A Leg Up on the Last Mile

A view of Long Island City, a neighborhood with an abundant stock of historic warehouses. Photo by Nina Rappaport

As the decade draws to a close, it might be worth considering one overlooked ten-year anniversary: In October 2009, the e-commerce giant Amazon introduced same-day delivery service. Initially restricted to orders placed before certain times of the day, and limited to seven cities (including New York), same-day shipping has since become a staple of online shopping platforms, helping shape new consumer expectations, creating novel (and familiar) labor issues, and reordering the geography of how things move from one place to another. Amidst these transformations, one long-standing building typology has found itself again at the cutting edge of commerce: the vertical urban warehouse. New York City’s abundant warehouses are becoming key nodes in the granular networks of the on-demand economy. Following decades of decline and retrofitting for other uses, they’re returning to prominence in the city’s logistical landscape. Beyond renovation, developers are building new warehouses along the city’s key transportation corridors. Below, Nina Rappaport guides us through what has changed — and what has remained consistent — about these structures, from their roots in the city’s industrial heyday, to their renewed role (and potential future) in the physical infrastructure of the information age.

Today’s densely built cities are being reconfigured to meet spatial challenges posed by the logistics of delivering more goods in less time. What is called the “last mile,” the final leg of a delivery from local distribution hub to the home, has influenced renewed designs for vertical facilities closer to, or in, city centers. An established system of large-scale, pancake-style warehouses with multiple loading bays and acres of distribution hubs — located in the exurbs and along extensive highways — has proven to be too far removed from urban consumers who increasingly expect instantaneous delivery. Where companies offer same-day delivery services, especially for perishable goods such as food, warehouses require both the ease of fast in-and-out delivery and storage space for on-demand e-commerce. The vertical urban warehouse has come back to town as part of a renewed infrastructure focused on meeting this demand for instant satisfaction — at least until companies such as Amazon, UPS, Walmart, and CVS complete plans for safe drone delivery airlines.

Early warehouses

Crowded urban centers have long needed places to store products for trade. From London’s Docklands and Manchester’s cotton warehouses to the first five-to-six-story-tall brick sugar and molasses houses in Lower Manhattan, the multistoried urban warehouse is nothing new. In the early 20th century, most of New York City’s warehouses were located on its waterfront, near shipping ports and at railroad terminals, while others were sited near market hubs for the distribution of wholesale goods. The Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn was one of the city’s first large-scale warehouses. With six stories, exposed concrete, and a rhythm of vertical windows, the building was designed by Cass Gilbert and built by Turner Construction in 1915 as a food packaging and distribution facility. It included interior railroad tracks, pneumatic tubes, and freight elevators for ease of movement. At Gilbert’s similarly massive Brooklyn Army Terminal, built in 1918, workers packaged wartime supplies in a series of 4-million-square-foot concrete structures. Both of Gilbert’s huge structures provided vertical movement with elevators and conveyances, yet were also smoothly integrated with horizontal logistics networks, providing direct connection to trains and ships separated from pedestrians and ordinary traffic.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal in 2015. Photo by JelloMistress via Wikimedia Commons

Moving out of cities, and moving back in

As factories began to move out of many urban centers during the 1960s, so did storage facilities. Traditional, multistoried concrete-and-brick warehouses were left vacant. And as manufacturing moved further off American shores, distribution centers were built closer to airports and along highway corridors. In the New Jersey Meadowlands area in the 1970s, Forsgate Industrial Partners assembled over 500 acres of pancake-style, high-bay warehouses where hundreds of trucks punctured building façades like rows of teeth. Located near the center of I-95’s Northeast corridor, these warehouses were seamlessly integrated into a supply chain stretching from seaports to airports, and from highways to homes.

Meanwhile, by the late 1990s, many empty, vertical urban warehouses and factories were renovated into self-storage facilities. The companies managing these facilities installed individual storage cages and metal boxes according to systematic designs, converting ground floors into offices and truck bays, often covering up the buildings’ characteristic steel casement windows in the process. Currently, more than 900 self-storage facilities take up 50 million square feet in New York City. These warehoused warehouses became unproductive spaces, considered a casualty of the downturn in manufacturing in general.

A warehouse turned self-storage facility along the northern boundary of the Sunnyside Yard train depot in Long Island City. Photo by Nina Rappaport

But in recent years, these former factory spaces have returned to the real estate market as commercial warehouses in the service of high-speed urban logistics. This shift stems from major changes in the relationship between consumers and where they consume. In the “direct from the factory” scenario, for instance, there is no middleman and no retail space needed. In 2002, FreshDirect began to deliver groceries directly to consumers via internet orders. Last year, the e-commerce grocer relocated from Long Island City to a center in the South Bronx with new high-tech logistics systems, including 15 different temperature zones, nine miles of conveyor belts, and software that informs workers of the most efficient route for orders. FreshDirect boasts that the site is 75 percent more efficient than its previous location. But increased delivery speed has come at the cost of community opposition in a borough already disproportionally affected by environmental injustices.

Another part of this logistics transformation was corporate reliance on more distant e-commerce and on-demand shopping. Large-scale, global e-commerce companies such as Alibaba and Amazon became virtual retail “spaces” and production outsourcers. Alibaba, for instance, can source a contract manufacturer to make goods for third-party companies, receive a sample for approval, and then sell the product directly from the website. At first, they used companies such as DHL, FedEx, UPS, and XPO Logistics to ship these products, but eventually began to provide delivery service themselves to third-party sellers.

Adaptable form and function

Thanks to the innovations of late 19th century concrete engineers — enabling tall floor-to-ceiling heights, longer spans for flexible movement, thicker floors for less vibration, fireproofing, and, critically, spiral ramps and truck elevators — vertical warehouses, structurally and spatially, meet current needs for faster delivery service in the last mile. Efficiency and automation influence the spatial arrangement and organizational function of warehouses today as they did in the early days of mass production. Spiral truck ramps, ubiquitous in parking garages, were historically developed to access high factory floors and their storage areas. The sophisticated spirals at each end of the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy (operating in 1923) carried both cars and hand trucks from the bottom to top of the factory, where the cars were tested on the parabolic rooftop track.

Spiral ramps at the Fiat Lingotto Factory in Turin, Italy. Photo by Nina Rappaport

In Cory & Cory’s Starrett-Lehigh Building along the Hudson River in Chelsea, completed in 1931, train cars carrying goods via railroad car floats from New Jersey would be offloaded on railroad tracks and onto trucks leading directly into the building’s freight elevators (which still exist today). To entice tenants, Starrett-Lehigh advertised the ease with which a truck could enter and leave an upper story, essentially making “every floor a first floor.” Cory & Cory also designed other truck bay turning systems in the Squibb Plant in Brooklyn (most recently the Watchtower headquarters) to keep the radius tight and easy for trucks to enter, unload, load, and exit the building. While these elevators were the ultimate for their time, today’s freight elevators are higher-speed, with electro-hydraulic drives, and can turn trucks on platform lifts to fit into even tighter spaces.

The Starrett-Lehigh Building in 1938. Photo by Berenice Abbott, via Harvard Art Museums
A spread from a brochure for the Starrett-Lehigh Building, detailing the building’s ground-level connections to rail and freight elevator system. Courtesy of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library

New Vertical Warehouses

Across the country, new vertical, fully-mechanized urban warehouses are being developed from the ground up, or older ones renovated. Today’s warehouses are arrayed with mechanized shelving systems that often double as structure: Small factory trucks and lifts move workers from space to space, and goods from place to place. Robots such as Amazon’s Kivas move by ground (or, increasingly, drones fly through the air) to “pick” goods identified through computerized tracking systems. Once goods are “picked,” noted designer and writer Jesse LeCavalier in AD, “the [robotic drive unit] RDU brings the shelf not to its original position, but to the closest open slot. Through this process, the warehouse is continuously reconfiguring itself,” allowing for constant adjustments as goods ebb and flow in and out of demand.

In recent years, logistics management companies and developers have entered the business of building and renovating vertical warehouses for last mile delivery in New York City. In January 2018, UPS purchased the Lidgerwood Complex in Red Hook, a former machinery manufacturing plant (and, more recently, a Snapple bottling plant) built in 1882, along with six surrounding parcels, for just over $300 million. While UPS often locates its facilities at the city’s edge, the company’s executives explained that Red Hook is an attractive location because of its proximity to both waterfront ports and to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But hundreds of nearby residents have also voiced opposition to UPS’ now-halted demolition of the historically significant property, prompting the company to reevaluate plans for the site.

Prologis, one of the largest international logistics real estate companies, has begun building vertical warehouses in the United States, their first outside of Asia. Having hired Heitman Architects to design initial prototypes, the company has been developing multistoried warehouses to be leased to Amazon in Seattle and Washington, D.C. Prologis has also been renovating a 200,000-square-foot, two-story warehouse for lease in the Bronx, installing vertical lift systems, dock doors on two levels, roof-mounted heating units, a renovated 10,000-pound freight elevator, LED lighting, and a cutting-edge sprinkler system.

An aerial view of Prologis Park Narashino 4, located east of Tokyo in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture. The facility incorporates sustainable design features alongside more traditional hallmarks of warehouse architecture, such as spiral ramps. Photo courtesy of Prologis
A case study rendering for a Prologis warehouse, designed by Heitman Architects. Image courtesy of Heitman Architects

Another developer, Innovo, is also building its first ground-up vertical warehouse in the Bronx, on a former 20-acre truck and construction storage site along Westchester Creek. KSS Architects is designing the 1-million-square-foot logistics center with 32-foot clear heights, gently sloping spiral ramps for 53-foot-long tractor trailers to reach the upper floors, and two 130-square-foot truck courts with ramp access for each floor. Sustainable design elements include solar panels for the onsite parking, fleet storage, and electric vehicle charging stations for the future. Counting on last mile delivery needs, the building’s promotional video seems choreographed by Amazon (perhaps the unnamed future tenant?), featuring digitally-monitored tracking systems timed in exacting sequences. Also underway are Innovo’s plans to renovate the former FreshDirect warehouse on Borden Avenue in Queens into a last mile distribution facility with easy access to the Long Island Expressway.

A rendering of Innovo’s warehouse near the Bruckner Interchange in the Bronx, designed by KSS Architects. Image courtesy of Innovo

UOVO, an art storage company, has built a series of high-end warehouse and logistics spaces that offer proximity to the city’s museums. From here, art handlers move, store, install, and organize artworks for major institutions. UOVO owns four locations in Queens and Brooklyn totaling 650,000 square feet, all with blank exterior facades, though the company recently announced a collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum to include artist murals in their Bushwick facility. But just as Amazon workers have pushed for better labor conditions over the past few years, UOVO’s warehouse workers are intending to unionize with the Teamsters Local 814. While warehouses provide employment and decent wages for low skilled workers, demand for speed generates harsh conditions with extensive time and movement monitoring. It seems that new murals are not enough to camouflage workers’ discontent.

As factories and warehouses return to cities, energy is saved by reducing distances to consumers and workers. New spatial and environmental improvements with smaller footprints have a greater potential for sustainability, as do the possibilities for workers to be situated in a more transparent and less isolating urban environment. To address both environmental and working conditions, developers could build warehouse hybrids containing smaller, light industries and shared distribution centers, where different companies could assemble, repair, and distribute goods in multistoried logistics commons. What if we eventually eliminated fuel-powered trucks? Electric vehicles that require shorter distances between charging stations could capitalize on the more localized last mile of a sustainable logistics system. Eventually, goods could piggyback on the subway infrastructure for nighttime transit, or on local trains and buses, like the Swiss postal system, eliminating massive polluting trucks from urban highways and city streets — at least until the drones and aerial docking stations occupy cities’ upper horizons.

Nina Rappaport is an architectural critic, curator, and educator. She is the author of Vertical Urban Factory (Actar, 2015), and the director and founder of a consultancy of the same name, which works to maintain and develop spaces for manufacturing in cities. She is Publications Director at Yale School of Architecture, a visiting professor at Politecnico Torino in 2019, and teaches at the Michael Graves College of Public Architecture of Kean University.

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