Urban Industry Redefined: The Brooklyn Navy Yard

The Brooklyn Navy Yard sits in the curve of Wallabout Bay, right where the East River broadens into New York Harbor, at the crossroads of North and South Brooklyn. During its 165 years as an active naval base, the Yard was known as one of the nation’s premier shipbuilding facilities. At its peak, during World War II, the complex employed 70,000 people. And at its closing, in 1966, it was the oldest continually active industrial plant in New York State. This rich industrial legacy permeates the site today, in both the physical form of its buildings and its management’s commitment to retaining manufacturing jobs in contemporary New York City.

An industrial park comprised of 40 buildings, three functioning dry docks and four active piers spanning 300 acres, the Yard is now home to a vibrant and growing community of tenants that are, as Caitlin Blanchfield describes in the piece that follows, “part of a 21st century redefinition of urban industry.”

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) is in the midst of an extensive building campaign in the Yard, one for which sustainability is a top priority. Sustainability, for BNYDC, does not end with green building — though that is an important component of their plans — but instead extends to an understanding of the facility’s capacity to affect and contribute to its local and regional communities in the long term. Through workforce development, community outreach, and educational programming, the BNYDC is coupling its own notion of success with the livelihood opportunities available to its tenants and neighbors. The businesses inside its walls — including a movie studio, an aerospace engineering research company, architecture and design studios, a distillery, and a variety of small-scale manufacturers, artisans and artists — demonstrate BNYDC’s belief that cultivating tenants of various sizes and trades is more than just economically pragmatic. It presents opportunities for collaboration, invention, and connections to citywide efforts to grow New York’s creative, technology, and manufacturing sectors. –V.S.


Aerial view of the Brooklyn Navy Yard | Photo by Robert Clark

Down where Sands Street dead ends at Navy, two girls are at work on a wall. Headphones slung around their necks, they gossip as they crest a wave in sea foam paint. These are local high school students putting the final touches on a mural of Brooklyn’s naval history — just one part of an ongoing facelift that, for the past seven years, has been steadily opening the walls to one of the city’s oldest manufacturing centers. “It’s about improving the Navy Yard’s public façade,” explains Andrew Kimball, President and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), as he points to two scaffold-clad guardhouses at the Sands Street gate. Formerly overshadowed by an unloved NYPD tow pound, the guardhouses are undergoing a historical renovation to revive the original brick and marble façades.

Behind these gates, hidden by aged walls and overgrowth, Brooklyn businesses are forging the future of urban manufacturing on a 300-acre industrial campus known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Here, 12 green buildings will soon be raised, 2,500 jobs will be created in the next two years, and three city landmarks are being preserved. Founded in 1801 as a naval shipbuilding facility, the site has served as an active industrial park since 1971. Since his appointment to the BNYDC in 2005, Kimball has presided over a sweeping initiative to expand and enhance the Yard through a careful marriage of conservation, renovation and new development. But BNYDC’s efforts to make the Navy Yard a vital component of a diverse and sustainable New York City economy aren’t limited to improving its building stock. A sophisticated mix of architectural, environmental, communications and workforce development strategies are underway.

Past the gatehouses’ 19th century molding stands the new Perry Building. Mounted with wind turbines and lit by solar streetlamps, it is the nation’s first multi-story green industrial building. Rainwater filtration systems and porous parking lots have caught on around the yard. Down the road, at Building 92 (now referred to as BLDG 92), architects Beyer Blinder Belle, in collaboration with modular fabrication company Capsys (based in the Yard), have transformed a marine commandant’s mansion into a museum with a public courtyard and spacious classrooms, where solar power, grey water plumbing, and geothermal heating serve as an educational platform for green innovation at the Navy Yard. Adaptive reuse is the name of the game here, and it’s a standard that underscores the premium the BNYDC has placed on green manufacturing, and on cultivating a community of industry.


Top left: Historic Photograph of Building 92, National Archives and Records Administration – Northeast Region | Top right: Building 92 before renovation, photo by Kerby Menardy | Bottom: BLDG 92, 2011, photo by Tom Olcott

Kimball and his staff take the long view, and see the current phase of their work as sustainable on several levels. They think about environmental sustainability through green retrofits, community sustainability through workforce development for local and at-risk populations, and the sustainability of the manufacturing sector through tenant cultivation and an active involvement with growing technological and industrial endeavors in their surrounding region.

For Kimball, environmental responsibility isn’t an end in itself; green design’s inherent efficiency and economic practicality help to create a site that attracts forward-thinking industrial tenants. “We want to be the destination of choice for green manufacturing,” says Kimball, explaining that sustainable construction is often more cost-efficient. In the once dilapidated Machine Shop, new beams are being raised. Here, as in many sites in the Navy Yard, demolition and adaptive reuse were found to cost about the same amount, but the building’s historic character was a particular draw for tenants and therefore added value, and working within the skeleton of the old building saved resources. Soon Crye Precision — builders of armored military apparel — will expand into the location, along with New Lab, a multimedia facility to be shared by local universities and small tech businesses. Down on Pier C, Duggal Visual Solutions is putting the finishing touches on its “greenhouse,“ an expansive hub for media and graphics printing that President Baldev Duggal says will be a model for sustainability. The go-to guy if you want to laminate a subway car in hi-res advertising imagery, Duggal pioneered large-scale graphics printing in New York City, and sees the building as the natural next testing ground for cutting-edge technology and creative craftsmanship. The crisp-lined, open structure of Duggal’s greenhouse takes advantage of natural light and river breezes, and a living green wall is planned to creep up the side, bleeding into a landscape of Hudson Valley grasses, creating what Duggal calls a “yin and yang of organic and industrial.”


Duggal Greenhouse | Photo by Jorge Correra, Jr.

Uphill at the Naval Hospital, a hulking Greek Revival building overrun with tall grass and dandelion will soon be home to an expansion of Steiner Studios. Kimball’s vision for this site is big; it includes a state-of-the-art media campus and a public park. Aspiring filmmakers will have access to the facility, once the Brooklyn College graduate film program and Carnegie Mellon move in to a new media campus, currently under construction, just below. And the project will introduce new internal infrastructure that the Navy Yard desperately needs, thanks to a combination of $35 million in City funding and a $350 investment from Steiner Studios. Plus the building itself is nothing short of dramatic — a rarity of austere marble and wrought iron seemingly impervious to nearly a century of urban development. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is filmed here, so “there’s no reason this couldn’t be a stop on those red bus tours,” Kimball says, hoping the union of silver screen and civic history will be a tourist draw.

With each of these additions come jobs. Duggal will bring in 50, tenants in the new machine shop 300, Steiner Studios as many as 6,000. And while some of those numbers may sound small, incremental increases to the workforce from many employers as opposed to a single, huge, primary tenant insulates the Yard against the large-scale loss of livelihoods should any business have to close. Furthermore, these new jobs demonstrate a steady growth in employment, one rooted in a program that connects local residents to a number of Yard employers. Ten years ago, the BNYDC created a job placement center that, at the time, averaged 100 placements annually. As the Yard grew, Kimball realized they could do better.


Left: BLDG 92 Gallery, photo by Kristy Leibowitz | Right: Employment Center, photo by Kenya Solomon

The first step was the refurbishment and reinvention of Building 92 into BLDG 92, the public face of the Yard and a museum dedicated to its past, present and future. In addition to being a valuable resource for anyone curious about what goes on within the Yard’s walls and how to get involved, BLDG 92 now houses BNYDC’s expanded employment center. During the renovation, the staff broadened its outreach efforts. Vice President of Exhibitions and Programs Daniella Romano and her staff bring New York high school and university students into the Yard for field trips and studio projects. Through a partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation, the center has been able to improve its reach to veterans, the formerly incarcerated, and nearby NYCHA residents (the Navy Yard is bordered radially by Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Vinegar Hill and DUMBO, and directly flanked by Farragut, Ingersoll and Whitman Houses).

Pulling in to Dry Dock B, Kimball points to the hull of a massive tanker, patched and painted over, and now set to sail. A new workplace-training program with sessions in ship repair is slated to kick off here this fall, at one of the Yard’s two working dry docks. Forty feet deep, the docks are sights to behold, and are a testament to a history of production and fabrication still active today.

The first ship constructed at the Yard, the Ohio, launched in 1820. Through the Civil and Spanish American Wars, World Wars I and II, the Navy Yard was a dynamic hub for ship building and repair. US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara deactivated the Navy Yard in the ‘60s, but a local development corporation CLICK (Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings) continued to operate ship maintenance on the site. When CLICK folded, thousands of jobs went along with it, and the Yard became contentious ground. For over a decade, plans for its future were floated and abandoned, or opposed by the community. Famously, in 1993, Hispanic and Hasidic community organizations in Williamsburg came together, in an unlikely alliance, to march across the Williamsburg Bridge in protest of plans to build an incinerator on the site.


Cumberland Packing Corporation | Photograph by Robert Clark

Across the lot at the Cumberland Packing Corporation, President Steven Eisenstadt, a third generation Navy Yarder, walks me through one of his assembly lines. He tells me he finds over 90 percent of his employees he finds in the job placement center,. Most come from Brooklyn, many within biking distance. You can taste the air at Cumberland. Its where Sweet‘N Low, Sugar in the Raw and a laundry list of other sweeteners are made. During the ‘40s, when work at the Yard was at its height, Benjamin and Betty Eisenstadt, Steve’s grandparents, set up a restaurant across the street. After the war, when productivity waned, the restaurant went under. But that wasn’t the end. As family lore has it, Mrs. Eisenstadt noticed her customers’ unsanitary habit of double dipping their spoons in sugar bowls — and thus the idea for the sugar packet was born. Since the Eisenstadts opened the Cumberland Packing Corporation, the business has grown, now operating both across the street from the Yard and in a second facility within its walls. A sense of loyalty to his fellow Brooklyn business owners is one reason the Eisenstadts have kept Cumberland Packing Corporation on the site. While competing factories were relocating to save on labor and real estate costs, Cumberland has enjoyed being a part of a diverse industrial community where large-scale media and small artists studios operate alongside camera supply companies, packaging groups, even a local distillery. With its emphatic commitment to nurturing the growth of small industry across disciplines, the BNYDC and its tenants are well positioned to contribute to and benefit from other burgeoning economic development initiatives nearby.

With DUMBO to the west and Downtown Brooklyn to the south, the Navy Yard is the northeast corner of the emerging “Tech Triangle”— a region in which city government and local development groups are actively encouraging the borough’s growing technology and creative sectors. For tenants in the Navy Yard, operating in fields ranging from film post-production to computerized machinery, proximity to a nucleus of technological innovation would be a boon. Similarly, the expanding cluster of creative media companies in DUMBO is primed to benefit from the large production spaces in the Navy Yard. In mid-2013, thanks to the Tech Triangle master plan — an initiative of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle Coalition to provide solutions to transportation and infrastructure constraints in the area — the Navy Yard will be getting a bus stop along a planned Tech Triangle route. And, though the nearest subway stop will likely always remain a fifteen-minute hike to DUMBO, the site is well situated to benefit from future expansions to boat service and bike lanes.


Photo by Jorge Correra, Jr.

Moreover, as the City continues to support efforts to revive manufacturing in parts of North Brooklyn and in Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Army Terminal and Industry City, and as Cornell’s tech campus takes shape on Roosevelt Island, Wallabout Bay could be seen, as Kimball puts it, as part of a “ribbon” of industry down the Brooklyn Waterfront. If this network of properties effectively nurtures a culture of industry in New York, then the proximity of resources, from shipping piers to lab facilities, might attract business to Brooklyn that in the past would have gone to places like New Jersey, or even Silicon Valley. It’s a development Kimball finds exciting.

To diversify New York City’s economy, we need to retain and expand the city’s industrial and manufacturing sectors. And to do that, in a dense, diverse and expensive city such as ours, requires understanding the common needs and surprising synergies that artists and designers share with manufacturers. Connecting a history of labor with new possibilities of manufacturing today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is part of a 21st century redefinition of urban industry, one that seeks to create many forms of opportunity.

Caitlin Blanchfield is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is a former assistant editor at Urban Omnibus, and has worked with Actar, Architizer, and the Van Alen Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Ray Gastil September 21, 2012

Great article. Important site for New York, and one that has a number of interesting connections to Brooklyn’s complex contemporary not-post-industrial identity, including the rooftop Brooklyn Grange farm, and the visitable Kings County Distillery in the Yard, at the former Paymaster Building. The new media hub adjacent to Steiner studios will also be connected to the new/renovated Brooklyn Greenway, an existing way to get there before the future tech corridor bus.

If there were a “Should you visit” addendum, there are the bike and bus tours on weekends, meeting at BLDG 92, organized by turnstile tours.