One of the drawbacks of the residential real estate juggernaut transforming neighborhoods throughout the city is that light manufacturing and industrial businesses are being forced to relocate or to go out of business. One area that has been especially hard hit by gentrification is the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, where a 2005 residential rezoning cut the amount of square feet available for manufacturing uses and made many of the remaining spaces unaffordable for small industrial firms.
However, thanks to an ongoing retrofit of a massive 575,000-square-foot former Pfizer warehouse, office, and manufacturing facility on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, there are new opportunities for businesses that actually make things in New York City. Here is a small village of artisanal food enterprises, fashion designers, and various crafts businesses housed in a warren of former laboratories, several of which still have their original cabinets with gray soapstone countertops. Plans for the building call for a commercial roof farm and ground-level retail spaces at former truck loading bays.
“We like these old masonry concrete buildings,” said Jerry Caldari, principal in Bromley Caldari Architects, which is in charge of the renovation and also investing in the project. “They cannot build them like this anymore because nobody wants to—it is very expensive,” added Caldari, noting that these types of buildings typically have floor loads of up to 250 to 300 pounds per square foot.
Together with Acumen Capital Partners, which bought the Pfizer building in 2011, Caldari is hoping to replicate the success of the renovation project he undertook with the real estate investment firm at the Standard Motor Products Building in Long Island City. There, the development team updated the old industrial building for new uses by putting in large windows, bathrooms, and an additional elevator. Today, that building, which is 95 percent rented, has more than 50 tenants, including architectural, printing, technology, and media companies, many of which have been priced out of Manhattan. Its signature feature is a one-acre commercial rooftop farm with various crops, chickens, and honeybees, which was the largest rooftop farm in the city at the time it was built in 2010.
At the former Pfizer building, the developers have tapped into the Brooklyn-based foodie craze and the place has a decidedly Brooklyn feel, with a hydroponic agricultural installation in the lobby, bicycles parked in the hallways, and various tattooed entrepreneurs wandering about. Many of the new artisanal food businesses, which are there on short-term leases that start at $19 per square foot, are taking advantage of the former laboratory spaces they occupy, some of which come with venting and plumbing and, in a few cases, even ovens. Currently, the development team is readying a space for a new anchor tenant, Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, where recent graduates can rent space on a temporary basis for technology, design, and fashion start-ups.
Redeveloping New York City’s enormous old industrial loft spaces to accommodate light manufacturing can be a challenging proposition. “The reason that these projects are not more prevalent is the financing,” said Jeffrey Rosenblum, co-manager of Acumen Capital Partners. “The banks and institutions don’t understand this model—you cannot point to 1,000 examples, you can only point to three examples.”