2012-12-04

Co.Exist

Cleaning Up Polluted Land With ... Race Cars?

In Brooklyn, a brownfield lot—filled with soil too polluted to build on—was cleaned up by a strange new addition to the neighborhood: Ayton Motors, a performance race car engine company.

Ayton Performance’s headquarters, such as they are, currently consist of a garage on Long Island full of computers and electronic testing equipment. If you happened to wander in, nothing about the scene would convey the company’s line of work. "The only thing that would tell you," says owner Ethan Bregman, "is the wall full of trophies."

His race car engine design firm has worked on cars that have won the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and IndyCar races. Ayton has worked with the motor sports divisions of Honda, Porsche, GM, and McLaren, perfecting small auto parts that can make a big difference in a sport of seconds. Until now, though, the nearly 10-year-old company has never had a home quite befitting its identity as, well, not your average New York business. Bregman is finally building that shop, somewhat improbably, on a long-abandoned brownfield lot in the heart of Brooklyn.

He purchased the property, in an eclectic corner of Williamsburg that contains a high-end restaurant, a haberdasher, a motorcycle shop, and a specialty chocolate manufacturer, after years of hunting for just the right industrial spot in the city. When Ayton moves in mid next year, the company will for the first time be able to manufacture its own designs, niche engine and chassis parts that must be repeatedly prototyped and tested before they’re ever even produced in manufacturing runs of just a handful at a time.

The newly constructed two-story Brooklyn property will expand Ayton’s business possibilities (but not its core brand, Bregman says: "What I do and what we do is win races, and this facility is just the next step"). But it will also change the dynamic on this New York City block—where this land has sat vacant for more than 25 years—while boosting the prospects for the city’s racing fans of ever coming into actual contact with an element of the rarified racing world.

The sport is full of lore about engineers and managers who got their start sweeping the floor in race shops. But Bregman, a native New Yorker, laments that such an opportunity was never available to him as a kid in the city. He’s wanted to work on cars since he was 6 years old, before he was even exposed to the sport on TV. "Sometimes you just know," he says. "Some kids have G.I. Joes, some kids have My Little Ponies, and some kids have Matchbox cars. It was always Matchbox cars for me, right from the beginning."

He wants to make that close proximity to the sport that he never experienced as a kid possible for another generation of New Yorkers. "Most companies who do exactly what we do are based in Indianapolis or Detroit or Charlotte," he says. "It would be a lot easier and a lot more affordable for us to do that." Those cities are the hubs of race car manufacturing in America, the places where Ayton might have sub-contracted its designs for production in the past. Until now, Bregman has spent about 200 days a year away from that garage on Long Island (and a home office in the city) visiting and consulting in many of those locations. He has always wanted, though, to set up Ayton in New York City. "No one else does this here," he says. "And yet in a city of 8 million people, I’m certain I’m not the only motor sports fan."

The project was largely made possible because of this piece of land no one else wanted to touch. Bregman’s is one of the first developments in an innovative year-old city brownfield-cleanup program designed to put parcels like this one back to use. This particular property was no toxic waste dump. It had an apartment building on it until 1985, when it was condemned and demolished. It’s been a vacant lot ever since, and the soil underneath was the main problem. Historically, land like this in the city was leveled and filled in using suspect material from industrial sites.

Typically, though, brownfield cleanups are handled and regulated by the state, and the worst offenders—the Superfund sites—are usually prioritized first. Your average brownfield like this one isn’t bad enough to attract state attention, but it’s toxic enough to scare away developers, leaving blighted holes in neighborhoods and wasted economic opportunity in a crowded city without much land left to develop. In New York, there are thousands of properties like this one.

"The problem is that developers look at them and they sniff and they say ‘no, it’s too much risk, too much liability, too much uncertainty,’" says Daniel Walsh, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation, who worked with Bregman to make his urban engine shop possible. "That’s almost the definition of a brownfield: It’s a site that just cannot get unstuck. Developer after developer looks at it, they’re interested, but ultimately they drop the project and they move on."

Ayton was eligible for $60,000 in grant money from the city to clean up the site. When the cleanup was complete, Mayor Bloomberg visited the lot in August to present Ayton with the city’s new Green Property Award certification (the rough equivalent of LEED for land, granting an environmental liability release from the city and the state). The first 90 projects in the program, including Ayton’s, have brought $2.6 billion in new investment and construction into the city, bringing in businesses promising 3,500 new and permanent jobs. And all of this is on land that has, on average, been sitting vacant for nearly two decades.

"The neighborhood, and this particular block, is slowly taking shape," says Valerie Figarella, who has long owned the MotorGrrl motorcycle garage next door to Bregman’s site. It’s a total stroke of luck that the borough’s best-known motorcycle shop and its soon-to-be first race car designer will be located side-by-side. "This makes it more of a landmark destination," Figarella says.

The novelty of Bregman’s race car design shop has also probably done more than anything else to put a face on the brownfield program, to create visibility for it so that developers will stop sniffing and abandoning similar properties. It’s one thing, after all, to announce yet another victorious brownfield cleanup in the city. "That’s not going to get much attention," Walsh says. "’It’s a brownfield. What’s a brownfield? Who cares?’ But if people see the mayor at an event announcing that a race car engine designer is moving into Brooklyn and, by the way, he’s cleaning up a brownfield site, it has a whole different feel."

In other ways, Bregman argues that his arrival in the neighborhood is actually not that novel. This area is slowly filling up with "innovators with a small business plan," he says, with companies meticulously designing specialty hand-made products, whether they take the form of chocolate bars or craft beers or race car engines. He gave a little speech that day in August with the mayor about why New York City and why Brooklyn for a seemingly out-of-place race car design shop.

"Here in Williamsburg," he said, "I can prove that New York is not only about Wall Street, but about the ability to follow our hearts and use our minds and hands to create physical technological wonders that can go on to compete and win on the world stage."

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