Last Saturday, OHNY staffer Hae-In helped organize a tour of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), with GMDC and the Fourth Arts Block, led by Project Manager Cassandra Smith. The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center is the premier nonprofit industrial developer in NYC and since its inception in 1992, GMDC has rehabilitated six North Brooklyn manufacturing buildings for occupancy by small manufacturing enterprises, artisans and artists. Currently GMDC owns and manages five of these properties, which together represent more than half a million square feet of space. These buildings are occupied by more than 100 businesses that together employ more than 500 people.
Cassandra started with the history of the building complex, which sits on an area created by landfill in 1858 and started as the Chelsea Fiber Mills in 1868, with just a few brick buildings along the Newtown Creek waterfront. Built by Standard Oil, the mill focused on manufacturing marine rope. More buildings were added and by 1891, eight buildings made up 366,000 square feet of industrial space and basement area.
The Chelsea Fiber Mills employed many Greenpoint residents and supplied rope to the U.S. military throughout World War I and World War II. Activity began to decline during the second half of the 20th century and the facility shifted to textile producers and fabric dyeing mills until the early 1970s.
The City of New York took over the building in a tax foreclosure in 1974. Although the City held title to the property, funding for maintenance was lacking and the building fell into non-code compliance: elevators, sprinklers, roofing, electricity, and water distribution systems were in disrepair. A group of artists set up studios anyway and the City gave them month-to-month leases.
In the mid 1980’s the City considered demolishing the complex because upgrading would be too costly and local businesses, community organizations, building tenants, and elected officials came together to shape a redevelopment plan that would convert the property into an arts and industry center. The North Brooklyn Economic Development Corportation got it for $1 and GMDC acquired the property and leveraged the public and private capital required to make it code compliant.
Today, 75 small business and artisan tenants utilize this building and 360 employees from adjacent communities work here. The spaces range from 1,000-5,000 square feet and leases are flexible and below market rate ($12-16 per square foot versus up to $30). Although GMDC’s main mission is economic development and jobs, there is also a preservationist angle and promotion of affordable, flexible production space to local artists and manufacturers. In order to finance these ventures, GMDC uses a combination of tax credits, grants, funding from city council members and bank loans.
When tenants move in, they are basically given a vanilla box. There are no lights or furniture, and there are shared bathrooms but no plumbing within the studio (as this often leads to living there, which is prohibited). It was wonderful to hear the stories of the artists working here, ranging from a painter, clay potter, woodworker and a cnc design studio. Takeshi (scroll up for woodworking studio photo) told us about having studied architecture in Japan and working in construction in Tokyo. Twenty years ago, he moved to the United States and began apprenticing with a master cabinet maker and learning carpentry. He started by making cabinets and architectural models, and has now expanded to a wide array of simple but beautifully crafted furniture.
Cassandra also showed us the last empty space within the complex, known as building 5, which has not been developed yet. It was amazing to walk around the empty space– you could still see old furnaces through a crack in the wall– and imagine how much effort was put in to rehabilitate this complex!
Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center
1155-1205 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11222