A Manufacturing Renaissance at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

At the New Lab, engineers, designers and students will work in a collaborative manufacturing environment. MetroFocus/ Georgia Kral.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard is home to many architectural relics of the past. There are the crumbling buildings of Admiral’s Row, which, for now, can only be gazed on from behind a wall on Flushing Avenue. And there’s the recently rehabbed BLDG 92, home to an art gallery and an exhibition space detailing the history of the Yard, as well as the popular Ted and Honey Cafe. But nestled a bit deeper into the 300-acre post-industrial plot of land between Williamsburg and DUMBO sits a nearly 200,000-square-foot former shipbuilding factory. Currently, the building is a shell of its former self: all steel beams and promise. But soon, that will change.

Construction began this summer on buildings 128, 28 and 123 to transform them into the future Green Manufacturing Center, which is expected to be completed in 18 months. The New Lab, a collaborative design and fabrication laboratory, will utilize 160,000 square feet of the space.

“The Navy Yard is expanding,” said David Belt Managing Principal of Macro Sea, which is developing the New Lab. “It has a lot of warehouses. Now it’s going to be occupied by people and jobs.”

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In recent years, Brooklyn has become synonymous with many things: artisanal food production, pickles, farm to table restaurants, artists in lofts, to name just a few trending aspects of the borough. But the rejuvenation of Brooklyn is also turning out to be a return to the borough’s roots. The rebirth of manufacturing is happening slowly, but surely — and it’s not only hipsters making fancy furniture and foodstuffs.

Call it a comeback.

Manufacturing was once a major driver of economic activity in Brooklyn and indeed, the city. Warehouses all along the waterfront, from Sunset Park to Greenpoint, were at one time bursting at the seams with activity. But between 2000 and 2003, 11,000 manufacturing jobs left the borough, dropping to 32,298 from 43,212, according to New York State Labor Department figures cited by Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, in a New York Times article about artisan manufacturers.

But the jobs are returning to the Navy Yard. Currently, about 6,000 people are employed there, up from 3,600 in 2001, working in fields from fashion to publishing to woodworking. The New Lab and Green Manufacturing Center is another piece of the puzzle and is expected to generate 300 new permanent jobs for engineers, educators and blue-collar workers, and approximately 400 construction jobs. A plan to transform a defunct hospital on the Yard into a media, technology and film campus was announced in mid-August.

“There are a lot of different pieces and all of it is geared around identifying ways to support 21st century manufacturing that supports sectors relevant in New York City,” said Andrew Kimball, president and chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

In a recent article in New York magazine, Justin Davidson discusses “the true beauty” of the Navy Yard, which lies in the fact that the historic industrial park is still an industrial park.

“At the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” he wrote, “industrial buildings are being rejuvenated so that people can do what they always did there: make things.”

Kimball agrees that the reason why the Navy Yard is experiencing a manufacturing renaissance is because 21st-century creative and inventive New Yorkers desire a return to localized industrialization.

“The Navy Yard is driven heavily by the creative class and entrepreneurs,” he said. “They want to make things and they want it green. [And] It’s near where they live.”

In addition to opening up more space for the production of goods, a goal of the New Lab is to influence the future of manufacturing in Brooklyn.

“People’s idea of manufacturing used to be an assembly line,” said Belt. “That’s changing because of technology.”

Belt and his partners are building the lab with state-of-the-art green technologies, and are bringing fabrication and design schools into the fold. Everyone will work in a collaborative work environment, where tenants will share equipment and space. Tenants already on board include the Brooklyn-based ecological design group Terreform 1, the London-based design manufacturer Within Lab, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture and Center for Architecture Science and Ecology and Columbia University’s Laboratory of Applied Building Science. And according to Kimball, 100 more tenants are interested.

Siavash H. Mahdavi of Within Lab said the New Lab is the perfect place for the company’s expansion to America.

“The Brooklyn Navy Yard is becoming a centre of creativity and technologies development,” said Mahdavi in an email from Belgium. “It could represent the future of manufacturing in many ways with the New Lab at its core.”

Mahdavi said Within Lab would be hiring upwards of 20 people for their new location, including software developers, engineers, industrial designers and sales and client managers. He added that he hoped to hire from within Brooklyn and New York City.

The Green Manufacturing Center, which will also count the soldier apparel and equipment manufacturer Crye Precision as a lead tenant, was awarded $46 million in investments from the city and state in May.

According to Belt, the return to manufacturing in Brooklyn can thank the shift toward DIY production tendencies.

“People want to see things get made,” he said. “People become engineers because they want to build things.”


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