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