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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.”
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!”
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 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.
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.