Photo by Anthony Rhoades

Q&A: David Ehrenberg of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation

Q&A: David Ehrenberg of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation

For decades, the Navy Yard has sat mostly defunct, a gray void on the map between Williamsburg and Fort Greene, and an emblem of Brooklyn’s middle-class past, when the Yard served as an industrial powerhouse for the North Atlantic Fleet. Now David Ehrenberg, president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, hopes to return the place to a position of cultural and economic importance (if not matching its wartime scale, when the Yard alone employed 0.2 percent of the American workforce). But this time around, the Yard faces a different Brooklyn, and it’s meant to attract a different workforce: smaller, techier, and more creative class than working class.

We spoke to David about the new vision for the Yard, what it means for a borough in flux, and the obstacles that lie ahead.

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and you announced a major development for the Yard — the recent injection of $140 million from the city. How was that news received?

This is the largest project at the Navy Yard in the last 75 years. It’s a huge endeavor for us; it marks an extraordinary opportunity for us to grow. It’s Building 77, which is our largest building. At 1 million square feet, it’s about a quarter of our total building stock, just in that one building. And for many years, it’s been vacant or extremely under-utilized, with dead storage and maybe a dozen jobs in the entire building. It was built originally in the 1940s in the run-up to World War II. The bottom eleven floors were used as storage for the Navy, which is why it has no windows. The top five offices were the offices for the commandant and the naval offices of the North Atlantic Fleet.

The project had been announced previously, but only with the addition of two floors of windows, leaving the bottom floors without windows, which really meant the bottom eleven floors would have to remain warehouse space. What we announced last Monday is that we have secured money to add windows to the entire building. It was a huge additional cost, not so much because of adding the windows, but flipping from warehouse space to active industrial uses, which means there’s a lot more people in the building, which means more elevators, more plumbing, electrical, and everything else. So the windows are just the dressing on it. We’re really basically doubling the fundamentals of the project, which is modernizing the entirety of the building.

In the ’40s, the Navy Yard was exactly what it was — a navy yard — and you had Domino Sugar, a leading manufacturer, up the river. What do you see now as the role of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2014?

If you think of those two examples, as well as the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a lot of Dumbo, and Industry City, you had those extraordinary commercial activity on the Brooklyn waterfront. During the 1940s, at its peak employment, there was 70,000 people who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is really just an extraordinary figure. It was 0.2 percent of the American workforce, working right here. During peacetime, it ebbed and flowed, but you had 10,000 to 20,000 people working here. And these were extremely high-quality, middle-class jobs, available to highly skilled people, but you did not need a lot of formal education to start here, let alone move up in the ranks. That’s the kind of classic manufacturing that you really sought here, where all the jobs were good jobs, and they were extremely powerful career ladders. You could start as an electrician’s helper and graduate through to become a master electrician on a naval warship, where you make good money. The place the Navy Yard and similar institutions played in the life of Brooklyn I don’t think can be understated. It was the heart of the Brooklyn middle class, which was the heart of New York’s middle class.

And then, fast forward 30 years, all of those properties go silent. At its low point, there was 700 to 800 people working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So 1 percent of its high mark. It’s both cause and effect for what happened in Brooklyn, but there is certainly a big part of that that caused three or four decades where the Brooklyn waterfront was vacant and was hardly the place you went to join the middle class. This was the place you didn’t go to. You see a return to the waterfront, which has been extraordinarily important to the borough, obviously a little bit fraught on gentrification issues and the like. We really see as ourselves as a nonprofit who has this extraordinary asset that we’ve been staked to, and being able to cut a right balance between embracing innovation that’s happening but staying true to the types of jobs and types of companies we try to support. We can have our cake and eat it too. We’re currently at 7,000 employees; a near term mark that we’re really pushing hard to get to is the 10,000 to 12,000 job mark, which is the number of jobs lost the day the Navy moved out and closed the facility. We think we’ll be there in a couple of years. So we’re really focused on recreating as best as we can that pipeline to the middle class that used to be up and down the Brooklyn waterfront.

How about yourself? How did you end up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?

From South Slope, originally. I worked on a lot of the largest and most complicated projects of the last administration, from the South Bronx to Staten Island. What I really wanted was to do something at scale that was focused on a particular community. And that’s really the magic of the Navy Yard. We’re at scale. We do stuff big. We create a few thousands jobs at a time. We place a huge amount of people through our employment center. But we’re focused on the immediate surrounding neighborhoods; we’re surrounded by three NYCHA complexes, who we do an enormous amount of outreach to, with training and placement for jobs and internships here. It’s a nice combination, of being able to do big, exciting, interesting, complicated things but focus on one community. And it’s the kind of community I grew up in: my dad teaches at Long Island University, so he’s in the neighborhood. Growing up, as the neighborhood was very different than it was today, it’s nice to come home.

That NYCHA outreach strikes a chord for me. These may be good jobs, but it’s important to consider to whom they’re accessible. In other words, is the Yard’s growth available to lower-income neighborhoods, where tech may not be a career option? What’s being done to equalize opportunities?

We do that on a bunch of different levels. We run the Brooklyn Tech Triangle internship program, which I think is an extraordinary program. It connects City Tech students, which has a great but underappreciated tech program, to the technology boom that’s happening in Brooklyn and New York right now. Since Dumbo, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Navy Yard are the three parts of the triangle, we run the internship program because we have our employment center on site. Through that and other programs, we’ve placed over 200 students into internships over the last year. For many of the students, it was their first work experience. How do you find jobs? You had a previous job and you use connections. We see another role for the Yard as breaking up those networks and expanding the number of people who have access to this creative explosion that’s happening here.

I think it’s important to note that while we’re trying to embrace all of this growth, we really are remaining focused on our existing tenants. Since I’ve started, we’ve brought 60 to 70 leases to our board, all but two of which are existing tenants up for renewal. One of the users is a quintessential example of this technology, design, and manufacturing company; they’re called Crye Precision. They didn’t exist fourteen years ago, and it was started by two graduates of Cooper Union, who had a very small part of a Department of Defense contract. And now they’ve parlayed that into being one of the top producers of body armor and one of the only producers of camouflage for the Defense Department in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were designing that stuff and decided they wanted to bring the production in-house because they wanted the quality control. So here again, you have people who are top engineers, designers, and businesspeople. Then, in their space, you go down the hall and they’re hiring seamstresses left and right for the camouflage. We have so many examples of that.

We’ve seen an enormous emphasis from the Bloomberg administration on New York’s tech industry, an emphasis that has Mayor de Blasio has matched, if not increased. City Hall, of course, wants New York to continue growing into its role as so-called Silicon Alley. How does the Navy Yard fit into that?

We certainly see the Yard as benefitting from the resurgence of Brooklyn and New York in general coming out of the Great Recession — but even before that, this was all happening. We also think the Yard helped create some of that resurgence and helped put Brooklyn back on the map, and certainly put the Brooklyn waterfront on the map, to the point where we now have competitors, with Domino in Williamsburg and Industry City in Sunset Park. It’s competition, but as a mission-driven, not-for-profit that’s really focused on jobs, we see it as a great thing. Competition just means more jobs.

More broadly, the tech and innovation scene is certainly something that has benefitted the Yard. We see ourselves as having a special place in that scene, in that we’re not after the tech office users. I led part of the Applied Sciences NYC initiative in the last administration, that brought Cornell to Roosevelt Island, and an important theme came out in all of our interviews with the top tech schools in the world. And that was that originally it was about computer processing; then it became software that could keep up with this processing ability; and now, more and more, it’s how that gets integrated into our day-to-day life. The strength of New York is that it has all of the industries in which you want to integrate technology. You have finance, fashion, medicine, publishing, media, etc. That was the magic moment of the Initiative: you had the city saying, “We need more technology,” and you had the industry saying, “We want to get near all of these other non-technology industries.”

For us, we want to take advantage of that momentum, with an eye towards creating the industrial jobs at the core of our mission. So as you get technology integrated into products, you’ve got to build the products somewhere, and do the initial and longer-term runs of those products. That’s really where we see ourselves fitting into this larger Brooklyn tech scene that’s going on — not purely for the coding and the like. At the press conference, we highlighted one company that just started that’s still in start-up phase; it prototypes the highest-tech motorcycle ever, and it really is redefining motorcycles, both on a design level and a tech basis. The principal went to Pratt, lives in Brooklyn, and doesn’t want to work anywhere else, so we’ve got an organic reason as to why that company wants to and needs to be here. He wants to draw on the top talent of Brooklyn in design, marketing, and engineering, but, for us, he wants to produce motorcycles here, which means he’ll have to employ large amounts of people who don’t need graduate degrees from the top industrial design schools in the country.

That’s our perfect balance: a company that needs and wants to be here, but creates large amounts of jobs available to a wide diversity of people, both up and down the education and skill level.

In these next couple of years then, how do you see the borough growing?

That’s the big question, right? I certainly think the fundamentals of Brooklyn make an enormous amount of sense. It is a wonderful place to live, to work. I’ve got a young family, two young kids; I live seven blocks from where I grew up. Like many people in my generation, you couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I have no desire to pick up and move to a big house in the suburbs, where you’re disconnected from all the vitality that’s happening in Brooklyn. I certainly think that the current return of industry here in Brooklyn is going to accelerate over the coming years. I think you’ve seen a lot of the creative community move back to Brooklyn, but you really haven’t seen a lot of commercial activity following them. I think that’s normal: commercial activity lags population shifts. I think you’re gonna continue to see more and more commercial activity, both on our side and on the for-profit side, follow that talent into Brooklyn. I think a lot of this is tech or design-based; I don’t know where these lines end anymore. Is banking banking, or is it tech? Is publishing publishing, or is it tech? Is fashion tech? You throw a stone in Brooklyn now and you can find a product designer or a media person or someone who, if you’re in the technology world, you want to be close to, because that’s the next disruption.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

John Surico is Bklynr’s interviews editor. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice. He lives in Queens.

Anthony Rhoades is a freelance photographer and the photo editor of /ONE/. He lives in Greenpoint.

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Consider the Oyster

Can the humble mollusk clean Brooklyn’s waterways and restore our connection to its shoreline? No — but maybe a billion can. By Jordan Fraade

Losing the Plot

Brooklyn has acres and acres of abandoned lots. How hard could it be to make something of them? By Maggie Astor

Fir Sale

’Tis the seasons. Photos by Anthony Rhoades, with text by Sara Goudarzi

Q&A: Aldona Vaiciunas of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association

A local leader reflects on the life and times of a neighborhood mostly unshaken — for now, at least — by Brooklyn’s development boom. Interview by Angela Almeida