Gotham Gazette

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Eco-Friendly in Practice & for Profit: Sustainability at the Brooklyn Navy Yard


Brooklyn Navy Yard (photo: Daniel Stein-Sayles)

NEW YORK­– Darkness engulfed New York City as Hurricane Sandy continued its destructive path up the East Coast in October of 2012. However, through the darkness and chaos of Sandy's New York arrival and aftermath, the lights in one section of Northern Brooklyn never went out. Now, two years later, they are still on and representative of a newfound focus on sustainability in a post-Sandy New York City.

Home to these lights is the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once bustling with around 70,000 workers building ships for the United States Navy, environmental issues were not at the forefront of anyone's mind. Today, however, the Yard looks a lot different than it once did. While it is still a 300-acre industrial ground, today it is burgeoning with modern projects like a rooftop covered in kale, bok choy, carrots and other produce or the wind and solar-powered lights across the Yard, resilient in the face of one of New York City's most trying moments.

These lights were created by Lumi Solair, sister company to Duggal Visual Solutions, a mainstay on the Yard. While Duggal, and Brooklyn Grange, whose produce adorns the rooftop of building three, are trying to turn a profit, resilience and sustainability are never far from their minds.

These projects and many others on the more than 200-year-old naval yard are emblematic of a new industrial mindset, participants in the green economy with an eye each on business success and environmental sustainability.

Sustainability is a tricky concept. It has a different definition depending on whom you talk to. However, with the threats of climate change and the destructive potential of hurricanes and other natural disasters, few challenge the importance of a focus on sustainability. It is an essential element of today's world that must be understood, according to Adam Friedman, the Executive Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Friedman predicts that every person will need to adopt sustainable behaviors and ultimately every business will have to be green in order for the planet and its occupants to survive. Friedman describes sustainable practices as a way to combat climate change, an issue he called perhaps the greatest threat civilization will ever face.

Home to some of the city's most aggressive, forward-thinking sustainability efforts, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a vast industrial park in Wallabout, Brooklyn, bordering the Vinegar Hill and Fort Greene neighborhoods. A lot of the Yard still looks straight out of the 20th century, but new construction projects, pockets of modern art, and bright blue Citi Bikes remind you which century you are in.

Yard management and many of the companies that inhabit it have embraced the importance of operating in an environmentally-friendly way and creating products that help others to do so. As hurricane season once again arrives, the significance of sustainability becomes even more tangible - whether New York gets hit by another major storm or not. The Yard is now a hub for both environmentally-friendly initiatives and businesses as the city attempts to traverse an unpredictable, changing environment and make sure it is prepared for the next big storm.

For years after the 1966 decommissioning of the Brooklyn Navy Yard by the federal government, the Yard became the picture of neglect; home to a decaying infrastructure with trees growing on rooftops and piers crumbling into the East River. A buyout and subsequent financial support from the City of New York and the leadership of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) - a non-profit charged with running the Yard - have had transformative effects. The Yard is now home to over 40 buildings, 330 tenants, and a committed effort to be environmentally friendly.

"We have embraced sustainability as part of our core mission," Aisha Glover, BNYDC's Vice President of External Affairs, said in a phone interview. "We figured if we're getting all of this money to invest in the Yard, we had better think about developing was almost a no-brainer."

Like any structure at the Yard, a commitment to sustainable practices needs to be built from the foundation upward, and that is what has happened. New buildings at the Yard are built to meet the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) silver accreditation or better. LEED is recognized around the globe as the leading standard for design, construction, operations and maintenance in green buildings. Energy star roofs adorn many buildings, and the water and sewer systems have been revamped.

The Yard's investment in infrastructure has not only been physical. BNYDC also fosters an environment committed to innovation for itself and its tenants. While this manifests itself in many ways, it is especially evident when it comes to new models for sustainability.

The Pratt Center – a community organization connected to Pratt Institute - published a 130-page report about the Brooklyn Navy Yard last year that describes the Yard's most important policy.

"The policy [is] that sustainability has to permeate their decision-making," Friedman, also a member of the BNYDC board of directors, said of what is expected of Yard tenants and partners. "[This policy is] not in isolation, it has to be reflected in their building development, it has to be reflected in their energy supply, it has to be reflected in how they route traffic or move people and goods throughout the yard. It's not one decision, it's adoption of a vision."

Stepping onto the Yard, a visitor does not have to look far to see the vision at work. Wind and solar street lamps litter the grounds, there are 11 Citi Bike locations on the Yard or within a one block radius in order to promote environmentally-friendly transportation. New York City's first building with mounted wind turbines is also located on the Yard, another of many more examples of sustainability efforts and design at the Yard.

The Yard's renowned visitor center, BLDG 92, a $25 million venture opened in 2011, follows this mission of sustainable practices. The building, which also houses the Yard's employment center and is home to one tenant, has received LEED Platinum Certification, the highest certification for sustainable buildings, and has a giant solar screen across its southern façade.

"I think every program, project, or initiative is really valuable and unique in its own right, but I think what is really mind-blowing about the Navy Yard and why people are often amazed when they visit, is its concentration," Glover said referring to the many environmentally-friendly initiatives clustered at the Yard.

BNYDC reached out to Yard businesses to work on BLDG 92, according to John Randall, 36, who founded his company, Bien Hecho, seven years ago. Bien Hecho has been located on the Yard from its inception and was contracted to do millwork, such as doors and window casings, of BLDG 92.

Bien Hecho is one of the companies on the Yard that markets itself as a green or environmentally-sustainable company. According to the 2013 Pratt Center report, 19 percent of firms on the Yard market themselves this way.

Randall gestured to a pile of wood stacked to the ceiling in the corner of his company's nearly 4,000-square-foot suite. He explained that some of the wood once made up a section of the Coney Island boardwalk before it was thrown away and he salvaged it. This wood, Randall said, will eventually be made into furniture. Randall estimates that his company uses 30 to 40 percent reclaimed materials, even though his eventual goal is for that number to be 100.

Bien Hecho also uses low volatile organic compound (VOC) water-based finishes in its work, which is mainly millwork and building custom furniture. These environmentally friendly practices are used both for Randall's bottom line and what he calls his "social responsibility."

"My main aim is to shift that paradigm to a more well-sourced product," Randall said as a power saw blared in the background, before continuing about the Yard. "They [BNYDC] are pushing their tenants to come up with solutions in creative ways to switch themselves over to environmentally-friendly practices."

This transmission of beliefs from BNYDC to their tenants is shown in the Pratt Center study. The report shows that 47 percent of the tenants surveyed stated that the investment in green infrastructure is either crucial or important to their business, while 33 percent said that they have adopted sustainable business practices as a result of being located at the Yard.

The Yard houses a lot of small niche manufacturers like Bien Hecho, but it is also home to larger environmentally-friendly businesses, such as IceStone and Duggal.

IceStone makes durable surfaces that are often used as countertops or bathroom vanities. These surfaces are made out of 100 percent recycled glass and cement and the company has won nine awards for their sustainability efforts.

Duggal, a company with nearly 300 employees and a total of seven buildings has been lauded for their own environmental efforts as well, including their innovative state-of-the-art laboratory called the Duggal Greenhouse. According to Mark Lovci, Duggal's Vice President of Business Development, the Greenhouse was once a toxic building and it is the only one of its kind in New York City. It is used as an event venue and utilizes solar energy, organic air purification, and eco-friendly building practices. It has even been used as a rehearsal space for the entertainer, Beyoncé. Duggal provides eco-friendly printing, computer imaging and other services.

Lovci believes BNYDC is on the cutting edge of sustainability and is in line with the overall goals of the City of New York.

There is other evidence that the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the city are on the same page.

Greenery covers the roof of building three on the Yard. Kale, bok choy, carrots, peppers, and other produce are grown on the 65,000-square-foot Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm. The farm helps capture and divert one million gallons of stormwater runoff each year, according to Glover. The farm was financed by a Green Infrastructure grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This grant represents just a fraction of the support the Yard has received from the government and private investors. Approximately $250 million in public capital funding has been provided to the Yard for wide-scale improvements over the past 18 years – compared to $3 million the Yard received during the prior 30 years, demonstrating a commitment to the Yard and its mission that had not been there in the past. This, at a time while under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City launched a number of environmental initiatives like PlaNYC and the Greener Greater Building Initiative. Both programs were created to combat the threats of climate change and address the environmental factors that can negatively affect living conditions in the five boroughs.

"When you look at something like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I think that is where you get to see exciting opportunities," Adam Freed, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability under Bloomberg, said by phone. "It's not just building by building, block by block, but you get a campus. You get a large economy of scale that you can have for green infrastructure."

The new 220,000-square-foot Green Manufacturing Center on the Yard that is targeted to lease to green manufacturers is an example of these exciting opportunities. The center alone has brought in $18 million in grants according to the Pratt Center report.

"Under the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation's leadership, the Navy Yard has been transformed from the nation's largest shipbuilding facility to a national model for sustainable industrial parks," said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck in an email.

While the government and organizations such as the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, which recognized BNYDC last year for its recycling program, have acknowledged the collective efforts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, many recognize there is still plenty of work to be done.

BNYDC has instituted a pilot waste-management program that has encouraged more recycling and has helped reduce truck traffic on the yard by 90 percent, according to Glover. However, Randall, who had opted to participate until recently, described some flaws in the program, including glitches and a dramatic rise in costs. Especially where a commitment to sustainability exists and new initiatives are being tested all the time, partners must remain agile and ready to adapt as needed.

"What is green today is not going to be green tomorrow," Friedman said.

There is no easy way for a company or organization to implement large-scale sustainability practices, or to offset the environmental footprints left on the environment by individuals and businesses, but BNYDC seems aware that in order to continue growing sustainability efforts, organizations must change as technologies and the world around them change.

"Overall I think we need to continue to challenge ourselves and push the envelope and make sure we are constantly looking at how can we improve," Glover said. "Quite frankly, I don't think it's enough that we have one rooftop farm, we should have several."

by Daniel Stein-Sayles for Gotham Gazette


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