The Brooklyn Navy Yard has been in my dreams—ever since flying there right before Christmas at the request of Polytechnic Institute of NYU, also located in Brooklyn. And I’m just returning from a second trip. My old friend Jerry Hultin is the President of Poly, following a stint as Undersecretary of the Navy during the Clinton administration. He’s a progressive, and has already moved the needle at 150 year-old Poly, once the shining technical star of the New York area in the 1960s and now rebuilding. It just affiliated with NYU and is on it’s way to becoming an official school in that system. Students from all over the world come here to get a good technical education.
Jerry painted a stimulating picture of possibility. “We want to explore being part of a new media and information sciences complex there on the site of the old hospital, and think your Presidio experience would be helpful,” he said. He knows that The Grove facilitated all the public visioning workshops at the time the Presidio decommissioned and became a national park in the late 1980s. I read the Poly Media Center prospectus and put in a letter of support. But the Presidio was in San Francisco, on a spectacular site at the foot of Golden Gate Bridge. This is Brooklyn, looking across at Manhattan, humbled by terrorism and an economic meltdown arguably a direct result of its excesses on Wall Street. What's really wanting to happen here I wondered?
The Search Begins
I had and still have the powerful feeling that I was seeing the future here, that as Paul Saffo likes to say, quoting Gibson, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” I know after some experience it may not be in the obvious places. Let me share my thinking.
My inquiry began December 24 at Poly, located in downtown Brooklyn, seven blocks up from the NU Hotel on Smith and Atlantic where I was advised to stay (It's one of the first affordable botique hotels to open in Brooklyn). In December it was cold. The pipes burst and flooded my room on the first day. Half melted snow made the sidewalks treacherous. This African American / Italian / mixed Caucasian community is gritty, basic New York. Faces are fixed with the I-can-handle-anything-don’t-mess-with-me confidence of city dwellers used to bustle. They pay no attention to a gray haired little man trundling my portable office up the street. My black wool overcoat blended right in. Trying to handle a hot dog and sour kraut from a street vendor in between gloves and getting my wallet out from under the layers made me realize I had a ways to go in terms of knowing how to maneuver here. Did I need to watch my bag?
But this trip I felt more at home, and I could “see” into the city a little more. Then I didn’t even know the map. Now I knew that Poly was on the metro line, but the Navy Yard wasn’t, and that was an issue. As I approached Poly and saw the increasing density of young people on foot and bikes (mostly Asian I noticed), I appreciated the problem. This time as I sat in a Starbucks, and watched six completely bundled students (I assumed) playing hacky sack in front of Poly on the street plaza (empty here) under the giant red tin-can sculpture that towered over them, I thought of how The Grove staff would go out and play hacky sack at noon. So maybe the differences are surface?
And this trip was shaped by already having had a glimpse of what is actually happening in Brooklyn, and at the Navy Yard in particular. The refurbished Metro Center where Poly is located is already visiting an upbeat feel to the downtown area. The Navy Yard feels like a real nexus of new energy a bit further north.
What Is the Brooklyn Navy Yard?
Being from the West Coast I didn’t really know much about the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Jerry had arranged a meeting in December between me and its President and CEO, Andrew Kimball, and one of its anchor tenants, Doug Steiner, creator of Steiner Studios—the largest set of five sound stages East of Hollywood and home to Inside Man, Spiderman 3, The Producers, The Nanny Diaries and many other productions. Steiner has invested millions in his state-of-the art new buildings, and is ready to invest more. If he and Poly can team up there might be enough momentum to do something. So along for our visit was Jerry himself and Ji Mi Choi, Jerry’s sharp young chief of staff. Jerry, Ji Mi and I drove up from Poly the 15 or so blocks, and finally found our way into the yard past the security gates in front of Steiner Studios.
It’s old industrial, AND modern. I wasn’t expecting quite this! We met Andrew and Doug in his office on the second floor of the building shown here, with a panoramic view of the lower Manhattan skyline. It was one I’d not seen before. “They’re pushing me out again for another shoot,” Doug said waving at the boxes. They like to use Doug’s office because of the view! New York plus all the cranes and ships — it is a set of sets!
And it still is! The Navy Yard contains 40+ new and old buildings, about 230 tenants, and 5,000 employees. In the early days of this country this was THE manufacturing center of the nation. It’s also sports a who’s who of the Navy in terms of who has served here. Jerry proudly told Andrew that my wife Susan was granddaughter of Roosevelt’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Standley. “And in talking with Susan last night,” I said, “I found our her father was stationed here for while as a captain.”
But Andrew didn’t seem overly impressed as he rattled off a bit of the history and the pivotal role this site played. At its peak in 1939 the Yard employed 70,000 workers. It sold to New York City in 1968 and opened as an industrial park in 1971. In 1981 the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation began management, and Andrew is its CEO. He’s a young, savvy fellow, who led New York’s bid for the Olympics and got this job afterward. Somehow I mentioned or he mentioned Coro and we discovered that he went through their Fellowship in Public Affairs in New York and is now on the Board of Trustees! I’m now on the Board in San Francisco for my second term. Suddenly the mood shifted and this trip had become a Coro logic study. He was fully on board helping us all see into what was going on.
The Navy Yard’s 4 million square feet of space has been 98% full for five years, with only the old hospital and a few remaining warehouse-type buildings needing development.
Doug and Andrew need Poly to help put together the resources to complete the picture. It was the pattern behind the picture that I zoomed in on, for by just responding to what wanted and needed to happen here, the natural energy of the region is expressing itself, and I think the picture is hopeful. On the piers themselves are now the Yellow Grease Biodiesel Plant and IceGlass, a recycled glass processing facility, along with the Circle Line, new York Sand, Lehigh Cement, GMD (a Marine repair facility) and NYC Energy. Green energy, materials, marine services, and recycling—now this is an interesting mixture I thought.
Steiner Studios (a LEED Silver certified project) is now complemented by B&H Photo, with its 400,000 SF LEED Silver certified new building under construction. I couldn’t help but think about how media has become a focus for the Presidio as well. In the information age isn’t this what we “make?” At the Yard artisans like SurroundArt, dForm and Michelle Greene begin to create a texture and buzz beyond film activities.
The sustainability focus is also front and center, like at the Presidio. A building on Perry Avenue (LEED Gold) is sporting the first wind turbines in New York City. A CoGen energy plant is in another building. Wind/solar street lamps are going in under an infrastructure replacement project, along with storm water run-off reduction and water conservation measures. Quite a number of the old warehouses have been adapted to new enterprises. The Navy Yard is mixing new with historic, like the Presidio, although not as conservatively I think. Although a fight is on with Brooklyn environmentalists over a set of old buildings on Admiral’s row that have seriously deteriorated. The cost of renovation isn’t affordable, according to Andrew, and a major supermarket would love to come in and develop the site.
Overall the evidence of invested energy was everywhere. The “feel” was exciting, a mixture of well done adaptive re-use and completely new, muscular industrial roads ending with stunning city-scapes over the bay on the skyline.
Could This Area be a Media Center?
Doug and Andrew can envision a media center next to Steiner as clearly as if it were already there, and so could I within minutes of getting out of the car at the high point in the yard where the old Navy Hospital sits. I could remember the first time I walked into the old Army barracks buildings at Fort Barry in the Marin Headlands, planned to be the Headlands Center for the Arts. The 14’ high ceilings, molded tin ceilings, cast iron pillars – all standard issue – were resources from a bygone era. They emerged as stunning studios and meetings rooms under transformational magic of artist David Ireland and apprentices—fascinated with using restoration as an art form. Here in Brooklyn was the Navy’s version, and the interior spaces are equally stunning. They are derelict now, but I could see the sturdy underpinnings, the marble exterior walls. “We see this as a headquarters for a major producer or media company,” Doug said. “Or classrooms and laboratories,” Jerry could imagine.
There are five buildings on the campus, and that is what it feels like. With Steiner and the other Yard tenants nearby the possibility of creating a new economic engine for the region is quite possible.
“New York needs to diversify now,” Andrew said, in the wake of the meltdown on Wall Street. Media and entertainment, sustainable industry and energy could well be the drivers.
I came away convinced I’d seen the future. But what will happen if the banks don’t recover? Will the stimulus reach Brooklyn? Will Steiner continue as successfully as they have? Seeds aren’t guaranteed to grow if the soil isn’t fertile. But the soil feels rich here—decaying and rich.
Memories of Schaumberg Village
When I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1968 I wrote a series about a new development out on the edge of Chicago near the airport called Schaumberg Village. I visited and was shown around by Bob Atcher, a country and western singer the developers had hired for public relations. This was before Joel Gearreau had written his book, Edge Cities, documenting their phenomenal growth in the 1970’s and 80’s. I was a student of urban development and planning on going to architectural school. I knew I was seeing the future. This place would be a BIG deal, and I wrote my stories holding that assumption.
I was royally reamed out by my city editors for falling into the laps of the developers and their PR agents. Well I was right. Schaumberg is a HUGE development, along with Reston, Walnut Creek, Crystal City and other edge cities. They grew in the ‘80s while cores declined.
But it’s the ‘00s and I think I’ve seen the future again in Brooklyn, and it’s going to be about what happens when re-use, energy, the arts, media, and community team up, respecting the past while inventing the future. I think I’ve seen what people mean by “creating green jobs.”
This week I wasn’t visiting the Navy Yard, but focusing on Poly itself, and its commitment to Invention, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Can Poly gather the focus and resources to join the Yard, with the impediments of no metro and real needs at their downtown campus at the Metro/Tech Center. There is also the ongoing uncertainty of the current economic crisis. We wondered if Poly’s budding Incubator program, with 9 real companies and 16 virtual ones could learn from and synergize with the real life emergent learning the Yard is experiencing. Could academic, Poly engineers, wistfully dreaming of the golden years in physics and engineering, come to see what they could learn from a real world mash-up of disciplines only 15 blocks away? Does having a foot in China, Abu Dhabi, and New York City through their new connection with NYU give them the kind of resource and clout to be strategic in this downturn rather than constrictive?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m up for trying to find them– and so it seems, are Jerry and Ji Mi and a growing network of Poly faculty who see that the future is already here, and they are in the center of it.