On a blustery December afternoon, David Ehrenberg, CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, stands on the rooftop of the Yard’s Building 77, pointing out the boundaries of the 300-acre complex. To the west, toward DUMBO: a new Wegmans supermarket, one of the borough’s largest grocery stores. To the east, bordering Williamsburg: Steiner Studios, the largest film and television studio complex outside of Hollywood. Directly ahead: the shiny, many-decked Dock 72 office building, towering over the ships of one of America’s oldest dry docks. “You can see it’s still a working waterfront,” he says, gesturing toward the docks, Manhattan’s skyscrapers rendered toylike in the distance. “They not only create a lot of jobs, but also a gestalt, a feeling of the place that’s not glass towers looking out at other glass office towers.”
New York’s past and future collide throughout the Navy Yard, from self-driving cars shuttling passengers to a new ferry stop to the latest outpost of century-old Jewish appetizing shop Russ & Daughters inside Building 77, a once windowless storage facility that’s been transformed into 1 million square feet of manufacturing space, complete with a ground-floor food hall.
The Navy Yard is in the midst of its largest expansion since its World War II heyday. Then known as “The Can Do Yard,” it employed 70,000 people (nearly 1 percent of New York City’s population). As the head of the Navy Yard Development Corporation—a nonprofit that leases the land from New York City, acting as the Yard’s property manager and developer—Ehrenberg, 43, is on a mission to return the Navy Yard to those glory days as a beacon for Brooklyn’s middle-class workforce, focusing on what he calls “the new assembly line.” For example, a film production studio like Steiner needs carpenters, electricians, and seamstresses—“the kinds of jobs that would have been on an assembly line here building a boat or sewing a flag.” The Navy Yard, he continues, was “the linchpin of those middle-class jobs, and not to get too goopy about it, but the American dream. Our mission is to recreate part of that legacy.”
Established in 1801, in one of the final acts of John Adams’s presidency, the Navy Yard produced battleships, torpedoes, submarines, and aircraft carriers for the next 165 years—most notably, the USS Arizona, which was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the USS Missouri, the site of the Japanese surrender in 1945. After the war, employment at the Yard steadily declined. In 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced that the Navy was decommissioning the site, putting 10,000 people out of work in a single day.
Those fortunes played out against a larger-scale period of transition. In the 1950s, New York City provided close to 1 million industrial jobs; by 1975, more than half of them had disappeared as the city transitioned to an information-based economy. New York City purchased the Yard from the federal government in 1969 and attempted to redevelop the land as an industrial park but struggled in the face of the 1970s oil crisis, local corruption, and the movement of the container shipping industry to New Jersey. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation began managing the complex in 1981, but it wasn’t until Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration that the city began seriously investing in the Yard’s redevelopment. Through a blend of lease revenue, state and federal tax credits, subsidies, grants, and private loans, the Yard has received $1 billion of investment and is now home to nearly 12,000 jobs and 450 companies operating on 5 million square feet of manufacturing space. Ehrenberg says the Yard is on track to reach 20,000 jobs by 2021.
With ample, affordable space that can accommodate growing companies, the Navy Yard is an attractive proposition for manufacturers seeking to vertically integrate production and design under one roof. Companies not only have access to New York City’s deep talent pool but also the network of disparate businesses in the Yard, which encourages unlikely collaboration. (According to Ehrenberg, 70 percent of Navy Yard tenants report having business relationships with other tenants.) “The wonder of New York has always been serendipity,” he says. “We want those idiosyncrasies—a robotics company on the same floor as an artist.”
For example: Transmitter Brewing, which moved from Queens into Building 77’s food hall last spring, has students in the culinary arts track of the steam Center—a trade-focused public school housed on the building’s third floor—developing a new cracker for the brewery’s cheese plate. “I recently met someone at New Lab working on a specialized fermentation project—maybe something will come of that,” says Transmitter co-owner Anthony Accardi, leaning against the brewery’s bar. The new space was, at first, “this tremendous cavern of possibility and rent,” he says. But moving to the Navy Yard has allowed the brewery to quadruple its space to 8,000 square feet and double its production capabilities. Plus, he adds, Transmitter now gets to be part of “a community of people making compelling things.”
Community comes up again nine floors above the brewery in the pale pink reception area of Catbird, the 16-year-old jewelry company known for delicate and ethically sourced pieces popular with celebrities like Meghan Markle and Michelle Williams. Inside the production space, jewelers sit at their stations, soldering and buffering pieces, and completing quality checks. “We’ve had a lot of hires through the Navy Yard,” says production manager Genne Laakso. “There’s a lot of networking and helping each other out.” Laakso joined the company seven years ago, when it only had six jewelers. Now, the company’s 50 jewelers produce more than 2,000 pieces per week. Founded in 2004 as a Williamsburg boutique, Catbird moved its operation into a 10,000-square-foot Navy Yard space in 2018, with individual ventilation systems at every jeweler’s workbench and plenty of natural light. Ehrenberg views Catbird as an ideal case study for the possibilities of vertical integration in the Navy Yard. “They can develop the next design here, and have total control over it,” he explains.
When it comes to its products, Crye Precision, which manufactures apparel and equipment for U.S. military and law enforcement, is a world apart from Catbird. But, like Catbird, it has benefited greatly from its move to the Navy Yard. Founded in 2000 by Cooper Union grads Gregg Thompson and Caleb Crye, the company evolved from a research and development firm into a manufacturing operation after the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Thompson recalls that when the company moved from Chelsea to the Navy Yard in 2002, “This was the Wild West. The streets were unpaved, there were wild dogs. Now you just see cute dogs people bring to work.”
As the company grew, it spread across four different buildings at the Yard; then, in 2018, it moved into Building 128, a 90,000-square-foot former naval machine shop where nearly 200 workers design and manufacture products, including armored vests and camouflage apparel (Crye is best known for inventing Multicam, the first multi-environment camouflage pattern). As Thompson explains, Crye often works directly with the leaders of U.S. military special ops units to supply them with urgent operations requirements—an inherently unpredictable market. “The head of the Marine Corps could call and say, ‘My guys are getting burned; can you make 9,000 of these new shirts and pants?’” he says, adding, “We need the capability internally to do any of the products that we offer at any scale.” The ability to go from prototype to finished product largely under one roof allows the company to adjust to its clients’ rapidly changing needs.
Next door to Crye, inside a similar naval machine shop, you’ll find New Lab, a start-up center that’s helped Brooklyn become the country’s second fastest-growing tech start-up hub, behind San Francisco. Founded in 2016, New Lab provides more than 150 early-stage companies and 760 entrepreneurs working on hardware technology with work space and prototyping resources like a metal-and-wood shop and 3-D printers. CEO Shaun Stewart, an alum of Waymo self-driving cars and Airbnb, emphasizes the lab’s “Noah’s Ark” approach to attracting companies in various stages of growth and an array of industries, from autonomous vehicles to biofabrication to artificial and machine learning.
To stroll through New Lab is to realize that the future is already here. Displays highlight New Lab–created technologies, including leather grown from collagen, activity trackers that alert factory workers when they’re at risk of an injury, and hydroponic farm kits that grow crops twice as fast and with 90 percent less water than traditional farming. Workers even get their caffeine fix from a robotic coffee kiosk developed by New Lab company Truebird. New Lab start-ups have already been acquired for a total of $380 million, including Uber’s 2018 purchase of Jump, the electric bike company, for $200 million. The acceptance rate for new companies, Stewart says, is currently about 10 percent. “We look at the technology they’re using,” he explains. “If you’re building a used car marketplace, it might be a more attractive investment that can scale and doesn’t have all of the barriers to entry and the complexity of launching rockets. But that doesn’t excite us.”
For all the innovation and investment taking place inside New Lab and the Navy Yard, there’s a striking disconnect between the Yard and its immediate surroundings, which include three public housing complexes. The Farragut Houses, which tower along the Yard’s western border, once housed sailors and Yard workers during World War II. Today, residents often lack consistent access to basic services like heat. Ehrenberg says that part of the Yard’s mission is ensuring that these local residents are included in the redevelopment, primarily through the Yard’s employment center. In 2019, the center placed 589 workers at the Yard; 36 percent of them were public housing residents, and 18 percent of them had experienced long-term unemployment or were previously convicted or incarcerated. “We’re able to go out to the local community” and recruit workers “who may not be in the same social networks as those entrepreneurs,” Ehrenberg says.
The new Brooklyn STEAM Center helps young people tap into those networks early on. Juniors and seniors admitted to the specialized high school spend half the day at their Brooklyn schools and half the day at the STEAM Center, in Building 77, studying one of five preprofessional tracks: computer science/IT, design and engineering, construction technology, culinary arts and hospitality, and film and media. Thirty Navy Yard tenants serve on the advisory board, which helps develop the curriculum (last year’s capstone project was repurposing a shipping container into a tiny home), offers lectures, hosts company visits, and places students in internships. Last year, 74 percent of the 221 students qualified for free lunch. “We want our scholars to have a solid portfolio of work, and the soft skills so they can answer questions in a job interview,” says principal Kayon Price. “We’re leveraging the social capital of our Navy Yard Rolodex.”
Beyond education and job training, “We’re trying to knit ourselves back into the city,” Ehrenberg says. The BNYDC recently removed the barbed wire lining the gates, a vestige of the Yard’s high-security Navy days. They hope locals will stop by Building 77 for a bagel at Russ & Daughters and by Building 92, the former Marine Commandant’s residence, where a museum traces Navy Yard history and a gift shop sells products now made there.
While the success of the Yard feels largely unique to the circumstances of the place—the infrastructure of a massive former federal facility; the waterfront location in a city that would be the 13th largest economy in the world; the blend of public ownership and nonprofit management—other cities are already calling, eager to replicate its results. Last year, Ehrenberg says, the Yard hosted representatives from 200 cities from around the world. “We’re trying to develop ourselves as a model that can be exported,” he says. “Income inequality is directly related to how well your economy is doing, and it’s getting worse and worse. I think we’re a model of being able to say, yeah, these jobs are evolving, and here is exactly how we’re connecting local communities to them.”