Industrious Transformation

In a New York neighborhood where glittering loft homes fill gritty manufacturing buildings, this historic factory endures

Five years ago, when an old factory complex at 221 McKibbin St. was up for sale in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., the site seemed destined to be converted into condominiums. Many abandoned factory buildings in the once-thriving manufacturing district had been transformed into sleek apartments popular with artists and hipsters. 

But Brian T. Coleman, chief executive officer of Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), had a different idea for 221 McKibbin. GMDC develops industrial centers in urban neighborhoods, and Coleman wanted to restore this site, which once housed a rope manufacturer, for industrial clients. "We wanted to create a home for small manufacturers, and we also understood, at the same time, that we could preserve a small piece of history," he says.

In the 1840s, H. Lawrence & Sons Rope Works built the first structure at 221 McKibbin St.: a red brick building that contained a spinning house, where workers twisted strands of hemp into rope. When rope manufacturing went into decline in the 1880s, a cardboard manufacturer moved in, followed by two leather companies. 221 McKibben grew to include nine buildings, the final one constructed in the 1940s. Today, the spinning house is the last surviving structure of its kind in Brooklyn.

For Coleman, preserving the site's history proved more difficult than he initially imagined. Just before GMDC started to work on a deal to purchase the buildings, the city rezoned the waterfront to accommodate more housing, prompting a rise in real estate prices. Later, Citibank, one of the primary financial backers for the deal, encountered difficulties as the nation's housing crisis intensified.

Ultimately, GMDC managed to secure approval for a $5.5 million bank loan and also got a grant from the New York City Council. But the company couldn't have embarked on the $17.8 million project without historic preservation tax credits. "It wasn't until we started looking at the New Markets and historic rehabilitation tax credits that our board finally agreed to the deal," Coleman says.

Then the hard work began. While constructing a fence at the property's perimeter, workers hammered into the concrete and realized they had opened a hole at the top of the L train subway tunnel. "We looked in and saw silver trains running by," Coleman recalls.

More unfortunate discoveries loomed inside the buildings. "We started peeling back layers from the ceilings—the sheetrock, the tin, the plywood," Coleman says, "and we uncovered some severely burned floor joists"—evidence of fire damage. Vibrations from the subway had exacerbated cracks in the structures. Finally, the masonry needed repointing.

Workers repaired brick facades, fixed structural damage, safely disposed of lead paint and asbestos, and installed new electrical systems. Energy efficient and motion-sensing light fixtures will help minimize utility costs at the 72,000-square-foot site, which GMDC subdivided into 19 units.

Two years ago, after the site reopened, artisan manufacturers began moving in, including a display maker, woodworkers, a metal finisher, and a printmaker. The project earned a New York State Historic Preservation Award, and the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

GMDC hopes to make the buildings even more energy efficient, possibly by adding solar panels. But Coleman and his colleagues have already accomplished their main goal of keeping industry in the neighborhood, amid the new residential housing. "We wanted to make a statement that manufacturing was still a big part of that community," Coleman says.       

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