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.

Tour Recap: National Elevator Cab and Door Corp. Factory

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If you’ve ever taken a train out of the city to the north or east, you’ve ridden right past the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. factory. Located on a side street in Queens tucked into the split where the elevated tracks for Amtrak’s Acela line and the LIRR part ways, this unassuming brick building produces hundreds of elevator cabs every year, serving New York City’s uniquely robust market for vertical transportation. The factory is surrounded by a mix of warehouse and factory buildings—many of which still contain industrial businesses—and tightly packed single family homes and apartment buildings housing a diverse, working class community.

On August 1st, 2014, National provided a rare glimpse inside of its facility through two tours organized as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series. Led by the family-owned business’ third-generation owner, Jeff Friedman, participants learned about how elevator cabs are produced here in the city, within view of the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan.

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This massive press bends metal panels with an ease that is almost startling to see in person. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“If your elevator is broken,” Jeff started off, “we’re useless. If it’s ugly, we can help.” While a few very large companies like Otis manufacture elevators all over the world, custom cabs, entrances, and fixtures are often contracted out to firms like National. Otis provides customers with a catalog of options; if you want something distinctive, or even something simple that the larger firms don’t already make, you go to National. In a city like New York, where elevator rides are a fact of daily life for people across the socioeconomic spectrum, a large market exists for this kind of work.

According to Jeff, there are around 100,000 elevator cabs operating in New York City today, with the majority located in Manhattan, the borough where National does most of their annual business. National produces hundreds of cabs each year. The average job calls for 10 cabs, though the company will often work on skyscraping landmarks that require a much heavier lift. On the morning of the tour, Jeff noted that the company was just wrapping up a job building 72 cabs for 1WTC; work was just getting underway for the refurbishment of the high rise cabs in the Empire State Building, and had just finished the refurbishment of 31 cabs in 10 and 30 Rockefeller Center not long before.

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Several mammoth pieces of machinery are clustered in the factory’s westernmost area, clanking and clomping away. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

National’s factory is actually made up of several industrial buildings that have been cobbled together over time as the company has grown. It started out in Midtown Manhattan in 1929, and moved from the east side to the west before heading out to Queens in 1965. Entering the factory from the loading dock on the westernmost side, the tour led participants through a maze of shearing machines and punch presses where huge sheets of metal are cut, bent, and shaped to create the hundreds of interlocking pieces of elevator cabs and doors. Jeff paused at the welding station to talk about one of the key reasons his company stays in the city: access to skilled labor.

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“These guys have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“It takes talent to weld well,” Jeff told the group. “That’s a skill that not everybody has. These guys don’t just have to weld, either; they have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in. Their work has to be structurally sound, yes, but because of the nature of our business, it also has to look architecturally sound.”

Because National does custom jobs, its production process is far from a traditional assembly line. Aesthetics are important, since the cabs, doors, and fixtures are the “face” of the larger elevator structures, the parts that the public actually sees. A company like Otis doesn’t need to worry about how the inside of an elevator shaft that it produces looks, so long as it can safely do its job. National’s work, by contrast, requires a high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail.

This cab, the 73rd and last cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

This cab, the 72nd and final cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In the next section of the factory, participants had the opportunity to see the last cab built for 1WTC, a glass box that will be installed in the lobby atrium to facilitate wheelchair accessibility. National assembles each cab that it produces on-site to make sure that everything fits together and to test the different working components. Pre-assembly also gives architects the chance to visit the site and work directly with Jeff and his staff as custom cabs are produced to ensure that everything looks right. Once the cabs have been tested and given the architect’s stamp of approval, they are disassembled and shipped in pieces out, before being re-assembled on-site at their final destination. Between cutting, drilling, polishing, assembling, and many other steps involved along the way, Jeff estimated that the single 1WTC cab the group was looking at was the result of nearly 1,000 hours worth of work.

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The red and gold panel in the foreground will eventually be installed at the Helmsley Building as part of a restoration of the building’s landmarked elevator cabs. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Participants saw a variety of cabs in various states of construction. A standard NYCHA elevator cab stood, fully assembled, across from the 1WTC cab. NYCHA has around 7,000 elevators across the city, and is a large and reliable customer for National (as well as a number of its competitors). A gleaming cab for 7 Bryant Park, designed by Pei Partners, was in the process of being assembled, while just across the aisle workers were producing meticulously crafted replicas of the red and gold wall panels for the elevators in Park Avenue’s iconic Helmsley Building, one of only two buildings in New York City with landmarked elevator cabs.

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Panels hang in a row, awaiting the day when they’ll be shipped off to a job site. “Generally,” Jeff explained, “the time between when an architect approves a drawing to when we can ship the cabs is about 12 weeks.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Notably, National has a number of repeat clients. The average age of a commercial office building in the city is 75 years, according to Jeff, and elevator cabs need to be refurbished every two to three decades. The company refurbished the cabs in the Twin Towers in the 1990s, and did the previous refurbishment for Helmsley back in the late 1970s. National has built a reputation for quality work over time, encouraging repeat business that gives the company a competitive edge that helps to offset the added costs of doing business in the city, where real estate is at a premium.

“It’s actually a strategic advantage for us to be right here,” said Jeff. “When you consider the transit access, the proximity to the Queensboro Bridge and the BQE, we’re in the transportation hub of the city. And our factory is like the United Nations; we have people working here from all over the world. We’re proud of that, and quality of life for our employees is important to us. It’s important for us to be near transportation for them, and important to be near our suppliers, our clients, our market.”

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National’s Jeff Friedman, center, led the tour as part of OHNY and NYCEDC’s Making it Here series. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

While urban real estate is more expensive for manufacturers, New York’s distinctive form—its density and verticality, as well as the physical diversity of its neighborhoods and its appetite for quality architecture—has created sizable niche markets for businesses like the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. that have historically made the benefits of an in-city location worth the higher costs. As a result, when manufacturers with less direct ties to the city headed out to suburban industrial parks or new factories overseas, National made the very deliberate decision to stay in New York.

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A laser cutter is used to create many of the smaller components that are used in elevator fixtures. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

But if space for manufacturing continues to shrink, the cost benefit balance will eventually tip. And beyond the pressures of real estate, there is the desire to grow. National has been able to expand to adjacent buildings several times, but with a limited (and shrinking) amount of industrial land, at a certain point the very same dense and diverse urban fabric that makes National’s business possible becomes a constraint, limiting the company’s ability to expand. While new, nimble manufacturers are generating a lot of excitement right now, the question as to whether New York can still find space for its legacy manufacturers remains. In order for these companies to continue to grow and add the stable, well-paid jobs that they are valued for creating, they need room.

“Frankly, this is not the cheapest place to be,” Jeff admitted. “We would love to have more space, but it’s hard to come by. We’ve looked at other areas where you can get more square footage, but they just don’t have the transportation access. So, here we are.”

(Photo: Daniella Shin)

National is the only manufacturer of its kind to make cabs, doors (or “entrances” in industry terminology), and fixtures all in the same factory. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Tour Recap: Edison Price Lighting Factory

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“Our niche is people who want quality lighting that will last a long time,” explained Emma Price, the President of Edison Price Lighting, when asked about her company’s specialty. “You have to do high-quality [if you want to manufacture things] in New York City. You can’t just make cheap stuff, here.”

Established in 1952, Edison Price has over 60 years of experience designing and manufacturing high-quality energy-efficient lighting fixtures at their factory in Long Island City, Queens, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. The company has completed many high-profile projects, including the refurbishment of the lighting fixtures for the United Nations, and lighting the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. Emma’s father was a friend and frequent collaborator of legendary Modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly, and the company worked with him to light the Yale Art Gallery, the Seagram Building, and other architectural landmarks.

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Nina Rappaport (left) and Emma Price (right) welcome tour participants to Edison Price Lighting’s Long Island City factory (Photo: OHNY)

In that time, the company has witnessed the city’s economic and technological landscape transform dramatically, and its physical surroundings are now following suit. On July 16th, Emma and her team hosted a factory tour, organized and presented by Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport, as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series.

In the 1900s, Long Island City was a vibrant manufacturing center, thanks to the area’s efficient transportation networks and large skilled labor pool. But as technology advanced and outsourced labor became more economically strategic for many manufacturing firms, the area’s industrial community took a huge blow. “After NAFTA, a many cities simply let the manufacturers go,” Nina noted in her introduction. “Many planners thought that manufacturing wasn’t something that was needed in cities anymore. As a result, we wound up with land zoned for manufacturing sitting empty, which was an impetus for rezoning to other uses.”

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Just outside, glittering new residential buildings are on the rise. (Photo: OHNY)

More recently, large sections of New York’s manufacturing districts have been rezoned for residential and commercial uses as the land values of waterfront property in the city have soared due to the increased interest in urban living. This is especially true of LIC, but despite mounting pressure to leave the area, Edison Price has chosen to stay right where they are. The area’s transit access, still important to attracting skilled workers, also makes it easy for architects and lighting designers—the company’s core clients—to get to the factory themselves.

By specializing in the production of high value added goods, companies like Edison Price provide essential services to the more glamorous, high-profile sectors of the city’s economy, architecture and design among them. The symbiotic relationship between design industries and manufacturers that specialize in creating unique products is one of the mainstays of urban economies. For Edison Price, that means working directly with the people who design the lighting for the buildings in which we live, work, and play. Both architect and manufacturer are able to fine-tune what they do in order to produce better results based on their collaborative work, and are thus better off for being near each other, Nina noted.

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The factory tour was led by factory manager George Closs (left). (Photo: OHNY)

After Emma’s and Nina’s introductions, factory manager George Closs led tour participants through the almost 50,000-square-foot facility to learn more about how custom lighting fixtures are made. On average, Edison Price manufactures $20 million in product per year. George emphasized that Edison Price is “made in New York City,” and that its products are American to the core. For the past 60 years, Edison Price has done all design, research, and production work within its LIC facility. Furthermore, every material and machine used to produce light fixtures at Edison price is made in the United States.

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Bins of metal shavings are collected and sold to metal recycling firms. (Photo: OHNY)

During the tour, the factory floor buzzed with the rhythmic sounds of dozens of machines drilling and making calculated cuts and punches. George pointed out an impressive group of machines that cut and shaped metal into light fixtures, and a laser-cutting machine larger than most New York City bedrooms. “We have zero inventory,” he told the group, explaining that the factory manufactures its products using just-in-time scheduling to send out orders as soon as they’re finished being made. This cuts back on the space that the company needs to occupy, allowing for the more efficient use of space.

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A large punch press makes precise, rapid cuts through metal sheeting. (Photo: OHNY)

Edison Price also stands out for a unique factory layout that allows the company to take advantage of the city’s aforementioned skilled labor pool. The company utilizes small teams of workers who are cross-trained to be able to work on fixtures at any step in the production process, rather than using the more common assembly line model, where workers specialize in a single monotonous step. Here, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine.

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At Edison Price, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine. (Photo: OHNY)

Afterward, Nina discussed her Vertical Urban Factory project, explaining that she is working directly with manufacturers like Edison Price to think through how they might be able to continue growing in place while also taking advantage of changing trends in urban real estate like those affecting Long Island City. “Could you have a situation where Edison Price is able to develop a residential project above its factory, have mixed uses in place, which is something rarely considered, and stay in its building in the long term?” Nina asked, before hinting that she’s working with the city’s planning department to think through potential future scenarios.

A visit to a facility like Edison Price Lighting’s is an eye-opening experience. It illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. Creative types benefit greatly from being able to work directly with the people who make their ideas work, and vice versa. In order for the city’s creative industries to thrive, both sides of the coin have to be considered.

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A visit to a factory like Edison Price’s illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. (Photo: OHNY)


OHNY and NYCEDC thank Nina and Edison Price Lighting for welcoming participants into the factory for this tour.

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.