No room at Navy Yard … for an arena

The Brooklyn Paper
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement last week that the city will expand the Brooklyn Navy Yard industrial park by 500,000 square feet came as good news to local manufacturers.

But for Rep. Major Owens and opponents of the plan to build a basketball arena in Downtown Brooklyn, the expansion announcement was taken as another slap in the face toward their plan to instead build the future home of the New Jersey Nets on the Navy Yard’s grounds.

At a meeting with Navy Yard officials just two weeks before the mayor’s announcement, Owens and members of the anti-arena group Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) were told that the yard did not have enough space for developer and Nets owner Bruce Ratner’s planned 19,000-seat arena.

“It seems like all this is just a reaction to our proposal,” Owens told The Brooklyn Papers, referring to the city’s plan to cull additional Navy Yard space from the current police department tow pound on Flushing Avenue and then use that space for commercial and manufacturing businesses. “They want to step up the propaganda because they just don’t want Ratner’s arena there.”

In April, Owens teamed up with DDDB and unveiled an alternative to Ratner’s proposal for an 800,000-square-foot arena, surrounded by office towers, and planned for the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. The arena, office buildings and 4,500 units of housing are to be designed by noted architect Frank Gehry and extend for six blocks into Prospect Heights.

“I think it is possible that an arena could fit on expansion in the impound lot,” said Daniel Goldstein, a DDDB founding member. “Plus, there is another 300 acres. We support looking at any possible site for an arena and that debate should be started, instead of simply going with the site that Ratner selected.”

Looking at the Navy Yard from the outside, most New Yorkers would assume it to be nothing more than a vacant lot ravished by thickets of untamed foliage and years of disrepair. But in the July 1 tour led by representatives from the Navy Yard’s development corporation, Owens, Goldstein and The Brooklyn Papers were shown another side of the former military shipyard: a bustling industrial park, occupied by more than 220 tenants and providing more than 3,700 jobs for the surrounding community.

Owens was not willing to admit defeat just then. “A large part of the yard is cluttered with industrial activity in a helter-skelter pattern. A lot of places can be bulldozed to clear space for new buildings and business,” he said, citing the new Steiner Film Studios, currently under-construction in the yards, as a model for development.

The Navy Yard arena plan, submitted as an alternative to that of Ratner, also includes a new ferry terminal, 25,000 parking spaces, and new, mixed-used residential and commercial buildings.

“The proposal is about rethinking the way this post-industrial space is used,” said Jennifer Gellin, one of the architects who helped develop the alternative proposal. “The idea is to make the waterfront accessible to the public without disturbing the existing industry.”
Eric Deutsch, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, seemed baffled by the proposal, remarking that the Navy Yard did not have space for such an ambitious development.

“This is not a vacant, derelict facility. The buildings that you see when you drive by are filled to the brim,” Deutsch said, later adding that small manufacturers occupy nearly 97 percent of the property’s leaseable space.

“Where would we put [the arena]? Other than a few spaces here and there, for 300 million square feet, we are pretty much full,” Deutsch said.

“There is no space, there is not enough mass transit — it is just not feasible,” he added.

But he made those comments just before the announcement of $71 million in city funding over the next five years to upgrade streets, sewers and other elements of the Navy Yard infrastructure.

Starting in 2005, the mayor said, the Navy Yard Industrial Park will grow by another half a million square feet of new industrial space over three to five years. That expansion, Bloomberg said, will create 500 to 800 new manufacturing jobs and also develop new retail space along Flushing Avenue.

“It became clear that the president of the Navy Yard took us on a tour and only showed us the buildings that were in use and the places where nothing could be built or are landmarked,” said DDDB’s Goldstein. “They didn’t show us the vacant lots and buildings. And then two weeks later they announce an expansion plan where an arena can feasibly fit. It doesn’t make sense.”

On the tour, Alan Fishman, president and CEO of Independence Community Bank and chairman of the Navy Yard’s board of directors, also emphasized the yard’s dry dock facilities as “priceless pieces of infrastruc­ture.” The alternative arena plan calls for building over part of them.

“There are only a few of them left in the tri-state area,” said Fishman. Other dry docks, he said, are in Bayonne, N.J., and one at the old Todd Shipyards in Red Hook’s Erie Basin, which recently closed to clear land for a planned Ikea store.

“Replacing them would cost billions of dollars,” Fishman said.

Four of the six docks — huge basin-like structures from which water can be emptied to allow the lower portions of ships to be worked on — are still in operation, including a 150-year-old granite one that a Navy Yard official described as being the length of the Empire State Building if it were laid on its side.

Owens is not the first to eye the Navy Yard as a potential site for development, nor is he likely to be the last in a long parade of community activists and city officials who believe that the Navy Yard is the perfect place to tuck away unwanted public facilities, Deutsch remarked.

“We call it the ‘just put it in the Navy Yard syndrome’,” said Deutsch, who led Owens on the tour.

“I have had to face a number of people who say, ‘I don’t want it in my community, just put it in the Navy Yard’,” he said, referring to attempts to put a waste incinerator, a power plant and most recently, a facility for the Office of Emergency Management inside the Navy Yard.

He also noted that for many manufacturers, the Navy Yard stands as a last refuge for industrial production as many of them have been priced out of other areas or simply displaced by residential development. With a proposal to rezone much of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which would make close to 300 acres of industrial land available for residential development, Deutsch said they expect to see many more tenants in the future.

Aside from the dry docks, the Navy Yard houses a number of unique historical and industrial structures tucked away in its patchwork of aging manufacturing buildings. The commandant’s house, completed in 1806, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Land for the shipyard was purchased by the United States Navy in 1801, and during its early years the Navy Yard built ships to battle Caribbean and Barbary pirates and outfitted more than 100 ships during the War of 1812. During the Civil War the shipyard was the central base for ship repair and distributing supplies to the Union fleet.

It continued to thrive during the Spanish-American War, becoming the Navy’s principal supply depot, as well as during World War I. World War II turned the Navy Yard into the nation’s largest naval construction facility, nicknamed the “Can-Do Yard.” Such historic ships as the U.S. Missouri, upon whose deck the Japanese signed the surrender that ended the war, were built there.

The city bought the Navy Yard after the federal government closed it in 1966, and turned into an industrial park. A 28-acre parcel known as the Navy Hospital Annex was set aside from active use, including two buildings designated as historic landmarks, and a military burial ground.

Two years ago, the annex was turned over to the Navy Yard development corporation, which has plans to renovate the site.

The newest addition to the Navy Yard is the 15-acre Steiner Studios with five state-of-the-art film production and sound stages. The first phase of construction is nearing completion and the studio slated to open this fall.

Deutsch expects the film studio will provide more than 1,000 jobs and hopes the company will seek expansion.

“If the studio would like to expand, then the naval annex could serve as a good site,” he said.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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