By Konrad Putzier
In 1998, fresh out of college, David Ehrenberg went to Zimbabwe on a Fulbright fellowship to study a local community development program.
The country – not yet quite the violent, impoverished basket case it is today – was making big bucks with its tourism industry. Most visitors came to see wild animals. But the elephants and rhinos that tour companies depended on where a burden on local farmers, trampling on their crops.
The development program Ehrenberg studied distributed some of the tourism industry’s revenue among local farmers, in order to reimburse them for the damage caused by animals.
But as Ehrenberg soon discovered, finding the best use for the funds wasn’t that easy. Local notables could request what the money should be used on, but their personal motives often over-rode the interest of the population as a whole.
For example, no local leaders ever requested investments in wells. Getting water was a task reserved for women, so the male leaders did not see the wells’ woeful state as much of an issue.
The lesson Ehrenberg learned from his stint in Zimbabwe is that investing in local economic development is a challenge if a heterogeneous population has different or even conflicting needs.
Fifteen years on, he is trying to square this circle at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which he has been managing since September 2013.
The Navy Yard is a city-owned, four million square feet industrial park nestled along the East River between Dumbo, Clinton Hill and Williamsburg. Broadly, its purpose is to preserve well-paying jobs and a diverse economy by offering space to manufacturing firms that might otherwise get priced out of the borough.
But what sounds simple enough is in fact a balancing act between different goals and interest groups.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), which manages the site and is headed by Ehrenberg, tries to reconcile its mission of encouraging manufacturing development with support of its immediate neighborhood and poor New Yorkers.
“We think about everything that we do through the lens of making sure economic opportunities we are creating at the yard are available to a wide variety of people,” Ehrenberg said. BNYDC’s on-site Employment Center has helped more than 600 New Yorkers find jobs over the past three years. Of those, 24 percent are from immediate surrounding communities, 21 percent are public housing residents, 11 percent formerly incarcerated and 10 percent veterans.
Ehrenberg also has to decide what kinds of tenants are best for Brooklyn. Should the BNYDC rent out a big chunk of its space to a major industrial firm, or is the borough better served with many small employers? For Ehrenberg, the answer is a mix of both, as his latest project shows.
The BNYDC is currently marketing Building 77, a one million square feet, 16-story former warehouse it is converting into manufacturing space in a $140 million renovation.
The bottom nine floors are reserved for small tenants, which make up the majority of firms in the Navy Yard as a whole.
But in top three floors (14 to 16), the BNYDC is looking to place a single marquee tenant over 151,000 s/f.
Michael Shenot, who is part of the JLL team marketing the space, said a number of firms from New York and beyond have shown interest in the space. At $40 per s/f, rents in the top floors are a bargain for the neighborhood — although they are well above what manufacturing firms would pay in Long Island.
For Ehrenberg, Building 77 is the first opportunity to leave his mark on the Navy Yard.
“When I joined (the BNYDC), the plan was not to add windows. I took time out on the project, and figured out what it would require to add windows,” he recalled.
By adding windows and more elevators and bathrooms, the project’s cost exploded from an initial $75 million to $140 million. But it also meant the building could be used for manufacturing — rather than just storage — and host twice the number of jobs.
Today, the building is still a largely windowless slab. But renovation has started and tenants are expected to move in by late 2016.
Along with the planned construction of a Green Manufacturing Center and the development of a cluster of buildings along Admiral’s Row, it is part of a plan of creating another 5,000 jobs at the Navy Yard by 2020. Currently 7,000 people work at the site.
Ehrenberg’s interest in Brooklyn’s economic development is personal. He grew up in South Slope at a time when the borough was a far cry from its current hipness and the Navy Yard was an empty wasteland.
“I remember the Navy Yard as the place your parents went when they were inexplicably mad because their car was towed,” he recalled.
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, Ehrenberg went to Wesleyan University to study government and urban studies. His interest in the urban economy then led him to work at South Brooklyn Legal Services, where he co-ordinated a micro-credit program, and later to Princeton University, where he got a joint Masters degree in public policy and urban planning from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs.
After graduating from Princeton, Ehrenberg spent seven years the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) as an executive vice president and co-head of the real estate transaction services group.
At the NYCEDC, he worked on a number of major development projects, including Atlantic Yards and Seward Park.
As Michael Bloomberg’s term as mayor was approaching its end in 2013, a number of NYCEDC executives left to work in the private sector. But not Ehrenberg.
“I never even considered joining the private sector,” he said. “I only ever worked for non-profits, and gaining the experience that the economic development corporation provides is very valuable in the non-profit sector.”
At the Navy Yard, the city provides space to manufacturing firms at below-market rates. In other areas of Brooklyn, bakeries and small factories have been forced out by rising rents. But Ehrenberg, who lives in Windsor Terrace with his two children and his wife, Jessica Yager, a policy director at NYU’s Furman Center, believes manufacturing will continue to be a part of the borough.
“The real estate pressure is undeniable, that’s why zoning protection is critical,” he said. “But there has actually been a stabilization (in manufacturing employment) over the last few years. We believe that manufacturing has a strong future in Brooklyn.”