One way to get to know a neighborhood is by exploring its buildings. So we did. This story is part of a series in The Brooklyn Ink on some of the structures in the borough, and what they tell us about the life in and around them.
On Monday, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Building 128 marked its second inauguration as a modern manufacturing center. On this day, city officials and financiers flocked to a ribbon cutting ceremony for New Lab, a hardware-focused technology incubator and community hub anchored around 84,000 square feet of studios, work spaces, and prototyping shops in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
New Lab is key to the Navy Yard’s push to create new manufacturing jobs. Startup companies join New Lab as small ventures, exploring an idea or novel technology. If those seeds are successful, the companies can grow, and the Navy Yard is renovating millions of additional square feet of offices and manufacturing space to accommodate them. “The Navy Yard is important because it’s the last place in New York where you can make anything,” said Lili Rockler Jackson, whose company, Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, built machines for New Lab’s prototyping shops.
Building 128 has always made things. Naval records document its first inauguration in 1902, a modern marine machine shop ensconced in steel and glass. Five stories at its tallest point, the building’s roofline slopes gently upwards towards a central clerestory wrapped with windows that light the central space. The shop supplied engines and industrial parts for the Navy ships workers built and repaired the adjoining dry docks, a crucial piece of the Navy Yard’s infrastructure.
After Building 128’s original construction, additions were made in each of the World Wars to expand production capacity. By the time the Navy Yard was decommissioned in 1966, Building 128 covered roughly two football fields’ worth of real estate within the complex. Over the next forty years, the building, like much of the Navy Yard, sat vacant and unused.
In October 2006, the Bloomberg administration announced that Building 128 would be partially demolished, and the “large, deteriorating structure” replaced by three new industrial buildings, according to an administration press release. In 2008, David Belt, a real estate developer and New Lab’s Cofounder, toured the structure, looking for a space to house his high-tech manufacturing hub, and saw potential in its bones, not just its foundation. “We believe that it’s very important to launch new ideas in old buildings,” Belt said. New Lab is revolutionary beyond its building. “This is the first time that hardware companies in these diverse spaces–robotics, nanotechnology, energy, life sciences–have had a chance to come together and work with each other,” said Dania Dupont, Chief Operating Officer of New Lab. “I think of the building as a metastructure for all of these technologies.”
The Navy Yard is working to attract blue collar manufacturing jobs, in addition to the engineering and prototyping work encouraged at New Lab. Dan Gutman, the Chairman of the BNYDC acknowledges that the Navy Yard won’t be the perfect fit for all companies, but that the development fills an important niche, citing Crye Precision as an example. Crye makes next generation body armor for military applications, and got its start with New Lab, before moving into its own 30,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space next door. “In their work quality is important, training is crucial, and they want to be nearby to oversee everything,” Gutman said. “There’s no way that process is being outsourced to Asia.”
For Gutman, the Navy Yard’s historic buildings are the keys to its success. “These are high quality buildings, built for military manufacturing–the elevators can carry tanks, and the floors can take a lot of weight. It’s a unique offering in the city.”