A Push for Sustainability at Brooklyn Navy Yard


This article appeared in the August 14, 2014 Gotham Gazette.

John Randall gestured to a pile of wood stacked to the ceiling in the corner of his company Bien Hecho’s nearly 4,000-square-foot suite. He explained that some of the wood was a section of the Coney Island boardwalk that was thrown away that he had personally pulled out of dumpsters. These discarded boards will eventually become a set of chairs, tables or cabinets.

Mark Lovci explained how his company, Duggal Visual Solutions, turned a toxic building into a state-of-the-art laboratory called the Duggal Greenhouse. According to Lovci, the Greenhouse is the only one of its kind in New York City. It utilizes solar energy, organic air purification and eco-friendly building practices. It has even been used as a rehearsal space for the singer, Beyoncé.

Once bustling with around 70,000 workers building ships for the United States Navy, environmental issues were not given a second thought. Today, however, the Brooklyn Navy Yard looks a lot different than it once did.

What connects a wood shop, a visual solutions company, and an over 200-year-old naval yard is nothing more than a mindset and a willingness to act.

This shared mindset is one of sustainability.

Sustainability is a tricky concept. It has a different definition depending on whom you talk to, but its importance must be understood, according to Adam Friedman, the Executive Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

He described sustainable practices as a way to combat climate change, an issue he called perhaps the greatest threat civilization will ever face. He predicts that every person will need to adopt sustainable behaviors and ultimately every business will have to be green.

Tucked away in North Brooklyn, bordering the East River is the 300-acre industrial park that has embraced the importance of sustainability. The Brooklyn Navy Yard has internalized this significance and become a hub for both environmentally friendly initiatives and businesses.

For years after the 1966 decommissioning of the Brooklyn Navy Yard by the federal government, the Yard became the perfect picture of neglect; home to a crumbling 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, has 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, 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 sustainably… it was almost a no brainer.”

Like any structure or idea, a commitment to sustainable practices needs to be built from the foundation upwards and that is what has happened. New buildings at the Yard are now 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 improved. Even when stepping onto the Yard, the ground underneath your feet has likely been created with the idea of sustainability in mind.

This infrastructure has not only been physical. The BNYDC also fosters an environment committed to innovation for themselves and their tenants.

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

“The policy that sustainability has to permeate their [BNYDC] decision-making,” Friedman, also a member of the BNYDC board of directors said in a phone interview. “[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.”

This confluence of policies is a result of the Yard’s mindset and actions. It is why, when stepping onto the Yard, a visitor does not have to look far to see it at work. Wind and solar street lamps are visible across the Yard, there are nine Citi Bike locations on or within one block of the Yard to promote environmentally friendly transportation. New York City’s first building with mounted wind turbines is also located there, just to name a few.

Even the Yard’s visitor center, BLDG 92, which was a $25 million venture and opened in 2011, follows this same mission of sustainable practices. The building has received LEED Platinum Certification, the highest certification for sustainable buildings and it 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 on the Yard.

BLDG 92 typifies a trickle down from the BNYDC mindset to their tenants.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard reached out to local businesses on the Yard to work on BLDG 92, according to Randall, 36, who founded his company, Bien Hecho, seven years ago and has been located on the Yard from its inception. His company was contracted to do the millwork for the project.

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 in this way.

Randall estimated that his company uses 30 to 40 percent reclaimed materials, even though their eventual goal is for that number to be 100. Bien Hecho also uses low volatile organic compound (VOC) water-based finishes in their work, which is mainly millwork and building custom furniture. These environmentally friendly initiatives are used both for his business plan 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 Navy 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 the BNYDC to their tenants is shown in the Pratt Center study. The report showed 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 Navy 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 is a manufacturer of 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 Greenhouse on the Navy Yard, according to Lovci, Duggal’s Vice President of Business Development.

Duggal provides printing, computer imaging and other services, while their sister company Lumi Solair built the wind and solar powered streetlights that are stationed around the yard. Since these lights generate their own power, they were some of the only lights working in the area after Hurricane Sandy struck the city in 2012.

Lovci sees the BNYDC’s mindset on the cutting edge, and their commitment to sustainability to be the new normal, and moving in the same direction as the city of New York.

Greenery covers the roof of building three on the Yard. Kale, bac choi, carrots, pepper and other produce are grown on the 65,00-square-foot Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm. The farm helps capture and divert one million gallons storm water run-off each year, according to Glover. The farm was financed by a Green Infrastructure grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This grant represents just a fraction of the support the Navy Yard has received from the government and private investors. The Yard has received approximately $250 million in public capital funding for wide scale improvements over the past 18 years – compared to $3 million the Yard received during the previous 30 years, demonstrating a commitment to the Navy Yard and their 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 dangers 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 Mayor Bloomberg said in a phone interview. “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, highlighting the support for green projects.

“Under the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation’s leadership, the Navy Yard has been transformed from the nation’s largest ship building 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, who recognized the BNYDC last year for their recycling program, have acknowledged the collective efforts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they recognize there is still plenty of work to be done.

The 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 in the program until recently, described some flaws in the program, including glitches and a dramatic rise in costs, demonstrating that a mindset where sustainability is a significant factor has to be continually adapted.

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

There is no easy solution of how a company or organization can be perfectly sustainable, or how to offset the environmental footprint each person leaves on the Earth, but the BNYDC seems aware that in order to continue to be sustainable, they must change as technologies and the world change around them.

“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 roof top farm, we should have several.”


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