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The Brooklyn Navy Yard gets ready for its close-up

The historic shipyard is moving into its next, more public phase with food halls, creative office space, and more

Shipping containers parked on a street.

For many decades, the residents of Brooklyn have been fenced out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Stone walls and barbed wire encircle its 300-acre campus, security checkpoints block every street entrance, and patrol cars drive in endless loops around its private roads.

But over the past three years, the public has been able to access more of the spaces inside the yard’s historic footprint. Today, visitors can stroll through fields of wildflowers at the Naval Cemetery Landscape, buy a bagel at Russ & Daughters inside the renovated lobby of Building 77, and take a ride in a self-driving vehicle out to a new ferry stop on the East River. This is the first time in generations that neighbors are being allowed to wander through the heart of the yard, and to observe the waters of Wallabout Bay.

And next month, the Navy Yard will take down the fences surrounding one of its largest new public spaces when it opens a Wegmans grocery store located in the southwest corner of the yard. Visitors to the store, which is scheduled to open on October 27, will be able to explore the former site of Admiral’s Row, a collection of historic homes that was almost completely demolished in 2016 to make way for retail buildings and a 700-car parking lot. It’s one of several new buildings under construction around the yard, including Dock 72, a 16-story office tower that willopen in mid-October, and Building 303 (formerly known as 399 Sands), a nine-story parking garage and industrial space that will open in 2020.

These changes are a warm-up for an even bigger transformation: the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation’s (BNYDC) $2.5 billion master plan, developed with WXY, which proposes constructing four additional buildings around the edges of the yard, along with a waterfront esplanade. As the public face of the Navy Yard continues to change, a walk around its perimeter reveals the complex relationship that all of its new projects have with the neighborhoods around it, and how its campus is evolving into the future, for better and for worse.

“We are very aware of the fact that the Navy Yard hasn’t always been the most inviting part of the city. We were surrounded by walls and barbed wire while the federal government was here, and the Navy was operating,” says David Ehrenberg, the CEO and president of BNYDC. “So we have been trying over the years to soften the walls. But also we are a working waterfront, and we have large-scale manufacturing here, so it’s not as easy as just throwing the gates open and saying ‘Everyone walk on in’.”

Large factory buildings surrounded by a fence. A sign on the fence reads “Meet us at the Brooklyn Navy Yard 10-27-19”

The first step in opening the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the public was taken back in 2011, with the launch of BLDG 92, a museum, cafe, and public green space. Constructed in and around the Marine Commandant’s residence, a historic 1858 structure located along Flushing Avenue, BLDG 92 represented the first opportunity for the public to access the Navy Yard in more than 200 years. It is still the best way for visitors to engage with the sweeping history of the yard, and features permanent exhibits tracing out the story of its establishment in 1801 to its modern-day manufacturing tenants. A diverse slate of walking and biking tours of the yard, led by Turnstile Tours, also begin and end at the building.

The next small steps to open up the yard happened in 2016, with the opening of the Sands Street Gatehouses, two charming one-story 1896 structures that are now used by Kings County Distillery as a whiskey tasting room, and the Naval Cemetery Landscape, a 1.7-acre burial ground that has been transformed into a lush meadow, accessible via a looping path of raised boardwalks. Though diminutive in size, both of these projects are still the best way for casual visitors to engage with the historic architecture and landscape of the Navy Yard. They are also currently the only public access points along the entire eastern and western sides of the yard.

In 2017, the yard finished the restoration of Building 77, a windowless 1942 storage building that was remodeled to create sunny offices and manufacturing spaces upstairs, and a food hall in its lobby. Dozens of tenants have now moved in to its upper floors, but the promised food court has not yet materialized. On a recent weekend, its massive lobby was largely empty, with just two businesses open: Russ & Daughters and Transmitter Brewing. If all goes well, though, the BNYDC expects the remaining food spaces here to open in the coming months.

A man standing in a field of tall grass.

The opening of these new public spaces, which are all located within existing structures and landscapes in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has unfolded at the same time as a construction boom around the yard, which has altered its entire landscape. Unfortunately, most of the new buildings under construction here have failed to create the same meaningful connection between the yard’s long history and the surrounding community.

Along the eastern side of the Navy Yard, a recent expansion by Steiner Studios has erected a wall of concrete sound stages and rusty shipping containers along Kent Avenue, placing an imposing barrier between Williamsburg and the yard. On the western side, the Sands Street Gatehouses are now completely overshadowed by Building 303, a generic concrete box consisting of a four-story parking lot with some office spaces stacked on top. Visitors to the historic gatehouses are now confronted by this jarringly oversized backdrop.

In the heart of the yard, where the glassy modern office building Dock 72 is now preparing to open, the architecture feels bizarrely out of place with its industrial surroundings, which include the GMD Shipyard, one of the last working shipyards in New York City. The tower, where WeWork will take up about a third of the space, is situated on a narrow waterfront dock, and cuts off access to Drydocks 2 and 3, two ship repairing facilities which are currently not being used by GMD. At a time when shipyards are seeing a substantial growth in business, and the Navy is seeking more dy docks for repairs, this sleek office tower seems to be at odds with the BNYDC’s mission of “growing the city’s modern industrial sector and its businesses.”

At the Wegmans grocery store campus, where the design is all rusted steel and glassy facades, the boxy new buildings feel more like an anonymous suburban office park. Their architecture offers up no discernible connection to the two historic structures that remain onsite—Quarters B and the Timber Shed—which were constructed in the 1800s from brick, wood and plaster. The public will soon be invited to walk around Wegmans’ nondescript boxes and asphalt parking lot, and to consider what was lost with the demolition of Admiral’s Row and its forest of hundreds of mature trees.

A building with a glass and steel exterior, with a sign that says “Wegmans” on the front.

As the Brooklyn Navy Yard continues to bring new jobs, businesses, buildings, and public spaces to its campus, it’s worth asking what the neighborhoods around it are gaining in return. A grocery store, a ferry stop, and a small green meadow are all valuable additions to the community. The four new towers planned for the three public-facing sides of the yard will bring 5.1 million square feet of offices and manufacturing spaces, which will be surrounded by loading docks and public plazas.

“You come here, it’s a cool destination, you got waterfront, you got some trees, but you also get an experience that is true to who we are and what our tenants are doing,” says Ehrenberg, explaining the BNYDC’s vision for its master plan.

One site will contain a museum, another a food hall; there will also be public access to the waterfront at a barge basin near Kent Avenue. This site presents a truly unique opportunity to open up the waters of Wallabout Bay for the first time, along a three-mile stretch of the East River’s coastline that is currently inaccessible to the community.

At this unique site, however, the BNYDC has sketched out a vision that includes a hard-edged concrete promenade elevated above the water, surrounded by glassy towers with ground floor showrooms for products manufactured in the yard. None of the proposals include a substantial green space, like a park or a wildflower meadow. Trees are scattered around the plazas, but those are mostly hardscaped with concrete and stone.

At a time when the city is bringing back wetlands, marshes, and oyster reefs to its waterfront, there is still a chance to seek out something more creative and green at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. With climate change expected to raise temperatures in New York City by up to 10 degrees by 2080, and to flood the coast with up to six feet of sea level rise by 2100, building steel and glass office towers surrounded by concrete and asphalt into a floodplain may not be not the best idea for the future of Brooklyn’s waterfront.

A stack of shipping containers on a street corner.

A long row of shipping containers lines Kent Avenue on the northeast side of the Navy Yard, creating an imposing barrier. This area was previously a large open parking lot, used by the city for auto auctions.

A row of shipping containers next to a street with a bike lane. A woman on a bicycle is in the lane.

Behind this barrier, Steiner Studios has created a backlot for outdoor film shoots. On the street side, bikers and joggers are faced with a 30-foot wall of metal boxes, which was designed “to keep with the industrial aesthetic of the Navy Yard,” according to a statement provided to DNAInfo by Steiner Studios.

An industrial building with “Stage 25” printed on it.

Further down Kent Avenue, shipping containers are piled up against the backside of Steiner Studio’s newest sound stages. Designed by Dattner Architects, the front side of these buildings “evokes a fantasy 1930s Hollywood studio, thanks to a vanilla-colored concrete facade that gleams in the sun,” according to the New York Post. But their backside offers the public little to enjoy.

The entrance to a park, with a wooden fence and concrete steps.

Hidden around the corner from the studios is the Naval Cemetery Landscape, the largest public green space that has opened within the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s footprint. Isolated by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the cemetery has few pedestrian visitors.

A park with tall grasses and a wooden pathway.

The inside of the cemetery is a green oasis, filled with wildflowers, cherry trees, and thousands of insects. Visitors are invited to wander along a looping series of wooden walkways, elevated up above the burial grounds.

A field with tall grass and a pathway made up of several stones.

A stone pathway cuts through the verdant meadows. The cemetery, which was active from 1831 to 1910, is no longer used for burials, and many of those interred here were moved in 1926, according to the New York Times, although hundreds of human remains are still located under its soil.

A butterfly lands on purple flowers in a meadow.

The cemetery has become an important habitat for dozens of different species of butterflies, bees, and other insects, including monarchs, black swallowtail, cabbage moths, and false milkweed bugs, who thrive amongst the flowering purple aster, joe pye weed, and ironweed. The landscape here is maintained by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.

A street with a two-way bike land, and two people walking on a sidewalk.

Along Flushing Avenue, a more permanent bike lane is now being constructed as part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. Local merchants have used the pathway to advertise cold beer and CrossFit gyms.

A bike lane under construction.

12) When complete, the bike lane will be part of a 26-mile long pathway connecting Greenpoint to Howard Beach. The funding for this stretch, which travels along Flushing Avenue, was a “NYC capital project,” according to the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.

A large industrial building with a white facade and many windows.

The greenway will pass by Building 77, a 1942 storage warehouse that was renovated and opened to the public in 2017. The building, once a solid concrete box, has hundreds of new windows letting in sunshine.

Building 77 now serves as one of the main entrances to the Navy Yard, and the access point to the yard’s new ferry stop. On a recent weekend visit, its exterior seating area, surrounded by a concrete plaza, was largely empty.

Inside, a long awaited food hall has yet to materialize. Many of the spaces in this long corridor remain empty, although the building has been open for two years.

A Russ & Daughters outpost and a Transmitter Brewing tap room were the only two spaces open on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Most visitors quickly moved through the space, to the ferry entrance outside.

A host of other vendors have been expected to open here since 2017, including Rustik, We Rub You, the Food Sermon, Pizza Yard, and Jalapa Jar. BNYDC anticipates they will debut in the coming weeks and months, but for now, the lobby of Building 77 is mostly quiet.

Outside Building 77, a fleet of self driving cars run by Optimus Ride is being tested out on public visitors. Launched in August, this is the first self-driving vehicle pilot in all of New York state, according to MIT News. On weekends, the cars shuttle visitors to and from the ferry stop, about 300 yards away.

The ferry is located next to Dock 72, a 675,000-square-foot office tower designed by S9 Architecture; WeWork will occupy about a third of the building.

The road next to Dock 72 is used by self-driving cars and pedestrians on their way to the ferry. It cuts between Drydock 2 and Drydock 3, which are both currently unused.

The view from the ferry landing looks back on the towering edifice of Dock 72, and onto the GMD shipyard, presenting a stark contrast between the new office building and the old industrial ship repair facility.

The GMD shipyard is one of the last ship repair facilities in New York City, and as such, is increasingly in demand. As the working waterfront of Brooklyn slowly disappears, it remains to be seen how the shipyard will be able to continue to operate its noxious industrial facility next to a modern office tower.

The new Wegmans grocery store on Flushing Avenue is part of a 295,000-square-foot campus whose “modern industrial aesthetic is expressed in the buildings’ grid-like facades, and through materials like weathered steel, painted metal, and fiberglass,” according to its designer, S9 Architecture.

The campus was created by demolishing almost all of Admiral’s Row, a collection of 10 historic naval residences that were built between 1864 and 1901, and which had fallen into disrepair after decades of neglect. All that remains from the row is Quarters B, which is currently being renovated.

A long row of generic storefronts now lines Flushing Avenue, where a large section of Admiral’s Row once stood. The new buildings’ design has nothing in common with the historic buildings that they replaced.

The Wegmans parking lot, which can hold 700 cars. To create this sprawling stretch of asphalt, a forest of hundreds of mature trees that grew around Admiral’s Row was chopped down.

Adjacent to the Wegmans parking lot is Building 303, formerly known as 399 Sands, which was also designed by Dattner Architects. This building contains four floors of parking for 430 vehicles, and four floors reserved for “light industrial use.”

The building looms over the iconic Sands Street Gatehouses, which date back to 1896. It is difficult to see any connection between the design of this new building, and the landscape it now dominates.

As part of the Wegmans campus, a recreation of the historic Timber Shed is almost complete. The original Timber Shed was badly damaged by decades of neglect, and its remnants were removed several years ago. S9 Architecture has built a reconstructed version in its place using some of its original materials.

Along the Flushing Avenue side of the Timber Shed are the last two trees still standing from the forest that once grew around Admiral’s Row. There are no significant public green spaces contained within the Wegmans campus, or within the Navy Yard’s master plan.

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