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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
OHNY and NYCEDC thank BNYDC, BetaLab, and Situ Studio for welcoming participants into their spaces for this tour.