space is 100% leased, to a mix of commercial and industrial tenants. On May 20th, Open House New York organized a tour of BAT as part of the Making it Here series on contemporary manufacturing spaces in New York City. The tour served as an opportunity to learn about how NYCEDC, OHNY’s lead partner on MIH, has leveraged this unique public asset to provide dedicated space for industrial and manufacturing businesses at a prime location.

BAT, designed by Cass Gilbert (of Woolworth Building fame) and opened in 1919, was originally built by the US Army to house soldiers and distribute supplies around the world. It was the largest military supply base through WWII, but had been decommissioned by 1975. Since 1984, when the city purchased BAT from the Army, NYCEDC has invested more than $165 million to transform the two main buildings of the 95-acre complex into a major employment center with a diverse tenant base of more than one hundred businesses, including dozens of manufacturers.

NYCEDC Vice President of Industrial Initiatives and Income Mobility Miquela Craytor (center-right) welcomed the group. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

NYCEDC Vice President of Industrial Initiatives and Income Mobility Miquela Craytor (center-right) welcomed the group. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In fact, on the very morning of the Making it Here tour, BAT played host to a press conference where NYCEDC President Kyle Kimball and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a commitment by the city of $100 million to renovate the last 500,000 square feet of unused space in the complex, which could add thousands of additional jobs to the 3,600 that are already on-site.

Later that afternoon, OHNY tour participants gathered in the lobby of Building B, a large space that was recently renovated to add a café and seating areas where workers from the many companies located within BAT can meet and mingle. The lobby is flooded with natural light thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows that look out into the iconic atrium through which trains moved more than 37 million tons of military supplies during the half-century that the Army occupied the complex.

Out in that soaring atrium space, Miquela Craytor, Vice President of Industrial Initiatives and Income Mobility teams at NYCEDC, used the State of Local Manufacturing report (October 2013) as a jumping-off point to explain how the city has responded to the local effects of the decline that has taken place in domestic manufacturing over the past few decades, as globalization has kicked into high gear.

An old railroad car was brought into the atrium during one of the renovation phases, and serves as a reminder of the soaring space's past use. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

An old railroad car was brought into the atrium during one of the renovation phases, and serves as a reminder of the soaring space’s past use. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

NYCEDC is able to provide space for mid-sized manufacturers (which typically require blocks of 15-40,000 square feet) thanks to its status as a public-private entity, which allows it to use the unique metric of jobs per square foot of usable space, rather than profit per square foot, to measure success. Just three years ago, BAT employed one person for every 1,200 square feet of usable space within its walls; today, that number has risen to one job for every 500 square feet of space. Continuing that process, Craytor attested, requires the transitioning of more warehouse space to light industrial use.

Once the stage had been set, tour participants split into two small groups and took turns visiting two manufacturers within Building B: Riva Precision and Jacques Torres Chocolates.

A worker at Jacques Torres Chocolates, somehow managing not to eat everything coming off of what may be the world's most delicious conveyer belt. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

A factory worker at Jacques Torres Chocolates, somehow managing to resist eating everything coming off of what may be the world’s most delicious conveyer belt. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Up in Jacques Torres’ lofty chocolate factory, one could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a Modernist interpretation of a Roald Dahl story. The space is full of clean white walls and shiny metal surfaces, and entrance is gained to the factory floor via a shoe-washing machine, a bristly contraption that provides a sensation suggestive of a walk over quicksand. Jacques himself led the OHNY groups around the facility, and even managed to work in a crack about the number of Oompa Loompas he has on staff. (It’s 10, in case you’re wondering.)

Jacques Torres, himself, (left) lead the tour of his facility. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Jacques Torres, himself, (left) lead the tour of his facility, providing generously frequent samples along the way. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Jacques’ facility at BAT, which just opened this past year, produces a variety of sweet treats that are then distributed to half a dozen stores around the city. The new factory has everything from giant machines for roasting thousands of almonds, to a cookie room that puts out 80 cookies every minute. There are also supportive spaces for accounting, product photography, and marketing: “Everything needed to support the manufacturing,” Jacques says. “It’s all right on site.”

The cookie room produces more than 80 cookies per minute! (Photo: Daniella Shin)

The cookie room produces more than 80 cookies per minute! (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Asked by a tour participant why he chose to keep his manufacturing business in New York City, despite the challenges presented by a search for an affordable, mid-sized industrial space, Jacques gave a short, impromptu speech outlining some of the key benefits of contemporary urban manufacturing: quality control and quality of life. “I like my life,” he began. “I like to have time for pleasure. If I opened up in another region, I’d have to spend my time traveling, and that’s it! Here, I can go to every one of my stores in one day. Do I really need to go get business in Las Vegas? My ego may tell me yes, but I think, maybe not.”

At Riva Precision, the group was met by CEO Ted Doudak. Informed that there was a short window of 15-20 minutes for the tour of his facility, Ted flashed a shocked smile. “Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes! Oh, we’ll need bikes!”

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Riva Precision occupies 37,000 square feet of space on the sixth floor of Building B. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Indeed, Riva’s 37,000-square-foot factory, to which the company re-located this past year after two decades in Long Island City, is cavernous–more than 15,000 square feet larger than their LIC facility had been. Most of the machines and workstations, which produce high-quality jewelry for clients like Tiffany & Co., are located in a single large room. One of the most fascinating machines produces the tiny, fine platinum chains often used in necklaces and bracelets, rapidly blasting a thin metal rod with a tiny laser beam to create and fuse each link around the previous one in barely a second. Riva is also home to a row of bulky computer numerical control (CNC) machines. Ted was pleased to inform the group that he had worked out a partnership with a tool maker next door to share the use of the CNC machines. When Riva isn’t using them, they often produce a variety of metal tools, allowing both manufacturers to share in the costs of owning and operating these very high-tech pieces of machinery, and illustrating another important benefit of co-location for manufacturing businesses that often require expensive equipment.

Ted Doudak explains the use of the "lost wax method" in jewelry production. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Ted L explains the use of the “lost wax method” in jewelry production. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Ted was a fan of BAT for many of the same reasons that Jacques had listed, and quality of life was, yet again, an important consideration in Riva’s re-location; Ted (and many of his employees) live within walking distance. At the end of the day, this seemed to be one of the key takeaways from the tour: far from detracting from the livability of the surrounding neighborhood, BAT is an amenity, providing a range of jobs for New Yorkers at different skill levels within walking distance of affordable housing and mass transportation.

A factory worker at Riva Precision mans a machine that uses tiny laser blasts to create fine chain link. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

A factory worker at Riva Precision mans a machine that uses tiny laser blasts to create fine chain link. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

After the tour, workers could be seen hanging out on the patio in front of the neighboring Building A, where the complex’s managers had set up picnic tables with a panoramic view of the harbor. If there is room for manufacturing in contemporary New York, it will need to fit into the diverse weave of mixed uses that make up the city’s urban fabric, rather than standing off to the side, by itself. At BAT, it is easy to start to imagine how this might look.

Riva's facility looks out over the Sunset Park neighborhood of south Brooklyn, a solid, working class neighborhood. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Riva’s facility looks out over the Sunset Park neighborhood of south Brooklyn, a solid, working class neighborhood. (Photo: Daniella Shin)