Episode 19: Next-Gen Manufacturing
How can we bring the benefits of manufacturing back to disinvested neighborhoods — without the drawbacks?
“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities, and this season is all about the ideas and innovations that could lead to more equitable development. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk interview an expert in workforce development, Stephen Tucker, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s chief development officer and a former Sidewalk Labs employee, Johanna Greenbaum, Nanotronics’ chief operating officer, James Williams, real estate director of Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, Beth O’Donnell, and director of strategy and development, Kimberly Lyle.
Eric Jaffe: During World War II, the industry was booming — and cities across America were booming, too.
Vanessa Quirk: Shipyards popped up along city waterfronts and riverfronts, industrial businesses moved into downtown towers, and warehouses were built along railroad tracks.
Eric Jaffe: But once the war ended, the industry needed a new focus.
1950s Newscaster: The reconversion of war plants to peacetime pursuits is going ahead at full speed.
Eric Jaffe: Vets came home.
Documentary Narrator 1: Most of the men who went away to war returned by the millions.
Eric Jaffe: Factories went from making war materials to washing machines.
Documentary Narrator 1: Consumer goods of all kinds were coming off the assembly lines.
Eric Jaffe: And the suburbs became the most desirable real estate in America.
Documentary Narrator 2: Young families flocked to buy a piece of the American Dream. It’s the good life, in the suburbs.
Vanessa Quirk: Incentivized by cheap federal mortgage loans and newly-constructed, speedy highways, middle- and upper-class white families left urban downtowns in droves. But due to policies like redlining, exclusionary zoning, and racial covenants — African Americans and some other groups were explicitly denied this opportunity.
Eric Jaffe: And, so as urban factories shut down after the War, or they moved to huge facilities in the suburbs where land was now cheaper, manufacturing jobs left cities, too. And that left urban workers behind.
Vanessa Quirk: And when the industry started to leave the U.S. in the 70s and 80s, and go abroad, the situation got even worse for working-class Americans in cities.
Eric Jaffe: The trend hit manufacturing cities particularly hard — especially places like Buffalo.
Stephen Tucker: Manufacturing has always been in the DNA of Buffalo and Western New York. That’s why when you come here, you see these huge underutilized factories of the past, which are almost like the ancient Mayan ruins, right?
Vanessa Quirk: That’s Stephen Tucker, an expert in workforce development who moved to Buffalo in 2017 to head the Northland Workforce Training Center, an organization with a mission to prepare local residents for careers in advanced manufacturing and clean energy.
Eric Jaffe: From his own history, Stephen knows just how much access to good-paying manufacturing jobs can change lives.
Stephen Tucker: I worked in manufacturing before. When I left Ford Motor Company, I made almost $100,000 a year, which is transformative with overtime. You can access these jobs with a high school diploma and a little bit of specific training.
Vanessa Quirk: The Northland Workforce Training Center is the anchor of the Northland Corridor Redevelopment Project, a state-led initiative to invest millions into Buffalo and bring manufacturing jobs back.
Eric Jaffe: This multi-million dollar project is laser-focused on a particular part of Buffalo: the East Side, where the vast majority of the city’s African American residents live.
Vanessa Quirk: Like many U.S. cities, Buffalo has a long history of redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction that destroyed much of the East Side in the mid-20th century.
Eric Jaffe: As a result, even as other parts of Buffalo have begun to revitalize, the East Side has been locked out of that growth. It remains one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Stephen Tucker: So the state took an intentional approach to ensure they created access to opportunities for residents in the neighborhoods instead of just focusing on downtown. How do we create an atmosphere and an environment to attract locals or companies from outside the area?
Vanessa Quirk: Northland started by revitalizing their own industrial building: a huge, 240,000-square-foot facility from the early 1900s that used to house a sheet metal factory.
Eric Jaffe: The building doesn’t just hold the training center, but also companies that can house all their manufacturing, engineering, and R&D teams.
Stephen Tucker: And we even had a gentleman. He was in front of our lobby, and he was very emotional because he was one of the original engineers at the manufacturing plant from the ’40s. He said he’s just excited to see something happening with this facility again. It was pretty, it was pretty powerful.
Eric Jaffe: Stephen’s actively recruiting new companies to set up shop and to stay. Not just in the Center but throughout the Redevelopment Corridor.
Vanessa Quirk: And, Stephen told us that it’s starting to work. Many new manufacturing companies have recently moved into the area. And now, other businesses are starting to pop up around them.
Stephen Tucker: So, it’s very exciting right now to be on the east side of Buffalo. Just four years ago, there was no one walking on Northland Avenue, and now, there are more than 500 people here every day. Now, multiple banking institutions are moving into the east side of Buffalo. As a matter of fact, one of our banking partners, Bank One Buffalo, will be co-located within our facility to be providing second-chance checking accounts for students who need it and financial empowerment training. There are now grocery stores around the corner from where we’re located. We’re now starting to see people take more pride in their homes. So, we’re starting to see the investment really take effect here on the east side.
Eric Jaffe: So it’s clear that, in Buffalo, the return of manufacturing is catalyzing a more equitable revitalization of the city.
Vanessa Quirk: Right. And by creating access to these jobs — both via proximity and skills training — Northland is forging a pathway for folks in the city who, until now, have been excluded from the benefits of the city’s growth.
Eric Jaffe: And what Buffalo’s doing could happen across the U.S. For years, we’ve allowed our manufacturing facilities to leave urban cores and go abroad — both to the detriment of Americans looking for jobs and to cities overall. But imagine if cities began to bring manufacturing back intentionally.
Vanessa Quirk: We could potentially create wealth-generating opportunities for people who need it.
Eric Jaffe: We could jumpstart development in disinvested neighborhoods.
Vanessa Quirk: And maybe even provide a new, more resilient economic model for our cities.
Eric Jaffe: Welcome to City of the Future, a podcast by Sidewalk Labs. In each episode, we explore the ideas and innovations that could transform cities. We’re your hosts, and I’m Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: And I’m Vanessa Quirk. In our previous episode, we talked about tech-focused innovation ecosystems: mixed-use urban developments that aim to generate more opportunities for those who have been left behind by tech’s growth.
Eric Jaffe: In this episode, we’re talking about ecosystems that bring next-generation manufacturing back into our urban cores. But they have the same aim: creating more equitable and inclusive cities.
Vanessa Quirk: So, as we learned from the story of Buffalo, when manufacturing left American cities, it caused severe economic distress in many low-income and Black neighborhoods. But before that, when factories were located in urban cores, workers could easily walk or bike to these kinds of jobs.
Eric Jaffe: There was a lot to love about those lively urban cores of the early 20th century. But we shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture; despite the benefit of living close to a job, you also lived near a loud, potentially polluting factory. And that had significant drawbacks.
Vanessa Quirk: Absolutely. As we know from the history of zoning in this country, low-income people frequently had no option but to live in neighborhoods zoned for intense commercial or industrial use. And today, we know that the consequences of that — you know, consequences have been most severely felt by communities of color, who continue to suffer from higher rates of health issues like asthma and cancer. In fact, data shows that residents who live in majority Black census tracts are twice as likely to develop cancer from industry-related air pollution than people in majority-white tracts.
Eric Jaffe: So bringing manufacturing back to urban neighborhoods — especially neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment and may have historically been exposed to the harms of the industry — that seems fraught.
Vanessa Quirk: It is and, you can’t take on something like this lightly. But I’d argue that it also offers an opportunity to right some of these historic wrongs.
Eric Jaffe: Right because, as we saw in Buffalo, it could really bring not just jobs and wealth to individuals but revitalize whole communities and neighborhoods. So then the question becomes: can we bring back the benefits of the industry to these neighborhoods, without the drawbacks?
Vanessa Quirk: That is the question! And many think the answer is yes. Because manufacturing today is fundamentally different than it used to be. Think about micro-breweries or maker spaces. And that’s just the start. In fact, there are now very advanced manufacturing companies that are way cleaner and greener than the factories of yore.
Taras Kravtchouk: So there’s no gearbox. There’s nothing to shift. You just twist the throttle, and then…
Vanessa Quirk: That is the sound of an electric motorcycle made by Tarform. It’s sleek, matte black — the kind of ride Batman would look right at home on. Tarform is just one of the many next-gen manufacturing companies based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City. Across the Yard’s 300 acres, you can find all kinds of prototypes. While I was there, I saw a drone taking off, and I saw Sidewalk Labs’ flexible street prototype —
Eric Jaffe: Flexible streets! Shout out to Episode 15!
Vanessa Quirk: Exactly! And I even got to ride in my very first self-driving vehicle.
Vanessa Quirk: Nice stop at the stop sign. A complete stop. More than I would have done, let’s be honest.
Vanessa Quirk: And of course, there are companies at the Yard making very cool things that you can only see if you go inside one of the buildings — like Kingdom Supercultures, for example. They’re a company that is trying to replace the artificial chemicals in our foods with natural micro-organisms.
Eric Jaffe: Nice! Sounds very futuristic.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, it’s super cool. I got to tour their office at the Yard, and there was lots of fancy science equipment and beakers and flow hoods. And it was all safe enough that their 25-person team could work on laptops right next to it all.
Eric Jaffe: That is amazing. And I bet being in New York helps them attract a lot of great technical talent. On the other hand, though, I have to admit it’s pretty unusual that all these companies are here. I mean, New York isn’t exactly known as a manufacturing town anymore.
Vanessa Quirk: You’re right. And the fact that the Yard is here at all, is actually thanks to John Adams, who set aside the land for federal shipyard production back when Brooklyn was all just farmland. And the Yard made ships until it was decommissioned in the 1960s when the City bought the land for industrial use. Today, the City still owns the land, but now Brooklyn is one of the most desirable real estate markets in New York.
Johanna Greenbaum: Ok, so I’m going to take you to my favorite place in the Yard, which is the roof.
Eric Jaffe: That’s Johanna Greenbaum, the Yard’s Chief Development Officer and a former Sidewalk Labs employee. Although publicly owned, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is privately operated and in the midst of a major revitalization. Johanna’s job is to redevelop the existing buildings and attract new tenants so that the Yard can generate the revenue it’ll need to grow and develop new buildings in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: You’ve got this amazing view of the New York city skyline.
Johanna Greenbaum: We’re literally looking at the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg bridges. We are in this closed facility that touches five major Brooklyn neighborhoods from Dumbo, to downtown Brooklyn, to Fort Greene, a little bit of Clinton Hill.
Vanessa Quirk: Many of these neighborhoods were historically Black, but over the decades, as land values and rents have increased, their demographics have shifted dramatically. Take Fort Greene, for example. In 2000, that neighborhood was 42% Black. But in 2019, it was only 20%. So providing local residents with access to the Yard’s jobs, internships, and training opportunities could offer pathways to wealth and the possibility of staying in their communities. In fact, the Yard is actively trying to do just that by forging more connections with its neighbors. Take Nanotronics, for example. They’re a next-generation robotics company I checked out that has, I must say, a stunning mass timber office.
Vanessa Quirk: Exactly! While I was there, I met Nanotronics’ chief operating officer, James Williams. He told me that their partnership with Medgar Evers College — a college of professional studies in a Black Brooklyn neighborhood about three miles from the Yard — has been critical for their growth.
James Williams: We’re able to scale up rather quickly to grow a workforce that is able to work on the most technically exciting and advanced next-generation foundational technologies. So we have grown probably threefold in the last year and a half, and we’ll add 80 more people. So if anyone has a resume they want to send over, we’re more than happy to bring you onto our team.
Vanessa Quirk: And it’s not just the companies in the Yard that benefit from being in New York. The city benefits, too. And that became all too clear when the pandemic hit last year.
James Williams: In March of 2020, we started making these non-invasive ventilators. We realized we’re going to have to scale up quickly to meet the demand to try and save as many lives as possible. The Navy Yard helped loan us their STEAM center here in the Yard, and we’re churning out 1,200 to 1,500 of these medical devices a week that are being sent worldwide and saving as many lives.
Vanessa Quirk: Johanna told me that Nanotronics wasn’t the only company on the Yard that sprang into action when COVID-19 struck.
Johanna Greenbaum: We quickly went to companies and said, “Can you make this? How fast can you make it? Here’s another company on the Yard who can help you.” And people, companies that didn’t know each other, went into business and started producing face shields and gowns in less than a week. This is why I think it’s so important to have these types of creative, innovative companies that can actually make things. Not just… I mean, computer code is great, software is awesome, and offices are important to the ecosystem of New York. But, still, you also need people capable of making the thing, especially when the supply chain is not what we’ve all relied on it to be.
Vanessa Quirk: Hear, hear!
Eric Jaffe: Johanna’s point about supply chains is actually really relevant right now. I mean, the pandemic has exposed how vulnerable supply chains are. So having manufacturing in cities could not just create jobs, but it could make cities — and whole economies — more resilient.
Vanessa Quirk: Right. And think about all the CO2 emitted as a result of manufacturing things very far away and then shipping them very long distances to get to people. So if more cities produced needed goods right where people live, that would be a win for sustainability and resiliency.
Eric Jaffe: OK, so we’ve talked about the benefits of next-gen manufacturing for companies and the benefits for cities, but — what’s in it for the developers? I mean, as we know from all our previous episodes this season, we need real estate developers on board and aligned with communities and cities if urban development is going to become more inclusive and equitable.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s the pivotal question. And for developers in cities like New York, where land values are very, very high, building housing, for example — that’s a sure bet — but building a mixed-use development with industrial uses? I mean, that’s new — and the economic returns are less of a known quantity. So when I asked Johanna about this question, she explained that the large scale of the Navy Yard and the mix of all the different uses there allow them to mitigate the risks. Because the Yard doesn’t just have ONLY industrial buildings, but also office spaces and commercial spaces. And so, it’s kind of like the developer’s version of a mutual fund diversifying its assets. The more diversified your uses, the more likely you can mitigate financial risk in a downturn.
Eric Jaffe: That’s really interesting and makes a lot of sense. So if the Yard was only one building, or even if it was just blocks of the same type of manufacturing building, the economics might not make as much sense to developers.
Vanessa Quirk: Right! But there’s another reason, Eric, why developers may start to be more compelled to introduce industrial uses into their development projects.
Eric Jaffe: And what’s that?
Vanessa Quirk: Well, the fact that community members are starting explicitly to ask for more industrial job opportunities. They want neighborhoods where you can walk to your manufacturing job and then walk to your grocery store, and pick up your kid from school and then head home.
Eric Jaffe: Just like in those old-time cities we mentioned earlier. But where can we find such a neighborhood today?
Vanessa Quirk: Up North!
Vanessa Quirk: Let me put my hat on, because it’s cold in Boston.
Vanessa Quirk: I flew up to Boston to check out an interesting new project I’d read about called Indigo Block — and to meet the people responsible for it.
Vanessa Quirk: Dorchester Bay is a mission-driven development company focused on Boston’s Dorchester neighborhoods.
Kimberly Lyle: I live about five minutes up the street. It’s a pretty diverse neighborhood. Overwhelmingly people of color. We have many folks in the community of Cape Verdean origin, Haitian origin, and many Latinos.
Vanessa Quirk: Indigo Block is one of Dorchester Bay’s most recent projects — it combines affordable rental housing, some homes for affordable ownership, and a state-of-the-art office slash industrial facility.
Eric Jaffe: Ah — a real live next-gen manufacturing ecosystem!
Vanessa Quirk: Indeed, Eric. I met Kimberly and Beth outside the industrial facility, where they told me that the idea for Indigo Block started about a decade ago when the city of Boston acquired the site through foreclosure and started holding community-driven visioning sessions.
Kimberly Lyle: We are in an area surrounded by other neighborhoods experiencing a lot of development, so folks in this neighborhood are certainly feeling the effects of gentrification. And you wonder who all of the development is for? When you’re living in a place where a 10-minute walk away, a one-bedroom apartment goes for $2,500, you know that’s not for you. And so you’re interested in seeing development that’s going to respond to your needs. And it’s not just about the housing, and it’s also about being able to access jobs.
Vanessa Quirk: But the fact that the community wanted to see a mixed-use development that could provide both housing and jobs? For most developers, that’s —
Beth O’ Donnell: Not very straightforward. Many development companies do one or the other, but not both.
Vanessa Quirk: When the city put out an RFP to develop the site, Dorchester Bay was the only development company to propose a mixed-use site with housing, commercial, and light industrial.
Beth O’ Donnell: Light industrial, light manufacturing, or potentially food preparation services. All of which could provide opportunities for folks in the neighborhood.
Vanessa Quirk: And, because of it, the community rallied behind them.
Kimberly Lyle: Part of the reason, you know, the community backed Dorchester Bay in being the developer for this is because our proposal responded to their actual needs.
Vanessa Quirk: Once they won the RFP, Beth and her team figured out the finances to make the residential and commercial/light-industrial sides viable. They sought out partnerships with Boston Capital Development, Escazu Development, and Newmarket Community Partners. And then, they designed the industrial facility so that it could adapt to people’s needs over time and integrate thoughtfully into the neighborhood.
Vanessa Quirk: Great. Well, I’m ready to take a look if you’re ready to show me around.
Beth O’ Donnell: Yeah.
Kimberly Lyle: It’s a pretty cool space.
Vanessa Quirk: Wonderful.
Beth O’ Donnell: This is our light industrial space with high ceilings. There are four loading bays. There is a mezzanine, and the idea here is that there might be offices up there and an opportunity to look down onto the production space…
Vanessa Quirk: That would be neat.
Beth O’ Donnell: … from the mezzanine.
Vanessa Quirk: Beth and her team wanted to be thoughtful about mitigating the potential negative aspects of having an industrial facility as your neighbor. Things like big, dangerous trucks, for example. So they intentionally decided to make the building inaccessible to 18-wheelers.
Beth O’ Donnell: The potential for conflict with the abutting residential, and you can see now how close it is.
Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm. It’s just across the street.
Beth O’ Donnell: Exactly.
Vanessa Quirk: And they tried to design a flexible building that could adapt to a future where economic or job needs change. So the spaces are wide open and easily divisible. And the floor is gravel.
Beth O’ Donnell: While we have gravel here as the base, we can be infinitely flexible for our future tenants in terms of where they’re going to put their infrastructure, including their plumbing.
Vanessa Quirk: Oh, because if it were concrete, then you’d have to crack through it every time you wanted to move something around?
Beth O’ Donnell: Correct.
Vanessa Quirk: Oh, that’s pretty neat.
Eric Jaffe: At the risk of shouting out the third episode — this space sounds a lot like the flexible ground floor STOA concept we explored in episode 7!
Vanessa Quirk: Totally STOA like! And not just because of the flexibility, it’s also porous to the ground floor. They open up to the street on those loading dock doors, and they’re right across from the Indigo Block housing complex. So, in fact, the whole site is pretty porous to the neighborhoods around it.
Beth O’ Donnell: The idea was to be an extension of the neighborhood. Not to be a neighborhood unto ourselves. So the site is open to the public. The playground is open, and the future ramp to the train is open to the public.
Vanessa Quirk: And I think you mentioned that it’s close to the T, so it does have public transit.
Kimberly Lyle: The T is right there. It is. We also recognize that this area isn’t the only area where folks may find employment. So being able to have access, quick access to downtown, increases access for people in this neighborhood to seek out employment elsewhere.
Vanessa Quirk: To show me just how close everything in the neighborhood really is, Kimberly and Beth walked me just half a block to the new residential building.
Beth O’ Donnell: So we’ve got everybody from formerly homeless folks all the way up to families making over $100,000. And the units are interspersed.
Kimberly Lyle: That’s right. There’s no poor door situation here, and there’s no skimping on surfaces and finishes based on someone’s income, which is really important, right?
Vanessa Quirk: There are some houses across the street. It looks like they’re also under construction. Are these part of the project as well?
Beth O’ Donnell: They’re meant for first-time home buyers.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s pretty remarkable, too, that you were able to incorporate that. That’s unusual, right?
Kimberly Lyle: Well, also in response to community needs. So this is a really good example of how the community recognized that it needed and wanted a couple of different things, and we were able to deliver on them.
Eric Jaffe: Wow. I mean, it sounds like Indigo Block provided everything the neighborhood needed and wanted. It has housing, it has jobs, and it brings a thoughtful, mixed-use development, with industry, into the heart of this community.
Vanessa Quirk: Yes, People are already moving in, and tenants will soon be occupying the industrial facility — soon, the whole neighborhood is going to be buzzing with activity. But, I should note that just bringing industrial use into a development project isn’t going to automatically equal more jobs for communities of color or other historically excluded groups.
Eric Jaffe: Right, this isn’t something the developer can do alone. Like we saw in Buffalo, in Brooklyn, and in Boston, developers have to work with partners to make sure their projects are directly supporting the communities that need them most. So that those folks are actually receiving the good, fair jobs, these companies and projects promise.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, I think what Stephen’s doing in the Northland Workforce Training Center and Redevelopment Corridor is actually a pretty important precedent in that way: they’re intentionally bringing these resources and opportunities to the east side of Buffalo, and they’re forging the connections to companies that can enable East Side residents to take advantage of these opportunities.
Eric Jaffe: And the Indigo Block model is a good blueprint for creating a whole ecosystem of industry co-located with commercial spaces and affordable housing. So, hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more Indigo Blocks — developments that bring manufacturing safely back to the urban core in a way that directly benefits communities.
Vanessa Quirk: Completely, and as Kimberly told me, these are the kinds of developments that will finally provide communities with the opportunities they deserve.
Kimberly Lyle: So oftentimes, when you live in certain neighborhoods, even though you have a point of view about what you need and what you want, other people come in, and they give you what they feel like you deserve. And so I guess what I would say to other developers is even though it may be more challenging, even though it may be outside of your comfort zone, if you are prioritizing a community’s needs and desires, then your approach needs to be responsive to what they’re asking for and not your own limitations.
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: Thanks to all the guests who made this episode possible: Stephen Tucker, Johanna Greenbaum, James Williams, Kimberly Lyle, and Beth O’Donnell. And a big thank you also to some folks you didn’t hear in this episode: Claire Weisz, Andrew Whittemore, Tarform’s Taras Kravtchouk, Kingdom Supercultures’ Ravi Sheth, and Kendall Dabaghi, and Nanotronics’ Matthew Putnam.
Eric Jaffe: And a big thanks as always to Alison Novak, Jesse Shapins, and Chrystal Dean of our Sidewalk Urban Development team.
Vanessa Quirk: We are produced by Guglielmo Mattioli. Our advisor is Benjamen Walker, and our mixer is Andrew Callaway.
Eric Jaffe: Story editing is by Rough Cut Collective. Our music is by Adaam James Levin-Areddy of Lost Amsterdam. Our social media and transcripts are by JamiLee Hoglind. And our art is by the great Tim Kau. We’ll see you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye.