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Advanced Manufacturing is Evolving Faster Than Zoning Codes, Creating Problems

Written by Amanda Maher.

In a 2015 skyscraper design competition, the honorable mention winner provides a hint of what urban manufacturing of the future could look like. Architect Stuart Beattie envisioned an “archipelago” of skyscrapers (shown in the illustration above) along Brooklyn’s Greenpoint coastline, each housing a number of small vertical factories.

According to Nina Rappaport, architectural historian and critic, such “vertical manufacturing” – when integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods – can help residents better understand where their goods are coming from and what the production process entails. She suggests glass building façades be used to that end, citing the Volkswagen Factory in Dresden, Germany, as an example. Nicknamed the “transparent factory,” the factory’s glass structure animates the street like a lively retail corner.

However, in the U.S., the manufacturing sector has evolved more rapidly than zoning codes in most cities. Manufacturing has traditionally been characterized by loud, dirty production processes that required large buildings. In response, many cities implemented zoning that effectively pushed the sector to specific parts of a city and to the suburbs. Left behind were empty industrial buildings that were often rezoned for residential and traditional office development.

But today’s advanced manufacturing is leaner and cleaner, with a smaller footprint, and proponents argue that there’s no reason manufacturing should not return to central cities.

“People constantly look at SoHo in the sixties and seventies, or the Garment District more recently, where at some point there was almost a perfect mix with some residents, some manufacturing,” Rappaport noted in a podcast produced by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “And then all of a sudden the push to gentrify goes full speed ahead and there’s no more manufacturing.” Zoning restrictions were intended to protect residents from the negative side effects of the sector, but many of those side effects no longer exist. “Everyone is constantly talking about truck noise and traffic,” Rappaport acknowledges, “but you know, I have it on the Upper West Side too, and I have no industry there. It’s just part of living in a city.”

Even if new zoning were to allow manufacturing in mixed-use neighborhoods, it would be up to property owners to make the transition. With property values sky-high in New York City, landlords can generally maximize profits by redeveloping industrial properties into luxury residential units. Manufacturing simply cannot support the same rent that residential units provide.

Again, this challenge is one that could be addressed by city governments. In order for vertical manufacturing to take root in dense, mixed-use zones, it will require an incentive program—such as height and density bonuses that go above and beyond what the zoning code currently allows. For instance, in a district that only allows ten-story high-rises, perhaps the property owner is given relief for preserving the manufacturing component (say, five stories) and given an additional height allowance (say, 13 total stories) in order to subsidize the cost of the manufacturing space. After all, many of these older industrial facilities were engineered to support the heavy loads borne by traditional manufacturing; they can often bear the weight of a residential component above.

Moreover, some of the industrial building’s features are complementary to residential design today: freight elevators that cart large machinery could foreseeably support indoor parking—like those in luxury buildings that bring a person’s vehicle to an elevated garage adjacent to their unit. Flexible zoning combined with smart design could go a long way in making urban manufacturing a reality.

In cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, where private sector development is strong, flexible zoning policies and incentives could reintroduce manufacturing into downtown districts. In post-industrial cities, like Detroit and Cleveland, urban planners could consider this option to integrate manufacturing in lieu of rezoning their industrial districts into residential or commercial.


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