Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past & Present

The charms of urban manufacturing

Few factories have a forest in their lobby. But Crye Precision, which designs and manufactures high-tech military body armour, wanted to make its vast new premises at the Brooklyn Navy Yard calming and beautiful for its 200 employees. Many of them now practise tai-chi among the indoor trees. Crye began in a studio in Chelsea, in Manhattan, but moved to the Navy Yard in 2002 because it needed space. It was soon leasing eight units in four different buildings and has now moved everyone under the same roof. Gregg Thompson, the company’s co-founder, who sports the required Brooklyn man-bun and facial hair, says the borough and the Navy Yard have been crucial to Crye’s success. He has no problem recruiting talent locally, from seamstresses to robot-operators, and the yard’s operator has been very helpful as his firm has expanded.

The Navy Yard itself is also growing fast. The 300 acres (121 hectares) on Brooklyn’s waterfront, with panoramic views of New York Harbour and Lower Manhattan, has about 2.5m square feet under construction, which will increase its square footage by about 60%. Over the next three years it conservatively expects the number of people working there to increase from 7,000 to 17,000. And most of its tenants are in manufacturing.

The yard is no stranger to innovation. It began as a research and development centre for America’s navy. Prototype ships were built there, and a naval surgeon perfected the manufacture of ether for anaesthetics in 1854. At its height during the second world war, about 70,000 workers clocked in at the Navy Yard every day. But when the navy closed its base in 1966, 12,000 jobs were lost overnight. By the 1970s, with the site now owned by New York city, only a couple of hundred people worked there. But in the past ten years manufacturing has grown again.

It is of a different kind, however, from the old giant-factory sort. Most of the Navy Yard’s tenants – around 330 businesses, adding more than $2bn a year to the city’s economy – are smaller advanced manufacturing firms, making speciality products. The tools that helped create the software boom are now proving useful to foster hardware manufacturing in the middle of cities. For example, New York is a leader in 3D printing, which helps to speed up prototyping and to turn startups into fully commercial ventures.

The high wall, which for the best part of two centuries sealed off the yard from the rest of Brooklyn, is still there. But it is more porous now. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, a non-profit which operates the yard for the city, routinely recruits local people, training them for the high-paying jobs available there. It also gives tenants enough leeway with their rent to allow them to invest in their companies, no small thing in expensive New York. Robert Ferraroni, co-head of Ferra Designs, a metal fabricator, was able to buy a $500,000 laser. He points out that he began his career using the tools and skills of a blacksmith. Now he uses lasers and robotics.

The Navy Yard’s New Lab also has robots. One of its companies made part of
the Mars Rovers. New Lab is an 84,000-square-foot innovation hub for companies working on products and technology that centre on hardware. The building, once a heavy-machine shop, now houses 100 companies that range from Farmshelf, which grows plants and produce without soil, to Waverly Labs, which made an earpiece that translates 15 foreign languages in real time, and Dog Parker, a thermo-controlled dog house to park pooches outside shops and restaurants.

Manufacturing, once nearly dead in New York, is growing across the five boroughs. The industry has over 78,000 jobs: still only 2.1% of all private-sector jobs and small compared with the dominant finance and media sectors, but on the up since 2011. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, predicts that manufacturing will contribute an increasing share of the Big Apple’s economy. Other cities are intrigued by the Brooklyn model, which seems to work best in places with a history of manufacturing and links to a strong local economy. Something like it is being tried with success in Boston’s Seaport, Chicago’s mHUB and in downtown Los Angeles. President Donald Trump, who has been promising an industrial revolution in America, would do well to visit Brooklyn, too.” (The Economist, 2017, p.26).

Reference

The Economist (2017) Brooklyn Navy Yard: On The Waterfront. The Economist. 15 July, 2017.

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