Tour Recap: Port Morris & Mott Haven

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In the Bronx, the point at which East 149th Street intersects with three major avenues (Melrose, Willis, and Third) is known, very appropriately, as The Hub. More than a quarter of a million pedestrians pass through this bustling commercial center every day, making it one of the most important retail and entertainment hubs in the city’s northernmost borough. The residential neighborhoods that encircle the Hub are, in turn, hemmed in by a series of manufacturing districts along the waterways that define the South Bronx. Mott Haven has its own pockets of industry along the Harlem River; this mixed-use, working-class neighborhood is named for Jordan Mott, who purchased the land from the Morris family and built an ironworks in 1849. (The iron structures of the Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol dome were built here). Further south, along the East River, is Port Morris. Industrial development here began just before the Revolutionary War, when the aforementioned Morrises began exporting produce from their farm.

On Friday, August 15th, Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here visited Port Morris for a tour hosted by SoBRO, an economic development organization that has played a fundamental role in the South Bronx’s turnaround. In addition to facilitating new commercial and residential development, SoBRO is also the industrial business service provider for five of the city’s Industrial Business Zones in the borough.

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Bill Morrow, who has led SoBRO as its President for the past 18 years, spoke about the transformation of the South Bronx during the trolley ride from the Hub to Port Morris. (Photo: OHNY)

On the day of the tour, participants met at SoBRO’s headquarters in the Hub, where they learned about the organization’s 40-year history before boarding the Bronx Trolley to head down to Port Morris. Several SoBRO employees talked about many of the organization’s projects that the trolley passed on its route, from an incubator in the historic Commerce Building that now houses 53 small businesses, to a slew of new mixed-use housing developments. “The Bronx has the most affordable housing in the city,” President Bill Morrow told the group. “4,700 new affordable units have been built here in just the past five years.

The co-location of this high concentration of housing for working-class families alongside several IBZs is smart, as the industrial sector is well suited to provide living wage jobs for the people who live nearby. Wages are considerably higher in this sector than in other sectors with employment options for people without a college education—to wit, a recent report from the City Council shows the average annual wage in the industrial sector as roughly twice that of the number for the retail, restaurant, and hotel sector.

When the trolley reached the IBZ, SoBro’s Industrial Business Zone Coordinator, Stephane Hyacinthe, took over. “When the industrial revolution came to the US,” Hyacinthe told the group, “it was initially the Bronx that led the way.”

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SoBRO’s Stephane Hyacinthe (center-left) and Chris Tooher (center) lead the group into Miller-Blaker’s factory through the loading dock. (Photo: OHNY)

The walking portion of the tour was to include three stops at factories around the area, where participants could get a better sense of how the jobs here supported the local population. The first stop was Miller-Blaker, a company that has been producing architectural woodwork and custom furniture since 1967. Chris Tooher, an account manager, took the group on “the same walk a product would take through the shop,” moving participants through the process of producing high-quality wood veneers.

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A worker mans a machine that Chris described as “basically a router on steroids.” The blue tubes above are part of a system that vacuums up sawdust throughout the factory, keeping the air clear while also saving the material for re-use as particleboard. (Photo: OHNY)

Huge, complex machinery lined the walkways traversed during the tour; participants learned about everything from massive CNC routers to the factory-wide suction system that collected sawdust in order to re-purpose it as particleboard to which valuable veneers are later affixed. “Making veneer is very expensive work, because it goes through a lot of hands,” Chris noted, presenting Miller-Blaker’s as a high value-added product. “You can get $100,000 for a big enough tree depending on how you slice the wood.”

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“If anything,” Chris claimed, “the woodworking industry is preserving the rainforest because we’re putting value on something would have otherwise been slashed and burned.” (Photo: OHNY)

The next stop on the tour was Panorama Windows. Located in a low-slung building that once housed a city sanitation garage, this window factory employs 87 people—mostly Bronx residents. Panorama’s president, Peter Folsom, greeted the group and started off with a nod to SoBro, which helped the company relocate to its current facility more than two decades ago. “The Bronx is a good place to work, today,” he told the group, in describing the dramatic transformation that the area has undergone. “The change here—I mean, when I came here, people were ripping up the street at night to steal the old cobblestones under the asphalt.”

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Plant manager Fabian Marichal (center) leads participants into Panorama Windows, which was once a city sanitation garage before the company and SoBRO worked together to convert it for use as a factory in the early 1980s. (Photo: OHNY)

From there, participants were led around Panorama’s factory floor by plant manager Fabian Marichal, who spoke about the diversity and quality of the company’s people as much as that of its products. “We have people from Ecuador, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, people born here in the US—there’s a lot of diversity,” Fabian explained. “People here are hard workers; they want to do a good job. They do what they do because they love it.”

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Superman keeps watch over employees as they produce Panorama’s aluminum and fiberglass window frames. (Photo: OHNY)

A 2010 report showed that more than half of the New Yorkers employed in manufacturing jobs are immigrants, highlighting the sector’s importance to supporting New York City’s role as a global melting pot. And manufacturing is critical not just to supporting socioeconomic diversity, but to fostering the city’s rich diversity of cultural opportunities as well. When people move to New York from elsewhere, they bring with them a host of ideas, customs, and objects of material culture that further enrich the city’s dynamism.

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Panorama sources its glass from Staten Island, and its aluminum from upstate New York. “We’re moving from gray to green,” Fabian told the group. “All of our aluminum is recycled.” (Photo: OHNY)

One of the areas where this is most obvious, at least within the world of urban manufacturing, is in the food and beverage sub-sector, which has been flourishing in recent years, with new firms sprouting up across the five boroughs. The third and final stop on the tour was one of these companies: the Port Morris Distillery (PMD), located just around the corner from Panorama Windows. PMD makes pitorro, which co-founder William Valentin described as “Puerto Rican moonshine.”

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The Port Morris Distillery is located in the center of the Port Morris Industrial Business Zone, one of 21 IBZs located across all four of the city’s outer boroughs. (Photo: OHNY)

“Pitorro is still made illegally in Puerto Rico,” Valentin explained. “We’re actually the first people to make and bottle it legally. The area around Port Morris has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York City, and [we located here because] we wanted to be close to our roots.”

Following local trends, PMD sources almost all of their ingredients locally, with 75% of the produce used to make their different varieties of pitorro coming from farms within New York state. The company is one of just eight micro-distilleries in New York City, and it currently only sells within the five boroughs, though Valentin noted that they were working on expanding to new markets within the next year.

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“Pitorro is Puerto Rican moonshine,” says PMD’s William Valentin (center). “In terms of flavor, it’s closest to rum…but we don’t like to say that, because it’s actually much better!” (Photo: OHNY)

The South Bronx riverfront, with its mix of industrial businesses adjacent to diverse, working-class neighborhoods, illustrates how manufacturing continues to make significant contributions to the city’s economy today even if the sector has declined substantially from its peak years. The firms that choose to stay in the city aren’t merely producing physical objects, they are helping to build stronger neighborhoods. Asked by a tour participant about whether increased policing or community activism was the more important factor in the area’s turnaround, Panorama’s Peter Folsom answered by broadening the scope: “Policing, pressure from [private citizens and businesses]—they go hand in hand. Everyone does their bit. This is a community.”

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The Port Morris Distillery is one of only eight micro-distilleries in New York City. (Photo: OHNY)

 

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: Martin Greenfield Clothiers

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The area around Newtown Creek, according to the Newtown Creek Alliance, is the oldest continuous industrial area in the nation. Put into productive use for the transport of agricultural goods in the earliest days of European colonization, today the creek is almost completely bordered by Industrial Business Zones—areas designated by the Bloomberg administration as safe from rezoning to non-industrial uses. The surrounding neighborhoods of Long Island City, East Williamsburg, Maspeth, and Bushwick are home to hundreds of industrial businesses.

On August 18th, Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series toured a factory that has helped to define this area’s industrial community for decades: Martin Greenfield Clothiers (MGC). Established on Varet Street in 1917 as GGG Clothes, this now-legendary garment manufacturer was bought and renamed in 1977 by Martin Greenfield, who joined GGG as an entry-level floor boy in 1947.

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Martin Greenfield Clothiers, founded as GGG Clothes, has been producing garments on Varet Street ‘the old fashioned way’ since 1917. (Photo: NYCEDC)

Recently, the surrounding neighborhood has been going through a period dramatic change. Located several blocks off Newtown Creek itself, MCG’s factory sits directly on the border of the North Brooklyn IBZ. Numerous buildings within view of the factory’s front stoop have been converted for residential use within the past few years as the gentrification of nearby Bushwick has reached a feverish pace.

At a time when city officials are ever more prone to speculating about the increase of mixed-use zoning within long-time industrial strongholds, the tour of this factory, hemmed in by a growing residential population, proved particularly enlightening. Tailoring isn’t the only family business: the Greenfields are also long-time proponents for the development and retention of industrial businesses within the city. Martin worked to create EWVIDCO, one of New York’s first industrial business advocacy organizations, int he early 1980s; today, his son Tod serves as its board chair.

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An employee works on a suit jacket. Throughout the tour, Tod described the garments as being “engineered,” rather than simply “made.” (Photo: NYCEDC)

Despite their company’s stellar reputation, the Greenfields have faced plenty of hurdles over the years as they worked to grow a manufacturing business while remaining in Brooklyn. Backed by the hum of hundreds of sewing machines, Tod wove stories of recent frustrations into the tour of the factory floor, highlighting the inherent tension that often exists when industrial and residential uses overlap.

In one instance, a neighbor in a building that had been illegally converted from industrial to residential use (but legalized through the expansion of the Loft Law several years ago) complained to the city about the noise created by a vacuum pump essential to MGC’s factory operation. The company was hit with a fine and a hefty bill to insulate and silence the pump. Despite the factory’s location on an industrially zoned lot within a designated IBZ, when Tod appealed, a judge upheld the fine. This, according to Tod, was hardly an uncommon frustration for his and other businesses in the area.

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“If money were the only motivation, we wouldn’t be here,” says Tod Greenfield (left) in explaining why MGC has fought to remain in East Williamsburg. (Photo: NYCEDC)

So why stay at all? As almost every business owner who has welcomed Making it Here participants into their factories has explained, the Greenfields say that they’re willing to grapple with the challenges of urban manufacturing because their business is about more than just turning a profit. “We have different ethics than most companies, which is why we’re still manufacturing in the city,” Tod told the group. “If money were the only motivation, we wouldn’t be here. We like New York; we like living here—and our employees live here.”

Thus, out of a mixture of work ethic and determination, MGC has built an international reputation for producing suits and uniforms of the highest quality—garments that last a lifetime—in the heart of a city better known today for the design and marketing of clothing than its production. The patina of heavy use covers every surface of MGC’s factory, from the rounded edges of wooden tables to the mottled, streamlined swoops of well-loved sewing machines whose own manufacturers have long since discontinued their production. The machines take on lives of their own, and employees learn their individual quirks and habits. One gets the sense that, whenever a machine finally gives out, its passing is mourned by the people who knew it.

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The garments themselves are almost like living documents; temporary seams are added and removed, marking and then erasing different phases of the production process. (Photo: NYCEDC)

The garments themselves are almost like living documents; they move from worker to worker; along the way, temporary seams are added to and removed from each garment, marking and then erasing different phases of the production process. “With the modern automated process of manufacturing,” Tod explained, “there is only 15-20 minutes of direct labor. By comparison our garments live with [our employees] for over a month. Our burden is to make garments look fresh after 14-16 hours of handwork—but then our garments, over time, look better and better. Garments engineered to be made with automated assembly processes look the best they’ll ever look when you pick them off the rack that first time.”

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A busy morning on the factory floor. (Photo: NYCEDC)

Martin, himself, remains active in the day-to-day operations of the factory that bears his name. Popping up here and there across the floor throughout the morning, he took time at the end of the tour to speak with participants about his own story, and the history of his company. An Auschwitz survivor, Martin immigrated to the United States after WWII and spent the rest of his life in the garment industry. “My background, it is working,” he stated. “I love what I do. If a person finds a job in America and doesn’t like it, never stay in that job. Find something that you love.”

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“My background, it is working,” says Martin Greenfield, who has owned the company since 1977 after working his way up from floor boy. “I love what I do.” (Photo: NYCEDC)

The Greenfields’ dedication—to their business, to their employees, and to the industrial community in North Brooklyn—is a key attribute shared by many of the manufacturers that remain in New York City today. The title of the Making it Here series is, of course, a riff on one of the city’s most iconic boasts: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Today, this is especially true for manufacturers, though ironically so. They can often “make it anywhere” with a lot less hassle. Those who stay endeavor to do so for the same reasons that any New Yorker does: they love it here, and their employees do, too. This is where they’ve built their businesses, and their lives.

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Manufacturers can often “make it anywhere” with a lot less hassle. Those who stay endeavor to do so for the same reasons that any New Yorker does: they love it here, and their employees do, too. (Photo: NYCEDC)

“The more you automate, the less you’re able to adapt to change,” Tod noted, in explaining why MGC remains dedicated to labor-intensive production at a time when most Americans buy their clothes off the rack. In considering the future of industrial districts like those along Newtown Creek and the role of manufacturing in the city’s economy, we should keep those words of wisdom in mind.

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The factory floor is a maze of work stations and rack upon rack of suit jackets in every imaginable stage of construction. (Photo: NYCEDC)

OHNY and NYCEDC thank Martin Greenfield Clothiers for welcoming participants into their space for this tour. To learn more about Martin Greenfield, check out the legendary tailor’s new book, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor.

Urban Manufacturing Q&A: Miquela Craytor, New York City Economic Development Corporation

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In the fall of 2013, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC)’s Industrial Desk team, led by VP for Industrial Initiatives and Income Mobility Miquela Craytor, released the State of Local Manufacturing report under the banner of NYCEDC’s NYCrafted program. The report provides a detailed but accessible snapshot of what the sector looks like today: from the average makeup of manufacturing businesses that are choosing to make things in the city today, to which areas of the sector that are growing, to how New York stacks up against other major cities across the country. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Craytor and OHNY, and is part of an ongoing series of Q&As with experts on urban manufacturing that augments OHNY and NYCEDC’s’s Making it Here series.

Looking at the State of Local Manufacturing, it seems like, after a long period of decline, the city’s manufacturing sector is actually starting to stabilize; some sectors are even starting to grow again. What areas of this sector, specifically, are growing right now, and what does the success of those subsectors tell us about how manufacturing in the city is changing?

Food and beverage manufacturing is the bright shining star right now, and there are a couple of potential reasons for that growth. Part of it is the rising interest in food security, part is the interest in eating food that is locally grown or produced. You see this in the growth of farmers markets, and markets in general. Markets have definitely contributed to that sub-sector of manufacturers finding a really strong foothold here in New York City. A place this dynamic and large has a very opinionated customer base, so there’s naturally a larger set of people demanding that kind of smaller niche product.

Another interesting piece of data that we came across is that, across the manufacturing sector, there are fewer employees, but there are more firms. [This is enabled by larger trends in] technology and design: with the growing accessibility of design tools, open source resources, and online marketplaces like Etsy, businesses are able to rapidly get their products to market without some of the barriers that have traditionally made it more difficult for newer companies to break into the marketplace. The city also has a really great talent pool of designers and design appreciators. That doesn’t necessarily apply to one cluster or sub-sector, but you see a lot of new niche manufacturers emerging now as a result of that base.

There are also a lot of older firms that have adopted new forms of technology in order to survive. That is often overlooked or understated, and has happened more frequently than the average New Yorker, to the extent that they think about this stuff, might have necessarily realized. You might think that if a company has been around for fifty years they’re probably antiquated or old-school. Sometimes that’s the case, but more often than not, legacy manufacturers have had to adopt some sort of new technologies, whether it’s managing their inventories and implementing more just-in-time manufacturing processes, or becoming more efficient in the materials they’re using. This is not necessarily a new trend, but it’s a piece of the puzzle that we became familiar with as we worked on this report.

"Food and beverage manufacturing is the bright shining star right now." / Photo: Daniella Shin

“Food and beverage manufacturing is the bright shining star right now.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

How is all of this impacting the physical spaces that manufacturers occupy, both in terms of the buildings that they’re in and the neighborhoods where manufacturing is taking place?

Manufacturing companies, as they become more efficient and adopt new technologies, are able to reduce their environmental impact. In a very densely populated place like New York City, that makes it possible for these businesses to coexist with other uses in a way that doesn’t create as many conflicts as it may have eighty plus years ago. So the increases in efficiency in manufacturing are not just about the overall operational efficiency of a given company, they can reduce that company’s environmental impact, so that it can be seen as a better neighbor, and a source of less conflict [within a mixed-use area].

One continued challenge is less about what happens inside your facility and more about how you get your products out to market. Manufacturers are more willing to go to upper stories than they once were, but for any industrial business that’s trying to move goods around this city, our streets are already packed; trucks have a difficult time navigating here, and they’re not necessarily ideal when you consider things like the city’s attempts to encourage biking and the greening of space. We’re not going to be able to build a bunch of new streets, so that’s an ongoing challenge that the city needs to think more thoughtfully about.

As manufacturers become more attracted to different types of vertical mixed-use spaces, and digital platforms—you mentioned Etsy—make it easier for more small, niche firms to enter the market, is it fair to say that urban manufacturing is actually getting more diffuse?

In terms of the trend where we’re seeing more of these innovative start-up companies, New York City is a very attractive place for them largely because of the talent pool that is here, but also the supply of buildings that have that sort of creative essence that these types of groups want to be in. A lot of these firms are really turned off by the idea of working in a high rise, even if it was a class B commercial space. In terms of thinking about building typologies that are appropriate for companies in this new wave of manufacturers, being in a multi story building is not a bad thing. There’s a sense of community in many of these [retrofitted industrial buildings] that new companies want to be a part of, and that sets them apart from more traditional manufacturers.

That works for a while at a certain stage of your growth as a company, but it will be interesting, looking toward the future, to see how and whether can we make sure that, if these companies hit growth spurts, we can still have spaces that they can move into. That’s something that we’re looking at here at NYCEDC, on the policy side, so that the city can continue to support these companies through their whole life trajectory, not just during their start-up phase.

"There’s a sense of community in many of these [retrofitted industrial buildings] that new companies want to be a part of, and that sets them apart from more traditional manufacturers." / Photo: OHNY

“There’s a sense of community in many of these [retrofitted industrial buildings] that new companies want to be a part of, and that sets them apart from more traditional manufacturers.” (Photo: OHNY)

That brings us to an interesting subject that a lot of New Yorkers probably know very little about: the Industrial Business Zone. What, exactly, is an IBZ?

Industrial Business Zones were a policy program that was started back in late 2005 and went into effect in 2006. Initially the city created a total of 16 IBZs; in the past year we’ve added five more. These 21 areas are located in all of the boroughs except Manhattan. IBZs can only exist within an area that’s zoned for manufacturing, aka an M-zone; they do not change the existing land use. The process to define the boundary lines of these areas is somewhat rigorous, and is governed by the city’s administrative law code. [IBZs aren’t actually formal zoning rules, but] if the city wants to create new IBZs or expand or contract existing IBZs, they have to follow a set of very specific steps in order to consider those changes or modifications.

The IBZ program was primarily created as an outcome of many businesses being concerned that the areas where they were located were going to be rezoned to other uses, like residential, and that they would be pushed out of the city. The program is a way of telling industrial business communities that they are still valued, and that we still want them around.

How do you explain to people why, at a time when it can be so much more profitable to build a condo tower or a hotel, it’s important for the city to make space for manufacturing?

Manufacturing companies tend to pay, on average, a much higher wage compared to other industries where you don’t need a four-year degree. Looking at that wage trajectory, and ensuring that the types of companies that offer good wages for someone without a degree, from a policy perspective, is something that this administration really believes in. The overall benefit to the city of having these jobs here is that these are living wage jobs; there is so much talk about the hollowing out of the middle class, and these are the jobs that can create some level of stability for the New Yorkers who are still pursuing that so-called American Dream.

We think that the city is at a very exciting inflection point. With the new administration, we’re at that point at which we can really send strong indicators to this part of the city’s economy and ensure that these companies feel welcomed and encouraged to stay, and also that they have access to additional tools and resources to grow to the extent they want to, and to become sustainable in the full sense of the word—not only for their bottom line, but for the communities which they’re a part of. There are a lot of things that go into that, and what’s exciting about the Making it Here series of tours, and the conversations that are coming out of them, is that it is helping to re-paint [the picture that New Yorkers have of] what the city’s industrial landscape looks like, how it’s evolved, and where it’s potentially headed.

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“With the new administration, we’re at that point at which we can really send strong indicators to this part of the city’s economy and ensure that these companies feel welcomed and encouraged to stay.” (Photo: OHNY)

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.