The business of doing good: Brooklyn Navy Yard

Elizabeth Eagen
6 min readOct 24, 2017

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The first thing you notice about the Brooklyn Navy Yard is just how enormous it is. It is really, really large — 300 acres of land all on the waterfront in north Brooklyn, covered in massive buildings, docks, parking lots, warehouses. It’s almost a third of Central Park. It has its own rooftop vineyard, its own employment center and museum, a farm, and $700 million in upcoming developments, all done under the aegis of a commitment to an environmentally progressive sustainability plan for everything from the rooftops to the cleaning supplies. The Navy Yard is owned by the city of New York and run by the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), which acts as real estate developer and property manager with a mission to “fuel New York City’s economic vitality by creating and preserving quality jobs, growing the City’s modern industrial sector and its businesses, and connecting the local community with the economic opportunity and resources of the Yard.”

Because of its sheer size, development in the Yard has the potential to impact the economy of the city. Under a stable, nonprofit landlord, small manufacturing can get a decent start in a central location, with a longer time-horizon to be successful, thus diversifying the City’s economy with more industry. And with an onsite employment center that stays involved in the workforce of the Navy Yard, businesses have some backstopping and support that fulfills city goals of economic stability and employment opportunities. The Yard and BNYDC’s mission emphasizes access to middle-class career pathways for the local community, and for those with barriers to employment. The impact of just those two elements might be enough to justify the city’s investment. However, BNYDC’s mission targets much larger aims, and in doing so is helping to scale the business of doing good. Rather than simply making small manufacturing and decent jobs possible, the Yard is planning no less than to be an accelerator of sustainable impact and a national model for sustainable industrial parks attracting socially-responsible and tech-driven companies.

How did this all come together? We wouldn’t usually think of an industry park as a place for progressive growth. But a few pre-conditions have made this setup possible. First, of course, is the value of the New York real estate market. But of equal value is how the city has ceded control of the Yard to a nonprofit company and its mission, and how the city has been patient enough waiting for the payoff in impact as well as revenue. Key here is a combination of understanding the true value of the Yard as a whole, rather than individual parts; the people-driven mission hit upon in the 1990’s; and the extended timeline to adhere to that mission. BNYDC influences and accelerates the business of doing good by the choices it makes in allocating space and by how it expands the offering of real estate and management services. It is also braiding together values and value for its tenants — its constituents — to offer much more.

The history of the Yard is fascinating. The Yard’s military base employed over 9,000 people when it was closed in 1966. The area reopened in 1969 as an industrial park managed by a nonprofit called Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings (CLICK). Traditional shipbuilding industries stuck around, but had declined for several decades when in 1981, Mayor Koch replaced CLICK with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. BNYDC marks this moment as the time the group began to diversify its tenant base: “Large spaces are carved up to accommodate small industrial enterprises that reflect the diversity, energy and creativity of the community…[by 1998] diversification leads to 98% occupancy with over 200 small to midsized businesses employing 3,000 people.” In the early 2000’s, the City upgraded the Yard’s infrastructure — a delay (some of the infrastructure was Civil War era!) that was possibly beneficial, as sustainable infrastructure had become both desirable and possible by then. The Yard’s footprint has remained about the same for much of its history. While businesses have come and gone, the incredible physical assets remain, and its governors have made that a feature to serve the people and needs that are here in a way that is as place-oriented as the Yard’s own zip code.

BNYDC accelerates its impact on the health of the city by packaging low rents alongside other desirable qualities that might be out of reach for a business on its own, like the infrastructure support for sustainable, green manufacturing in a LEEDS certified building. In doing so, BNYDC offers both passive and proactive opportunities to do good. The mission also allows the BNYDC to make some interesting long-term investments, such as a lease to a startup incubator at 1776, “a global incubator and seed fund that believes startups can change the world… [] building a global community to provide the intellectual, social and financial capital these startups need to succeed.” It retains tenants, and tenants retain staff, by offering additional cultural cachet of the neighbors being a farm and vineyard and green buildings. For itself, BNYDC also ties the measurement of good to economic development. Businesses in the Yard should be able to grow and hire in New York, and BNYDC factors in hiring practices and potential to create blue collar jobs into its choices.

The key to this plan is that some scaling can be achieved when the business case and the “good” case are deeply intertwined. BNYDC isn’t evaluating the mission of each business when it signs a lease, and tenants might fit some of the aims without meeting others. But the Yard makes doing some kinds of “good” easier. The Navy Yard engages in a kind of constituency building, meeting tenants both where they are (in the need for space) and where they could be (in, for example, offset carbon emissions and LEED-certified buildings or employing more people). By staking its future development plans on a set of values held by present and future tenants, rather than on a profit and loss sheet alone, BNYDC is also strategically building an overall constituency of businesses and clients for what it has in mind.

Place based initiatives are charged with finding ways to help cities find the right combination of real estate, people, and mission to define a city’s future in something that can’t be shipped away or outsourced. When cities invite nonprofit-style values to the table, the results are sometimes surprising but often quite valuable in the long run. The example of the Brooklyn Navy Yards demonstrates how making available city assets better can enhance the scale of socially responsible enterprise. First, by providing lower-than-market rents, BNYDC is adjusting a huge expenditure for new businesses that lowers the barriers to market entry. This allows tenants in the manufacturing sector to stay, and be stable in, New York. Second, by emphasizing dense manufacturing jobs, BNYDC is promoting the creation of good jobs that don’t require advanced degrees, and making them available and attainable. And third, the Yard consolidates support for all kinds of progressive business practices that wouldn’t be possible if each business was trying to do it on their own: things like sustained support for job placement, enhanced by the on-site job center with small business assistance, and green and sustainable business infrastructure — so that the Yard’s Green Business Directory is populated with like-minded businesses, that can even become each other’s clients, and a place like the New Lab is both possible to create and enhances the area’s attraction. All of this targets employee retention with the cachet of a cool work/live/play space, filled with fair trade, B-corps, and so on. It’s a virtuous cycle that would be hard to match without both NY’s own real-estate crunch and the mission-driven decisions of BNYDC.

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