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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.