Shipping forecast: Inside the evolving Brooklyn Navy Yard

Brooklyn Navy Yard once made ships — now it harbours startups. With a new masterplan from WXY Studio, can it become a model for how to keep manufacturing in cities?

Words by Francesca Perry

In London, we are facing the conundrum of how to retain industrial space in the city as land prices rise, while an increasing population coupled with the transition to a knowledge economy creates unavoidable demand for housing and desk-based office space. But manufacturing has not disappeared; it has merely been pushed to the city peripheries or forced out entirely. A resurgence in the interest in and practice of small-scale manufacturing, however — from furniture making to food production — is highlighting the desire to integrate such activities into the city. Gradual steps are being taken to support urban places that welcome makers, from Assemble’s Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow to Makerversity in Somerset House.

Pressure on land in New York is just as intense as in London, if not more so. But with Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 122ha site on the East River between Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the City of New York and the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) have worked together for almost four decades to keep industrial land in the city dedicated to industrial uses. Now, ambitions for the Navy Yard demand innovative plans to keep it working as both a busy centre of manufacturing activity and a well-designed place.

Brooklyn Navy Yard as envisioned by WXY in its masterplan. Credit: Architectural And Urban Design Concepts By WXY / Illustrative Visualisation By Bloomimages

Opening in 1801, Brooklyn Navy Yard was a hub of ship manufacturing and repair for the US Navy, but in 1966 the navy left the site following a steep decline in activity — and by 1969 the City of New York had successfully acquired it. Shipbuilding continued in a commercial capacity, alongside various warehouse and distribution uses. But the site struggled, so the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation was set up in 1981 to manage the site on behalf of the city.

Spaces were subdivided into smaller units to respond to the demand of small-to-medium-scale manufacturing and the number of tenants continued to grow. In 1999, Steiner Studios — the largest film and television production studio complex in the US outside of Hollywood — moved in to the Yard, taking up 8ha of land and adding to the mix of industries on site. But throughout it all, manufacturing activities have remained in the Navy Yard as the city morphed and grew around it.

London may have transformed its docklands into shiny skyscrapers (and to be fair, New York has turned rail yards into Hudson Yards), but Brooklyn Navy Yard retains its active shipyard to this day. The problem is, because of this — and multiple high-security manufacturing operations occurring onsite such as production of protective gear for the Department of Defence — the Navy Yard remains closed off, accessible only to those who work there, through controlled entry gates. It is an insular urbanism in a time when development is called upon to be anything but.

Marvel Architects transformed a former turbine manufacturing workshop into New Lab — a spacious, modern co-working space. Credit: David Sundberg

Now, however, with the help of New York-based architecture and urban design practice WXY Studio, a masterplan is emerging to better integrate the site with the public as it grows, without compromising current occupant operations. The masterplan, commissioned by BNYDC, is part of an ongoing evolution in the aspirations of the Navy Yard.

In 2011, BNYDC opened Building 92 on the Yard’s southern edge, transforming a former naval officer’s residence into a public museum and cafe — the first attempt at engaging the wider public in the Yard and its history. Building 92 also houses an employment centre set up by BNYDC in 1999 to connect people — especially local residents — to jobs in the Navy Yard (according to BNYDC, 460 people were placed in jobs in 2018, 50% of whom were ‘hyperlocal’). Also in 2011, the development corporation set out a number of development plans to grow, diversify the business mix and bring in moments of retail, the results of which have been coming to fruition over the last three years.

The recent projects rehabilitate and rethink the Navy Yard’s buildings for a diversified economy and modern culture of manufacturing (there is even a 6,000 sq m commercial farm on the roof of one of the buildings, which opened in 2015). New York-based practice Marvel Architects has been one of the practices at the forefront of this work, delivering the New Lab workspace (2016) and the Naval Cemetery public park (2016), as well as the multi-use Building 77 (2017–ongoing) in collaboration with Beyer Blinder Belle.

Marvel Architects transformed a former turbine manufacturing workshop into New Lab — a spacious, modern co-working space. Credit: David Sundberg

New Lab, developed by Macro Sea for BNYDC, has seen the transformation of a 107m-long former turbine manufacturing workshop built in 1899 into a design, prototyping and advanced manufacturing hub. New Lab has all the hallmarks of a cool new workplace for startup culture: adaptive re-use, co-working, fab lab facilities and stripped back, open-plan design. But the scale of it feels, upon entering, like nothing you may have encountered of similar ilk. This looks more like a Victorian exhibition hall or train station than it does a workplace; think St Pancras but for startups. Original black steel trusses and gantries tower overhead while light floods in to illuminate a space that manages to feel both enormous and yet human-scale. The design won an AIA NY Award in 2017.

‘The major challenge was to take the space and not screw it up,’ says Marvel Architects founding principal Jonathan Marvel as we walk around. ‘As a space it’s incredibly beautiful as it is. We wanted to maintain that quality of a turbine manufacturing floor, and be part of a longer-term trajectory of interest in new technologies.’ The interventions to support this array of new tech-based companies were minimal: simple boxes have been added in to create private offices and workshops (though there are numerous open-air desks and working areas too), and new steel elements have been integrated to enable balconies, bridges, staircases and mezzanine levels (‘We didn’t want people to be able to tell the difference between the old steel and the new steel,’ says Marvel). In total, 2,973 sq m of newly constructed floor space has been added to make this a 7,804 sq m project. The three new bridges connecting the mezzanine levels have been strategically hung from the existing 40-tonne gantries overhead.

New landscaping elements from Marvel Architects turned a former cemetery into a public park on the Navy Yard’s eastern edge. Credit: Max Toughey

Flexibility, natural light, a sense of authenticity and experimentation were leading ideas for the project, explains Marvel. Big open spaces and hallways allow tenants to have product prototypes on display. There are shared communal spaces for eating and meeting, but also shared workshop spaces (featuring a carpenters’ workshop, metal workshop, CNC milling machine, laser cutter and 3D printers) and auditorium/event spaces. Currently, New Lab houses approximately 600 people from 103 member companies. One of these is the architectural and urban design studio Terreform ONE. Executive director Vivian Kuan explains the benefits of working within New Lab, and the Navy Yard: ‘The history of manufacturing and making here is important to us. And the access to fabrication technology is vital.’

Marvel has also been responsible for turning the former Brooklyn Naval Hospital Cemetery, at the eastern edge of the Navy Yard and outside of the security gates, into a new 0.7ha natural park, linking in to the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s bikeable ‘green corridor’ along the borough’s waterfront.

New landscaping elements from Marvel Architects turned a former cemetery into a public park on the Navy Yard’s eastern edge. Credit: Daniel Byrne

Though remains from the cemetery were all relocated to a new naval cemetery in 1910 and the land consequently became used as ball fields, in recent years it had been vacant and overgrown. Marvel cleared out invasive species and replanted the land with pollinators — such as bee balm, purple coneflower, woodland sunflower and anise hyssop — to support birds, bees and butterflies. The architects then installed a wooden boardwalk-like raised public path encircling the landscape, made from lumbar frame finished with black locust wood, and designed seating areas. The new public park opened in 2016.

More recently Marvel has also collaborated with Beyer Blinder Belle on Building 77, the renovation of a 16-storey former warehouse and office block, and now envisioned by BNYDC as the new ‘front door’ to the Navy Yard. Opened in 2017 as a hub of food production, retail and contemporary office space, Marvel was responsible for the public ground floor, communal spaces and outside public plaza. Although work is still ongoing, the project won the Urban Land Institute New York’s Excellence in Industrial Development Award in April of this year.

Building 77, a recently opened workspace hub in the Yard, welcomes the public into its outdoor plaza. Credit: Daniel Byrne

Located on the southern edge of the site along Flushing Avenue, the building boasts a large lit-up sign announcing the Brooklyn Navy Yard, overlooking a newly paved, open public plaza featuring bike parking and bike share. A double-height sheltered entrance invites tenants and visitors into the heart of the building, a ground-floor, hall-like ‘public corridor’ where cafes and delis have not only a retail front with areas to sit down and eat, but also onsite production and packaging facilities, some of which are glazed and visible for the public to see.

Although the corridor already hosts a few companies — such as long-established New York deli and cafe business, Russ & Daughters — more are moving in as the ground floor continues to establish itself as a food hub for both the Yard and the local community. Building 77 also welcomed a new community-focused BNYDC venture in February of this year, the Brooklyn STEAM Center, an educational hub providing 300 students from local high schools with training in culinary arts, computer science, design, film and engineering. The centre includes a professional kitchen, sound stage, computer labs and fabrication workshops.

The public can also access Building 77's food-orientated ground floor. Credit: Daniel Byrne

S9 Architecture, another New York-based practice, has also been active in delivering projects that express the development corporation’s ambitions for the Navy Yard. Its office building Dock 72, due to open this summer and dedicated to tech and creative startups, represents the cornerstone of the Yard’s economic and industrial diversification, which can be seen on BNYDC signs across the site announcing: ‘We used to launch ships. Now we launch businesses.’

The percentage of manufacturing businesses in the Yard in 2018 was roughly 62%, but the aim is to grow new sectors so that by 2030, that percentage would be more like 50%. ‘The next step in our evolution is part tech, part design and part manufacturing,’ says David Ehrenberg, BNYDC president and CEO, when we speak on a rainy, blustery April morning. ‘We are market-responsive. It’s about making, but also about technology — that shift evolved organically.’

A render of Dock 72, S9 Architecture’s ship-like building dedicated predominantly to WeWork. Credit: S9

Dock 72 is a 62,709 sq m, 16-storey office building dedicated to collaborative co-working, with WeWork as the anchor tenant. ‘The design really did reference and speak to what WeWork is,’ explains S9 co-founding principal John Clifford, describing how the practice has been working closely with and for WeWork to create the project, which is due to house 4000 workers in a sociable and open-plan layout.

Situated on a berth jutting out into the East River, Dock 72 appears almost ship-like in form. Its design, which won a New York Public Design Commission Excellence in Design Award in 2016, consists of stacked blocks and staggered terraces, to enable views on each floor. Made of synthetic concrete on a steel frame, the building is raised up — because of its flood plain location — on a lower level of V-shaped columns which minimise the penetrations for foundations and increase environmental resiliency. Red metal articulation on the grid-like exterior fenestration demarcates areas of internal activity such as the stairwells and the shared amenity spaces, which include a market place, lounge and gym.

S9’s designs for Admiral’s Row, at the Yard’s southwestern corner, will feature a large public supermarket. Credit: S9

S9 is also working on two other elements in the Navy Yard, including Admiral’s Row, a plot on the southwest corner of the site formerly home to admirals’ houses, which the practice is turning into a publically accessible complex of five buildings dedicated to retail, community and light industrial uses, including a large supermarket, due to open this summer. The other project is Building 127, the transformation of a historic, red brick former boat engine repair workshop into a three-storey, 8,826 sq m office and light manufacturing space. Due to open in early 2020, Building 127 is the last of the Navy Yard’s historic buildings to undergo transformation.

But these projects, from New Lab to Dock 72, do not alone deliver the long-term, growth-based vision of BNYDC, which is committed to continuing to increase jobs at the Navy Yard, from 8,000 jobs in 2017 to 30,000 in 2030. ‘We’re at this very important moment here,’ says Ehrenberg. ‘We’re out of old historic buildings, but we see continued demand for our space. We want to build new buildings and we want to build vertical. We came to that realisation three years ago. That’s the next big step.’

Building 127, S9’s transformation of a former boat engine repair workshop, will open next year as a new workspace. Credit: S9

So in 2016, BNYDC commissioned WXY Studio to work on a new masterplan vision for the site. The two main aspects to the brief, explains WXY managing principal Adam Lubinsky, were firstly to think about a growth strategy through to 2030 — how much new development could go on site and where — and secondly, to consider how to make the place work with three times the current number of employees. While WXY has developed a plan that succinctly tackles these issues, the practice has also focused on the goal of integration with the local community, creating strategic moments of porosity that welcome the public in to enjoy and engage with the Navy Yard without compromising any of the secure activities.

In WXY’s proposals, historic elements are incorporated as part of the placemaking strategy alongside new lighting and wayfinding. Credit: Architectural And Urban Design Concepts By WXY / Illustrative Visualisation By Bloomimages

Other key aspects of WXY’s vision include creating coherent districts within the Navy Yard supported by new wayfinding strategies, designing in flood-resiliency through landscape elements and building layout, making the Navy Yard a hub of ‘vertical manufacturing’, enhancing bikeability and walkability, tieing the Yard into mass-transit networks and using innovative urban design to create new, enjoyable tenant and public open spaces. ‘There is a desire for more lifestyle and placemaking elements,’ says Ehrenberg. ‘The reason these people and companies want to come to New York is that it’s not an industrial park in the middle of nowhere.’

As Lubinsky explains, WXY’s placemaking approach includes ‘carving out spaces along the edges of the Yard for new public space that would be fronted by ground-level programmes — such as showrooms for tenants, front-of-house food retail tied to food manufacturers, and educational uses’. WXY’s masterplan hinges on three specific areas of the Navy Yard as anchors to achieve many of these goals. The practice has identified that these three areas — named provisionally as Navy, Flushing and Kent and totalling 93,000 sq m of land — can deliver 474,000 sq m of development and 10,000 new jobs by 2030.

The Navy site, one of WXY’s three proposed masterplan hubs, would feature a public Museum of Science and Technology. Credit: WXY / Bloomimages

All three sites are on the Navy Yard’s edges, thus creating the opportunity to bring the local community and wider public in. The Navy site, located at the northwest corner of the Yard, nearest the local subway stop, is designed to deliver 93,000 sq m of development across two buildings, mixing workspace for tenants with a new public Museum of Science and Technology beside a large public space called Navy Commons. Educational elements are also planned, such as a youth robotics programme.

The Flushing site, on the southern edge of the Yard, along Flushing Avenue and just to the east of Building 77, is envisioned to deliver 130,000 sq m of development across two buildings focused on food production and retail to complement Building 77 and turn this part of the Navy Yard into a hub for eating and drinking.

WXY’s proposed Flushing site, designed as a hub of food production and retail. Credit: WXY /  Bloomimages

The Kent site, the largest of the three promising to deliver 251,000 sq m of development across one very large building and one smaller one, is located on the northeast part of the Yard, adjacent to the water and towards the neighbourhood of Williamsburg. A key part of the Kent site’s design is a public waterfront space around Barge Basin, which Lubinsky describes as an ‘esplanade on the water’. The site is designed to include a multi-modal transport plaza as well as publically viewable showrooms and maker spaces within the buildings, showcasing the activities of the Navy Yard’s tenants.

The Kent site in WXY’s masterplan creates a public waterfront around Barge Basin. Credit: WXY / Bloomimages

In all these development sites, the tenant workspace is designed as ‘vertical manufacturing hubs’. BNYDC and WXY’s aim is to make the Navy Yard a world leader in vertical manufacturing, a typology that is surely the only way to meaningfully keep manufacturing in high-density cities. At Brooklyn Navy Yard, WXY’s design vision for vertical manufacturing centres around multistorey buildings containing specialised, triple-height ‘XL’ floors designed for large, heavy equipment. These are set above a ground level comprising a mix of parking and public-access showrooms, and enclosed loading docks on the first floor. The buildings also contain freight elevators, shared amenities for tenants, and single-height floors on the upper levels for supporting light industrial and creative office space.

In WXY’s vision for vertical manufacturing, secure loading happens internally, with manufacturing and office spaces above. Credit: WXY / Bloomimages

Elevating the main industrial operations above ground level is a design tactic to build in resiliency to flooding — and transferring the loading and circulation functions inside renders a security fence around the building unnecessary. Such a rethinking of secure loading operations thus enables much more public permeability than the Navy Yard can currently accommodate — ‘it would be a major change to the way they operate now,’ says Lubinsky. However, even if these three masterplan sites come forward as designed, with public accessibility, much of the rest of the Navy Yard will remain closed off for security reasons, having been designed to different parameters and unable to accommodate internal loading functions.

‘We are going to be keeping security around the Yard because we are an industrial facility,’ says Ehrenberg. ‘You can’t secure that without making the area gated. We plan to keep the wall but create many more moments of porousness.’ Wall-based planning may not be the cleverest trick in the book in this politically divided landscape, but one hopes that WXY’s vision for these public-yet-secure masterplan sites could in turn influence a rethinking of the whole Yard to enable full public access.

A new public ferry stop opened next to Dock 72 this May. Credit: WXY

For now, the masterplan is simply a vision, and both land-use rezoning and financing would need to be in place to make it happen. WXY is already actively undertaking wayfinding strategies in collaboration with London-based company Applied Wayfinding, in addition to redesigning and ‘clarifying’ the site’s secure entry gates. The practice’s ambition for linking the site into the city’s wider mass-transit network is already becoming a reality, too: a new NYC Ferry stop opened on the Navy Yard’s waterfront, adjacent to Dock 72, in May. Public ferry users can access the stop through Building 77 and walk the rest of the way to the stop guided by staff or signs. In WXY’s masterplan vision, however, a new, elevated pedestrian bridge has been designed to link the ferry stop to the public elements on the southern edge of the site — Building 77 and the Flushing development hub.

WXY has designed a public pedestrian bridge to enable access to public areas within the site, while keeping the rest of the Yard secure. Credit: Architectural And Urban Design Concepts By WXY / Bloomimages

There is no doubt that Brooklyn Navy Yard is creating value — in terms of education and jobs — for the local community, but as a part of New York City, it suffers from being closed off from the public. WXY’s designs paint a promising picture, one that integrates the Navy Yard into the fabric of the city itself while it continues to grow as a centre for making, manufacturing and creativity. The hope is that Brooklyn Navy Yard could become a model for how we keep industrial activity in our cities in a sustainable, inclusive and well-designed way. Projects like New Lab are brilliant, but only accessible to its members and Navy Yard tenants. The most exciting step will be to continue the moments of public accessibility such as Building 77’s food hall and open up the secure compound into a place for everyone.


This article was originally published in Blueprint issue 364. Buy a copy here, or subscribe to Blueprint

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