It’s a freezing afternoon in late March, and I’m standing in a dark abandoned warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, with an excitable architect. A few stories below us, construction workers are drilling and hammering away, causing the old wood floors to rattle. My hard hat doesn’t fit quite right.
The architect, Jay Valgora, isn’t fazed. He’s standing at the forefront of our tour group, talking animatedly about how excited he is to carry out the reconstruction of Empire Stores, a side-by-side collection of massive, dark red brick buildings ominously presiding over Water Street. Abandoned since the 1950s, the historic landmark, once it’s refurbished, is being billed as New York’s next big tech and business epicenter–a pulsing slice of San Francisco on the other side of the East River. Valgora hopes to open for business in the fall of 2015.
At the moment, though, its insides are hollow and dusty, the exterior shuttered and dilapidated. Our group is having a hard time staying warm.
“Open your hand,” says Valgora, a tall, elegantly disheveled creative-type who thinks fast, talks faster, and still chooses his words with precision. I can see the frost from his breath. He kneels, picks something small off the ground, and drops it in my palm. It’s a coffee bean. “These beans,” he says, beaming, “are all over a century old.”
With the last of the seven buildings completed in 1885, all 300,000-square-feet of these four- to five-story warehouses were once used to store, pack, and ship coffee. Chutes, slides, and mechanical pulley systems cut through the middle of the floor plan, as if magically transposed from a steampunk nerd’s imagination. All told, the cavernous interior is a haunting relic of old-timey Brooklyn.
Valgora’s enthusiasm for the renovation seems to inoculate him against the cold. He tells me he first fell in love with the Civil War-era space 20 years ago, when he moved to New York from London. “This area was terrible then,” he recalls. “At that point there were bodies washing up on the river front, and the street was full of abandoned cars.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Empire Stores provided a physical buffer between the criminal thrum of the piers and the lives of everyday Brooklynites. Now it’s a shuttered monolith, sandwiched between an enormous carousel and a trendy art gallery.
“I went to a party in a warehouse near here, where people were living on one floor and artists were on another one,” Valgora recalls. “So I came to a party, and walked to the waterfront, and walked in front of these buildings, which were all boarded up and sealed off. It was literally my first week in New York. I said, ‘This is the most amazing neighborhood. I wonder if something’s ever going to come of it.'”
In March of 2013, Brooklyn Bridge Park issued a call for proposals to rejuvenate the abandoned site, with one caveat: To preserve the historic integrity of the buildings. (A similar competition had fallen through a decade earlier.) One architecture firm submitted a proposal to convert Empire Stores into a multi-hyphenate boxing museum, sports center, and shopping center. (Think: Chelsea Piers.) Another group entered the competition with plans to transform the roof of Empire Stores into an urban farm.
Valgora’s vision was ambitious: His firm, Studio V, proposed to build a sprawling business and retail hub where tech firms could sow their Brooklyn roots. The proposal aimed to build something of a Silicon Valley tech campus, engendering a technology-driven culture of collaboration and creativity. Retail stores, bars, restaurants, and a history museum devoted to coffee will occupy the rest of the real estate, which, if all goes according to plan, should re-infuse the space with new life. “The original building had shutters and slides that you were always opening and closing,” Valgora tells me. “There was this kind of life to it. The architecture wasn’t static. I want to bring back this feeling.”
In many ways, the $150 million renovation isn’t unlike James Corner’s High Line in Manhattan–a little bit of old mixed with a whole lot of new. “To me it’s all about authenticity and creating contrast,” says Valgora. “The new elements have to be true to their own time. For example, I’m using state of the art glass technology to create these very sheer, elegant walls. Then I’m slicing through these old walls to reveal and express where the old wood is. It’s about keeping each element true to itself, and about maintaining the authenticity and integrity of each one.”
On the top of the site will be a green roofpark partially ensconced in glass. Yet the boldest element is a schism carving through the middle of Empire Stores like a winding river, revealing an open courtyard. The radical concept was inspired, at least in part, by the work of artist Gordon Matta Clark. “When these [other architecture firms] didn’t get it, I think they were cautious,” says Valgora. “They were trying to be respectful, which I understand. But Brooklyn is bold and daring. You come here to meet people creating new products, new furniture, new designs. The architecture has to reflect that.”
By some measures, tech is New York City’s fastest growing industry. A recent report from HR&A investors found that the tech ecosystem ballooned to nearly 300,000 jobs over the past decade, an overall increase of 18%. Individually, tech is now a bigger industry in the Big Apple than media or retail, comprising 12.6% of New York City’s total workforce. And while major companies like Google and Facebook are planting their Silicon Alley roots in Manhattan, Brooklyn’s “Tech Triangle”–which is home to more than 500 startups–doesn’t have a centralized hub.
“Young people in tech firms, they’re inhabiting the building,” says Valgora. “They’re not sealed off and putting in their eight hours there. They’re coming and going; eating and drinking; working, playing, sleeping. They’re hanging out in there.”
That 24/7 work culture celebrated by technocrats certainly has its share of drawbacks, as HBO and Valleywag like to remind us. And maintaining such a space certainly won’t come cheap: Rent will run $65 per square foot of office space ($90 for the rooftop), reportedly setting a record for the borough.
A representative for the site’s developer, Midtown Equities, says that “about a dozen” tech firms are in talks to relocate their operations to Empire Stores, though he declined to offer specific names. Brooklyn-based West Elm has already signed on to relocate its headquarters and flagship store to the site. And, fittingly, coffee roaster La Colombe will be open for business as well. “I want the building to be responsive to them,” says Valgora. “I think that’s really important. Most office buildings are not living things. They’re hermetically sealed off. I want it to be changeable and responsive to its environment. I want it to be social, to build a community.”
Indeed, Valgora envisions Empire Stores becoming a pulsing, hyper-caffeinated fixture of New York’s burgeoning tech economy, a shining symbol that Brooklyn–in his words–“has arrived.”
Not everyone is a fan of Empire Stores’ imminent resurrection, with the ribbon-cutting set–at the earliest–for fall 2015. “The massive addition will alter the building forever without making it better,” says Doreen Gallo of the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance. She’s hardly alone. Another resident, Ethan Goldamn, argues that the redesign will ruin Brooklyn’s view of the Manhattan skyline, transforming the roof into “a glassed-in party venue destined to become just another wedding mill.”
The criticisms leveled at the rebuild come at a time when rent in the borough is skyrocketing, nearly rivaling that of the tiny concrete island across the East River. According to Bloomberg, the median monthly rent in Brooklyn is $2,900, up 13% from a year earlier. The influx of new money will cause new, periphery businesses to spring up all around the destination. Dumbo will become even more expensive than it already is.
And it might not even be the first major renovation hoping to attract a new creative class to the neighborhood. On Thursday, the New York Daily News reported that a cluster of buildings owned by the Kushner Companies, including the infamous Dumbo Watchtower, is about to get transformed into a similar high-tech mecca, catering to New York’s Tech Triangle. It is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2015.
Yet the New York described by E.B. White has always been a city defined by its divides, a delicate balancing act between new and old; insiders and outsiders; haves and have-nots. Like the Miami-style high rises in Williamsburg or the Barney’s in Cobble Hill, Empire Stores may just be the latest evidence that the Manhattanization of Brooklyn is all but inevitable.
After our tour concludes, our group retreats back into Dumbo, looking for a place to warm up. A pizzeria-slash-craft beer bar turns us away–they’re closed between lunch and dinner. Instead, we settle on a minimalist coffee shop that, according to one Yelp review, is “the perfect place to have after dinner espresso and yummy pumpkin whoopie pies.” Valgora and I sit at a counter, facing out toward the cobblestone street. “I want the courtyard to open during the summer–so you can smell the air–and closed during the winter, but still have sight lines and views,” he tells me, leafing through a few renderings. “I want it to be a living thing.”