From Ships to Whiskey—and Furniture

The Brooklyn Navy Yard reinvents itself into a modern manufacturing center

By Andrea Lillo

Brooklyn Navy Yard

From top: Icestone has been at the Brooklyn Navy Yard since 2003. icestoneusa.com Photo: Floto + Warner; From Ferra Designs’ new 50A brand, this faceted occasional table has a beveled glass top. ferradesigns.com; The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s green manufacturing center, currently under construction, will include the New Lab workspace. RockPaperRobot’s Float table is made up of magnetized, repelling wooden cubes. rockpaperrobot.com Photo: Marcin Muchalski, Diamond Shot Studio; Modos is a new furniture system that can be assembled without tools and is reconfigurable. modos.io

It was an industrial powerhouse of its day, known for building such battleships as the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona. Now the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard has transitioned itself to an industrial center once again, this time focusing on small-scale manufacturing, which has itself seen a renaissance in the U.S.

Today more than 330 tenants take up residence in the Yard’s 300 acres (and 40 buildings), making everything from countertops to furniture to whiskey. Some have spaces as small as 450 square feet, while the largest tenant, Steiner Studios, has 50 acres. And the Yard—newly named to the National Register of Historic Places—retains its character while incorporating modern concepts such as water conservation, a 65,000-square-foot rooftop garden, building-mounted wind turbines and low-emission shuttle buses. Even the food trucks have started to arrive.

“Industrial space is hard to find in the city,” said Aisha Glover, vice president, external affairs, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. The Yard is fulfilling a need and is now 100 percent leased, with a waiting list of more than 100 companies, she added. Currently, four million square feet of space is being used by manufacturing companies, and the Yard is adding three million more. “We can’t get space up and running fast enough.”

That includes the new 250,000-square-foot green manufacturing center, which is currently under construction. When it is completed early next year, it will house the growing green manufacturing sector of the Yard, Glover said. Tenants will include the New Lab, a year-old project that fosters innovation in design, prototyping and new manufacturing. A mixed shared workspace, New Lab will give companies and institutions access to manufacturing equipment for short runs, such as 3-D printers and cut-and-sew stations. “It’s a revolutionary model,” said Glover. “You don’t have to do 10,000 runs.”

An existing building—Building 77—is “a great picture of what the Yard is,” said Glover. At one million square feet, it’s the Yard’s largest building and a former munitions depot with 24-inch-thick walls and no windows on the first 11 floors. It is slated to undergo renovation starting this year.

First established in 1801, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 77,000 people during World War II. It closed in 1966 and the federal government sold it to New York City. The city went through several ideas about the Yard’s future, Glover said, including moving the garment and handbag industries there, making it a steel plant and having a private ship builder take over. But its future became clear when its leasing department mentioned that it was receiving numerous inquiries for small manufacturing spaces.

Long-time Brooklyn Navy Yard resident and furniture maker Scott Jordan first came to the Yard in 1988. “It was an industrial wasteland” and “dilapidated,” he said—but it has completely transformed since then. His company now has 15,000 square feet of space at the Yard.

IceStone has been at the Yard since it was founded in 2003, and has 55,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Building 12. It makes countertops of recycled glass and cement. The Yard “was a fantastic option for us,” said Sarah Corey, marketing manager. As the company targets architects and interior designers, having a New York City base makes them easy to reach, she added.

Along with the old timers are the newcomers, such as the 12 fledgling companies currently in New Lab, which is now housed in Building 280 until its new home is built. They include RockPaperRobot, a design company that specializes in the invention and fabrication of kinetic furniture and lighting, such as the Float and Brag tables; and Eco-Systems, which recently debuted Modos, a tool-free, reconfigurable furniture system that completed a Kickstarter campaign last month.

As a landlord, the Yard is very supportive, said Rob Ferraroni of Ferra Designs, which is launching a separate design studio this year, named after the Yard building it is in, 50A. “If you need more power,” for example, “they’ll help facilitate that. They maintain the space.”

Glover said, “We’re more than their landlord, we try to support their businesses. We want our businesses to be strong and succeed.”