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.

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)

Tour Recap: Standard Motors Products Building

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When the 300,000-square-foot Standard Motors Products Building was completed in 1919, it was at the heart of one of the most important manufacturing hubs in the world. Situated on an ideal site with direct access to the sprawling Sunnyside Railroad Yard, the building was and remains a dominant presence on the Long Island City skyline, serving as a reminder of the area’s past role as an industrial powerhouse. But today, while Standard Motors leases space here for its corporate offices, the manufacturing of automotive parts has been moved off-site.

That’s not to say that manufacturing has left the building entirely. In fact, the opposite is true: since purchasing the building from Standard Motors in 2008, Acumen Capital Partners LLC has renovated the structure and worked to integrate a mix of light manufacturing spaces into a multi-use hive of activity, a virtual city-within-a-city. On Friday, May 16th, Open House New York toured the building with Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport, who explained how the factory’s adaptation over time reflects the larger trends that have been re-shaping urban manufacturing for the past few decades.

The tour, which kicked off OHNY’s and the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series on manufacturing in New York, started in the building’s lobby, an attractive space designed by Bromley Caldari Architects in 2010 that features rotating exhibits. Nina began by outlining some of the themes of her Vertical Urban Factory project, through which she has spent the past few years researching the history of urban factory architecture as well as exploring how the evolution of manufacturing into “smaller, cleaner, and greener” processes has impacted cities. Rather than being thought of as dirty and undesirable, Nina believes that factories can and should be places that enhance the communities in which they are located. “Cities,” argued Nina, “still need labor. So it’s important that we consider how we can make factories places of pride for workers.”

Brooklyn Grange’s flagship farm, which contains 1.2 million pounds of earth that were lifted into place by crane, occupies the building’s roof. (Photo: OHNY)

Brooklyn Grange’s flagship farm, which contains 1.2 million pounds of earth that were lifted into place by crane, occupies the building’s roof. (Photo: OHNY)

Brooklyn Grange, the first stop on the tour, offered a striking example of one way that Acumen has attempted to do just that. The Grange’s first industrial-scale farm opened on the roof of the Standard Motors Products Building in 2010. It took a week to lift more than 1.2 million pounds of earth up by crane, creating what is now one of the largest rooftop soil farms in the world (along with the Grange’s second farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which opened in 2012). Today, this one-acre (43,000-square-foot) farm not only produces fresh fruits and vegetables, it hosts seasonal community farmers markets, and provides educational programming to more than 7,000 kids from local schools every year through a partnership with City Growers.

The Grange takes advantage of the Standard Motors Products Building’s solid industrial architecture, which includes a concrete structural frame with “mushroom columns” that can support heavier loads—and the farm returns the favor. “The farm acts like a blanket on the roof,” explained farm manager Brad Flemming, who led the Grange portion of the tour. “It’s lowered energy costs throughout the building.”

Farm manager Brad Flemming introduces participants to the chickens that live in the Grange’s rooftop coop. (Photo: Nina Rappaport)

Farm manager Brad Flemming introduces participants to the chickens that live in the Grange’s rooftop coop. (Photo: Nina Rappaport)

Back inside, Nina led the group down to Standard Motors’ headquarters, which features a small exhibit on the company’s 95-year history that includes dozens of parts and components that were once manufactured on site. In fact, the company’s manufacturing operations—95% of which once took place in the LIC building, employing more than 2,000 people at its peak—only just left the site in 2008.

Nina leads the group through the gallery that displays almost a century’s worth of Standard Motors products, once manufactured on-site. (Photo: OHNY)

Nina leads the group through the gallery that displays almost a century’s worth of Standard Motors products, once manufactured on-site. (Photo: OHNY)

The vacancy left by Standard Motors’ relocation was quickly occupied by a variety of niche manufacturers, including Gailer, a print finishing company that specializes in foil stamping, embossing, die cutting, and laminating. Gailer occupies several thousand square feet on the third floor of the building, where they employ 45 people. In touring the space, Mike Pinciotto provided demonstrations of how various pieces of heavy machinery are used to create a wide range of high-quality printed products, from customized invitations to booklets to media kits.

Gailer’s Mike Pinciotto (second from left) explains how the various pieces of heavy machinery in the facility were lifted in through the windows, by crane. (Photo: OHNY)

Gailer’s Mike Pinciotto (second from left) explains how the various pieces of heavy machinery in the facility were lifted in through the windows, by crane. (Photo: OHNY)

Gailer was founded at a time when New York City was the center of the nation’s printing industry; today, the company works with a wide and diverse range of mostly local clients. Their competitive edge is in their proximity to their market, as the process of print finishing can be very complex, and every job is unique. “Designers will design [a job] and send it to us, and sometimes we really have to struggle with it to figure out how to make it work,” Mike explained. This requires creativity, not to mention some highly specialized skills that employees at Gailer learn over the span of their careers. “Learning the machines is like an apprenticeship. It takes years.”

Shelves full of foil await the stamping presses. (Photo: OHNY)

Shelves full of foil await the stamping presses. (Photo: OHNY)

After Gailer, the tour made several stops at smaller firms that gave participants a chance to see the range of spaces in the huge facility that once served a single massive manufacturing operation—and how different types of firms are coexisting. The tour included visits to Jenex Graphics, a commercial printer; Caples Jefferson, an architecture firm; and VanDeb Editions, a print maker that works with local artists to create works of art through etching and monotype. This range of spaces helped participants to better understand the spatial needs of manufacturing in a city where the majority of manufacturers employ fewer than ten people.

Jenex Graphics employs seven people in their facility in the basement of the building; the majority of manufacturers in NYC today employ fewer than 10 people. (Photo: OHNY)

Jenex Graphics employs seven people in their facility in the basement of the building; the majority of manufacturers in NYC today employ fewer than 10 people. (Photo: OHNY)

The tour of the Standard Motors Products Building gave participants an opportunity to experience, firsthand, how manufacturing spaces can (and do) coexist happily with office space, arts spaces, and other uses. Through the addition of amenities like the Brooklyn Grange farm (which almost all of the other businesses mentioned, fondly, at various points in their presentations) and ground-level retail spaces created in former truck bays along Northern Boulevard, Acumen has created a dynamic complex that incorporates industry while improving the surrounding neighborhood—supporting Nina’s argument that integrating “smaller, cleaner, and greener” manufacturing back into our neighborhoods can create a more equitable city by giving workers a sense of pride in the places where they work.

VanDeb Editions co-founder Deborah Freedman explains how her facility produces limited runs of prints for a variety of NYC-based artists. (Photo: Nina Rappaport)

VanDeb Editions co-founder Deborah Freedman explains how her facility produces limited runs of prints for a variety of NYC-based artists. (Photo: Nina Rappaport)


OHNY and NYCEDC thank Nina, Acumen, and all of the businesses that welcomed participants into their spaces for the inaugural Making it Here tour.

Introduction: Making it Here

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How does manufacturing occupy space in the city today? The massive factories that made New York City a productive powerhouse around the turn of the last century are mostly gone, but the city’s unique complexity has allowed a host of increasingly specialized manufacturing firms to thrive and proliferate. Indeed, after decades of decline, parts of the city’s manufacturing sector are starting to grow again as a host of new social and technological forces are transforming the manufacturing sector into something more diffuse, diverse, and dynamic.

Open House New York is excited to announce the launch of Making it Here, a yearlong series of programs that explores manufacturing in the city today: what it looks like, how it works, and why it is so important to the future of New York. Through tours, talks, and other programs, New Yorkers will have a chance to visit and learn about how older industrial buildings, once considered outmoded, are being retrofitted to create spaces that reflect the changing needs of a manufacturing ecosystem that better integrates the design and production processes, as well as how some legacy manufacturers have adapted their businesses to shifting market dynamics, allowing them to thrive in place over time. Making it Here will also tour the spaces where entrepreneurs, technologists, and inventors are re-imagining manufacturing right here in the heart of the city through the development of new technologies like peer-to-peer platforms and 3D printing.

Making it Here marks the first time that OHNY has organized an entire series of programming around a specific theme, leveraging OHNY’s capacity for offering access and experience to give the public the unique opportunity to explore a single issue over many months. “As we know from the enormous audiences that attend OHNY Weekend and our other year-round programs, there is an intense interest among the public in better understanding New York: its buildings, its systems, its public spaces,” explains OHNY executive director Gregory Wessner. “In exploring a subject as broad as manufacturing, our goal is to give people a chance to learn about the city through the same kind of direct experience we offer in all of our programs, especially about an issue that is so important to the health and vitality of the city.”

In providing access to a system that often exists off of many New Yorkers’ radars, Making it Here will serve as a platform for a public discussion about how manufacturing fits into the five boroughs. The popular conception of the factory as a place of soot-belching smokestacks and dreary assembly lines obscures a fast-changing reality that necessitates a deeper public understanding of what making space for manufacturing in our neighborhoods means for our quality of life.

“While the noise and pollution associated with production has often isolated manufacturing to the city’s urban edges and the hinterlands, significant technological changes could make re-integration of manufacturing spaces into more mixed-use neighborhoods possible, and even desirable, in the near future,” says architecture critic and Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport. “When people actually have the chance to visit the manufacturing spaces that exist in New York City today and see them firsthand, it becomes evident that zoning needs to accommodate new and diverse uses for new kinds of manufacturing.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal_Nicolas Lemery Nantel

To expand the reach of Making it Here, the OHNY Blog will feature interviews throughout the year with a broad range of experts to shed light on what each site in the series illustrates about the forces at work in urban manufacturing. Through additional web content, Making it Here will also explore the land use and urban design challenges facing the manufacturing sector, as well as the unique benefits that an urban context offers manufacturers. In a city like New York, where many hyper-specialized economic sectors coexist in a densely populated space, demand is diverse and sophisticated, and more flexible production and distribution networks become vital. Given the high environmental costs associated with mass production and globalized supply chains, the “new manufacturing” spaces springing up across the city could even become a critical component of New York’s expansive sustainability goals, turning the old trope of dirty industry on its ear.

“Tremendous economic, technological and cultural forces are reshaping manufacturing, and that bodes well for cities” said Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and founder of the buy-local Made In NYC campaign.  “The need to reduce energy consumption, the benefits of having designers and producers clustered closely together so that they can innovate new products, and growing consumer demand for local products are driving the growth of local companies.  However, if the city wants to reap all of the benefits of this process we have to make sure that companies are able to scale up locally, which requires adequate industrial space among other things.”

In a city where demand for space is so high, where does manufacturing fit in? And in the age of globalization, when you can make something anywhere, what are the benefits of making it here? We look forward to exploring these and other questions with you over the coming year.

Making It Here is organized by Open House New York in partnership with NYCEDC, as well as with the Pratt Center for Community Development and Vertical Urban Factory. Click here to view the  schedule of upcoming events.