When Noah Gaynin moved from San Francisco to DUMBO in 2005, he couldn’t have predicted the scale of Brooklyn’s technology boom and the problems it would cause.
Gaynin is CEO of Playground Group, a branding and digital services firm located on Bridge Street. It’s one of over 500 tech firms that have located in Brooklyn’s “tech triangle” of DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Navy Yard since 2000, according to the Brooklyn Tech Triangle coalition, a task force of local stakeholders and developers working to promote the region and serve the community. Rapid commercial growth has meant rising rents, congested travel routes, a space shortage and a dearth of qualified workers for firms like Playground Group. Developers are tackling the issues through comprehensive research and initiatives like an adult IT education program, a new bus line and the creation of a media campus. But some experts warn against treating the three Brooklyn neighborhoods as one large tech zone, and say firms need only look outside of DUMBO to find affordable locations.
“DUMBO and the Navy Yard are full, and creative firms want to set up in these neighborhoods,” said Shaun Kavanagh, spokesman for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “The companies there want to stay and expand, and that’s presenting a challenge.” His organization joined with the DUMBO Improvement District and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation to form the coalition last April.
The influx of new firms and expansion of existing ones has meant higher costs for local businesses.
“Rent’s been going up a lot in the past couple of years, 11 to 15 percent every year,” said Gaynin of Playground Group, who’s worked in branding and design for two decades.
He blames the lack of new offices in the neighborhood. Instead of commercial space, two new high rises have appeared and several buildings have been converted into loft residences. And that’s bad news for business, as discussed in a recent Brooklyn Ink story.
“There’s no space for companies here to expand and for small companies to move here,” Gaynin said.
His employer, Playground Group, has also struggled to find staff with sufficient design and software expertise.
“It’s been hard to get interns, as they don’t have a lot of tech courses at universities in Brooklyn,” Gaynin said. “The talent’s not at a high level.”
City officials have targeted these shortcomings, with plans for a dedicated bus line for the region and a computer training program for adults in Downtown Brooklyn. Private developers are also pitching in, building a 50-acre new media campus at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s a joint initiative by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and private developer Douglas C. Steiner to expand Steiner Studios, the latter’s movie and TV production center in the Navy Yard. The expansion will be completed in around 2024. Phone calls to Steiner Studios were not returned.
The Brooklyn Tech Triangle coalition, created in April last year and composed of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, , is also tackling the problems. It requested proposals last July for planning firms to find and implement solutions to office space, transport and talent demands, attract new firms to the area, and ensure gains to local employment. The coalition selected WXY Architecture + Urban Design, a Manhattan design and planning firm, to conduct the study. The report will be released in summer.
The new bus route in particular may help to simplify the area’s existing maze of on-ramps and bridges, said Shane Kavanagh, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership spokesman.
“Creating connections and links will weave together the points of the tech triangle into one cohesive neighborhood”, he said.
Gaynin, Playground Group’s CEO, argues that improving the F subway line would be more effective than a new bus route, given its greater popularity.
As for the talent shortage, a cure remains elusive. But the coalition is working with a dozen local academic institutions to better prepare students for jobs in innovative industries.
“We want to help them create the next pool of skilled talent that can meet the demand of Brooklyn tech firms,” Kavanagh said. “It could be anything from adding courses, to creating internship and training opportunities with firms.”
He added that demand for office space might be met by transforming warehouses and storage areas into rentable spaces, an option being considered by the WXY team conducting the study.
Until a concrete solution is found, businesses hoping to set up or expand in DUMBO might want to look elsewhere in Brooklyn.
“The Navy Yard has plenty of developmental space and has shown a clear intent to stay affordable for manufacturing firms, and downtown Brooklyn is a much larger neighborhood,” said David Hochman, a consultant in technology-based economic development and executive director of the Business Incubator Association of New York State, Inc.
Hochman trusts supply and demand forces to resolve any space disputes.
“Developers will march out into areas that are underutilized, and more space will come on the market,” he said.
The idea of a “tech triangle” has successfully drawn the attention of technology firms and their followers from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Hochman said. But it may be a mistake to treat the area as a single economic entity, as DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn and the Navy Yard will likely need individual growth strategies.
“They’re three pretty distinct submarkets, which will follow their own tracks and destinies,” he said.
Hochman, a champion of tech-led economic development, believes the tech triangle could follow the example of The Brooklyn Academy of Music, a multi-arts center on Lafayette Avenue that has become a borough hub of arts and culture. The borough’s tech community could soon flourish into new neighborhoods of industry suppliers, retailers, workers and their families.