Posted on Thursday, September 15 2011 by Heather Brandon
Last week, I was part of a small group that toured Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center facilities in Brooklyn, New York. GMDC describes itself as a nonprofit developer of industrial properties that rehabilitates and manages manufacturing buildings for occupancy by small manufacturers, artisans, and artists.
The group was assembled by Rosanne Haggerty of Community Solutions, also based in New York, in order to have a chance to learn more about GMDC’s model for building rehabilitation, occupancy, and job creation.
We met at 1205 Manhattan Avenue in North Brooklyn, reached by a short walk over the Pulaski Bridge from Long Island City. The building is recognizable from the bridge by its smokestack.
Its industrial appearance is also maintained up close, and the surrounding neighborhood is a jumble of manufacturing facilities and outdoor movie and TV sets, since the area seems to be an ideal spot to imagine dumping a body. In other words, it’s totally charming and creatively inspiring.
The GMDC offices are on the fifth floor of the building, with walls painted white, high ceilings, and selective glass interior walls to allow light to pass through. To get there, one boards a 100-year-old elevator with a human elevator operator by your side. It moves at a snail’s pace. Each ride in the elevator prompts a discussion about how slow it is, and how the next big project in the building is to replace it.
Our group boarded two cars and drove to 810 Humboldt Street (pictured, courtesy of GMDC), a short distance away, which features large painted letters on the building exterior: GREENPOINT WOOD EXCHANGE.
The building includes a lot of woodworkers. One of them, François (pictured), pleasantly greeted us at his studio doorway where he had a few stacked stools he created. He works out of a relatively compact, small space he was able to acquire after being priced out of his previous studio space (a familiar refrain for GMDC tenants).
On the third floor of the building, formerly its roof, is Gotham Greens, New York City’s first hydroponic greenhouse. It has been there for less than a year—construction began only last November, and growing has been taking place only for about two months—but already it has a contract with Whole Foods to supply several varieties of lettuce and basil. The setup includes solar arrays and gas heat in addition to the densest growing situation I’ve yet witnessed.
CEO Viraj Puri told us they employ about 20 to 25 people, divided about half between part-time and full-time employees. Job creation like this is very important to GMDC in finding tenants.
Gotham Greens has welcomed a couple of school groups for educational tours, but the facility is not open to the public. Puri suggested that a vision for doing a similar greenhouse in Hartford might consider whether where its effort will land on a spectrum of more heavily business focused (and higher yield) versus more educational and community-building endeavors. He recommended building a greenhouse like this on a ground level if at all possible, since there were technical obstacles in creating a greenhouse above existing tenants, channeling up resources like water and gas.
Our next visit was further south in East Williamsburg, to an 1850 building on the national historic register, at 221 McKibbin Street. Paul Parkhill, GMDC’s director of planning and development, told us the facility used to have a rope walk for twisting maritime rope, which required at least 1,400 feet across. The three-story building also has a portion constructed in 1870, and a number of one-story structures added to the back in 1920.
Cassandra Smith, GMDC project director (pictured above, far left; with Parkhill, and Sweta Patel of Community Solutions, design phase project manager for the Swift factory redevelopment), described in some detail a few of the hurdles involved in working with historic rehabilitation tax credits to do restoration work on the building.
For example, the National Park Service required restoration of windows on the façade to 1920 standards, which meant large, single-pane glass windows that cost $1,600 each. The windows have no insulation value, which poses a challenge for individual tenants looking to retain some heat in their studios in the winter. The windows were costly, but they are historically accurate in a somewhat arbitrary way (this portion of the building was built in 1850); one of the members of our tour group suggested that better-insulated windows may have cost even more.
We dropped in on two of the tenants on McKibbin; TwoSeven, owned by Franco Goette, is the biggest tenant at about 25,000 square feet. The business designs and manufactures high-profile department window displays, with clients like Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Hermès. In a GMDC brochure, Goette is quoted saying the support GMDC as a landlord has offered his business has felt like a partnership, with trust and willingness to work together. We also visited the studio of designer/builder Daniel Moyer (pictured above), who had on display a solid wooden chair he made that was recently in a furniture show. He talked about what he produces on a regular basis, including skateboards made from hardwood scrap material, and we heard a little about his story searching for studio space. Moyer has an eight-year lease now, so he can bank on some stability.
GMDC seeks tenants who are making things as well as providing jobs. Many of their tenants have been bumped out of studio space because landlords are looking to subdivide studios, and perhaps charge more for tenants who might make less of a mess and less noise. Inexpensive studio space can be hard to find in the New York City market, for sure, but landlords also take advantage of artists’ ignorance about their options. GMDC is providing an important alternative.
The short tour demonstrated for those of us thinking of the former Swift factory in Hartford that historic buildings can be restored and put to use to revive a manufacturing industry. Questions remain about what sort of industries might be supported in the Hartford area. Where are the makers, and where are the consumers to buy what they make?