2 min read

Brooklyn Forever

Cities need affordable, available, and accessible spaces.

New York City, including its outer boroughs, has a long and proud history as an industrial base. Brooklyn’s legacy of craftsmanship dates back to our nation’s early wars. With its proximity to Manhattan via East River ferries, Brooklyn became a hub for shipbuilding. One notable example is Continental Iron Works, famous for producing leading warships for the Union during the Civil War.

Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Standard Oil goes to Brooklyn

Around the same time, Astral Oil Works in Brooklyn became the global leader in kerosene-refined oil. By the 1870s, Astral, known as ‘America’s first modern oil refinery,’ became a jewel in John D. Rockefeller’s crown.

Rockefeller's Standard Oil built what is now the hub for urban manufacturing in Brooklyn.

Built by Standard Oil in 1868, the Chelsea Fiber Mill opened as a four-building complex to manufacture rope and textiles for the U.S. Navy and the larger maritime industry ... The Chelsea Fiber Mill complex grew into eight buildings in 1891, and the Mills employed numerous Greenpoint residents, particularly during both world wars when it supplied marine rope made from sisal, manila, jute, and hemp to the navy.

Misaligned incentives create bad outcomes

While shipbuilders and oil refineries would be an awkward fit in today's Brooklyn, some city problems persist. It starts with space. Bluntly, the operating costs of office, studio, and production space are too damn high.

Urban growth is a case study in political economy. Real-world incentives—tax advantages, local policies on development, and the market size of potential demand (business renters vs. individual renters)—create enormous challenges for local entrepreneurs and small businesses.

The data is staggering:

  • Industrial-zoned land shrank by around 14% across U.S. cities from 2000-2015 as properties were rezoned.
  • The cost per square foot for urban industrial real estate increased by over 50% from 2010-2020.
  • Skyrocketing costs crippled urban manufacturing, causing job losses accounting for nearly 40% of the total U.S. manufacturing employment decline from 1990-2017.

The future of urban manufacturing

The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), a cool non-profit in Brooklyn, NY, aims to reverse this decline. With a mission to sustain urban manufacturing hubs, GMDC redevelops old industrial buildings without profit incentives, then opens these affordable spaces to local entrepreneurs and makers at below-market rates.

The model works – GMDC's properties have been 100% occupied since 2013, hosting an eclectic mix of makers, including woodworkers, glassblowers, fragrance makers, and apparel producers working in vibrant, modern industrial loft spaces.

For example, Craighill, a cool and innovative production company, recently opened in GMDC and described the power of finding a community of makers: "We feel incredibly fortunate to have found a home here, among other designers, artists, furniture makers, and creators."

They say all industrial space becomes residential if you wait long enough, but that’s largely a function of bad public policy. With smart land use policies like zoning overlays and property tax incentives for manufacturers, once-great industrial cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco have the opportunity to become great again.

Brooklyn forever.

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