In Navy Yard ruins, Doug Steiner builds a better Tinseltown

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Aerial view from Kent Avenue and Clymer Street. (Dattner Architects)
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On a Tuesday in April, movie studio impresario Doug Steiner stood on a sidewalk in front of his Brooklyn Navy Yard headquarters and politely haggled with an employee for a golf cart.

After which he planted himself behind the wheel, executed a three-point turn, and drove me and his publicist to the site of his next great conquest: a derelict, 20-acre Navy hospital annex that, though it lies just feet from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, looks to Steiner "like Tuscany."

Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would put $11.3 million toward converting the old annex into a hub for media, tech and movie-related companies. The city will match that, enabling Steiner to begin infrastructure work for the $137 million project next year. He doesn't expect to complete the full buildout until 2025.

To get to the Navy annex from Steiner Studios' main lots, you have to drive beneath a steel-truss sign, past an asphalt parking lot that will house another phase of his plan (more on that later), and then up a curving asphalt path into a landscape that in April was all grass and wildflowers and London plane trees strangled by ivy. 

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Old buildings hulk there, like the Naval Hospital, the nation's first, with its Tuckahoe marble blocks, antebellum staircases, and crown moldings, in whose basement, “Confederate soldiers were chained to their beds,” said Steiner.

Its extra-large windows allowed daylight to illuminate the operating theater, and the theater's tiles made for more efficient removal of “the blood spattering."

ER Squibb operated there before founding Bristol Myers Squibb.

There are stables and cottages and an overgrown tennis court with a sign reminding visitors to wear whites. There's the country cottage that once housed Squibb. A rickety wooden trellis framed the door.

"Spielberg’s production company should be in here,” said Steiner.

Working with the non-profit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, Steiner plans to build more than 300,000 square feet of space in five new buildings on the campus, renovate nine existing ones, and thereby attract tech companies, media outfits, and educational institutions. 

But there's more to his vision than that.

“My son and I were gonna do Dr. Evil and Mini Me for Halloween, because he looks a lot like me,” said Steiner, in April. “But he refused to shave his head.”

Steiner was standing with his publicist in the corner of a boardroom at the Brooklyn Navy Yard rifling through a pile of poster boards showing his Steiner Studios master plan.

We’d arrived at the topic of Dr. Evil by way of a discussion about dedicated parking spots. Steiner doesn’t believe in them, for himself or for movie directors, because he thinks they’re undemocratic.

In the process of explaining that, Steiner uttered a curse, which reminded him of Dr. Evil, to whom he does, in fact, bear only nominal resemblance.

Steiner is 53, bald and of modest height. That afternoon, he wore loose-fitting khakis and hiking boots.

If his affect is lacking in grandeur, his vision for Steiner Studios is not. It spans 26 years, costs more than $550 million and once completed, will make his movie-making complex “the content creation-slash-media district for New York." Or so he hopes.

“That’s the goal,” said Steiner. “We have a financial district, we have a fur district, a button district, we have all these districts. By concentrating an industry geographically, the business can do better. The L.A. lot model has evolved the way it has for a reason.”

Along Kent Avenue, near where it intersects with Flushing, stretches that big, aforementioned asphalt parking lot. Steiner intends to build six new stages there, on top of the 10 soundstages he already has (he arguably has more than 10, if you include the Quonset hut where cash-strapped Flight of the Conchords first filmed). He also wants to build backlots there to stand in for “various quintessential neighborhoods” in New York City.

Which ones?

“Brownstone Brooklyn, Chinatown, cold Midtown, Wall Street.”

Cold Midtown?

“Midtown’s a little...” Steiner paused in an ultimately futile search for a better word. “Cold.

“Those are the ones that immediately we want to do. I’m not sure what else we’ll put in there,” he said.

Steiner plans to build his New York City simulacra within the next six years or so. It' a version of New York made up of only those neighborhoods that are in very high movie-industry demand, and, in the case of Chinatown, that are hard to shoot.

“You have to pay everybody who would otherwise put on their radio full blast,” said Steiner, of Chinatown. “People get money for staying quiet, is what I hear. And also just permits and its congested.”

A self-described “frustrated writer,” Steiner joined his dad’s real estate business straight out of Stanford and veered into the movie industry in 1999 while he was going through a divorce.

At the time, the Navy Yard was ““bombed out and dreadful,” and “the streets looked like Sarajevo.”

The studio project was his "mid-life crisis."

Since then, with the help of substantial state tax incentives, Steiner has midwifed the rebirth of the movie industry in New York City.

Not that he sees movies much. He’s more of a reader, and his descriptions of the films shot in Brooklyn border on curt. Steiner on Enchanted: “A kid’s movie. Disney. Cute.”

He said nice things only about Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi (“so down to earth,” “a prince”) and the birds from Mr. Popper’s Penguins (“The nicest stars I have met. The most accessible. They were great. Who doesn’t like penguins?”)

“It takes a very strong character to be able to resist what celebrity can do to people,” said Steiner, upon the conclusion of our tour. “My takeaway from being in the business is that the stars get all the attention, but the work behind the camera is at least as impressive. Although there is virtually no acclaim.”

 

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