During World War II, the Brooklyn Army Terminal was the largest military supply base of the New York Port of Embarkation. During the war and afterward, it was the point of departure for millions of troops, including Elvis Presley, and tons of military equipment. After shuttering in the 1960s, the location was taken over by the City of New York in the 1980s, and for decades, it served mostly as industrial storage.
Greg Andersson and Leah Bottone for Forbes
Lowercase NYC eyewear involves both high-tech manufacturing and artisan work.
Today, the terminal’s atrium at Building B appears frozen in time. But beyond its moss-stained walls and decommissioned rail tracks, the complex now houses about 100 industrial tenants and 3,700 jobs. Tenants include a balloon manufacturer, a metal-cutting company and a dialysis center.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal atrium
And with$115 million in funding from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, the NYC Economic Development Corporation is tasked with breathing more life into the terminal. In addition to opening more than 500,000 square feet of renovated space by the end of this year, the EDC plans to launch Futureworks, an incubator program focused on advanced manufacturing startups.
“When people are producing high-tech goods with robotics and increasingly automated techniques, they need less square-footage and can operate in New York City,” says James Patchett, president of NYCEDC. “And they want to be here because this is where the talented professionals are.”
The agency has announced that Lowercase NYC is the first high-tech, innovative startup to operate out of the terminal, leasing just 2,100 square feet. Lowercase co-founders Gerard Masci and Brian Vallario launched their first product earlier this year. They currently sell more than a dozen sun and optical styles through their website as well as five stockists throughout the Northeast.
Masci, 35, and Vallario, 29, believe producing domestically and integrating the design and production into one studio will make them more agile compared to larger brands. Vertical integration will enable them to react to customer tastes and fashion trends, and quickly produce best-selling styles, be it solid round frames or modern cateyes.
When Masci (a lifelong wearer and collector of spectacles) first researched the industry, he discovered that less than .01% of eyewear production is done in the US, while Italy and China command the market.
“There once was a proud heritage and large industry centered around eyewear production in the US,” says Masci. “And to have that facet of American production removed from the landscape is quite sad.”
For instance, Ray-Ban, the largest eyewear brand in the world, once manufactured its frames in both Long Island and Texas. But in 1999 most of its operations have moved overseas after it sold to Italian eyewear giant, Luxottica. Says Masci, "I know there is a place for eyewear manufacturers to operate in the US, it might not be as large of a landscape as it once was but there is room and a need for it to be larger."
Producing one set of frames requires 30 distinct steps.
The startup also recognizes that vertical integration still has its limits. “The biggest challenge we face is starting a line of business that is virtually extinct in the US,” says Masci. “All of our equipment suppliers are overseas. When we need to fix broken equipment or if we need new parts, it is extremely difficult, frustrating and time consuming. There is no knowledge-base in the US for us to lean on.”
Masci and Vallario (a former Goldman Sachs employee and architect, respectively) have used their personal savings to launch Lowercase, including the procurement of machinery and acetate frame materials from Italy and Germany. Producing one pair requires more than 30 distinct steps that involve both artisan work and manufacturing-tech. The founders say the once-abandoned military depot’s industrial-strength concrete floors are just one reason the terminal is ideal for their machinery, which is compact but heavy. (One CNC machine weighs about 3 tons.)
Lowercase isn’t expected to be the lone startup at the Brooklyn Army Terminal for long. NYCEDC recently announced it has teamed up with Techshop to open a 20,000-square-foot shared industrial workspace in October 2016. Picture a co-working office but instead of just desks and lounges, the new space will be outfitted with 3-D printers, laser-cutters as well as traditional wood-working equipment. It’s expected to accommodate more than 200 businesses and create roughly 500 jobs.
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