South Brooklyn Waterfront: A Model for Urban Manufacturing

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.

Perhaps some of that uptick is the result of the city government’s efforts. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city and state leaders have focused on revitalizing the city’s manufacturing economy, preserving what’s left of it in places like the Garment District and building up existing clusters of industrial production. In a tour of the Sunset Park neighborhood in the South Brooklyn waterfront, as part of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, we learned about the efforts of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which manages industrial properties owned by the city.

There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Crain’s Business

As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.

Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”

In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”

Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”

The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”

Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.

The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.

Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.

Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green

“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.

Bush Terminal Piers Park / Jared Green

What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.

Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.

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