The Brooklyn studios would help to speed the shift of the film industry's centre of gravity from southern California. A letter of intent to begin construction could be signed by Mr De Niro and his partners with New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, on Monday.
Mr De Niro, who heads the tiny TriBeCa Productions, approached the city with his proposals six months ago, then teamed up with Harvey Weinstein, flamboyant chief of Miramax Films, also based in New York, and still basking in the Oscar triumphs of Shakespeare in Love.
They plan to build 12 sound stages costing $140m (pounds 90m) on a 15-acre site in the middle of the yards, in a rough area of Brooklyn across the East River from the southeastern tip of Manhattan.
The studios would hardly make up for the 70,000 jobs provided in the heyday of the shipyards - once the biggest in America - but they would bring new employment and prestige to an area of New York that has been largely forgotten.
"This is the equivalent of a Universal Studio, where they could shoot a whole movie from start to finish," one source told The New York Times. "If this is a success it could revitalise the whole area."
New York has become the darling location for many Hollywood directors. Thanks to generous tax-break packages offered by Mayor Giuliani and other gestures of hospitality - the turning over of whole neighbourhoods for shoots, day and night, for example - Hollywood has been migrating to the Apple more and more often, especially for urban, outdoor sequences.
It is a phenomenon, spurred also by the recent drop in crime in the city, that has begun to test the patience of some New York residents. Roam the streets of Manhattan on almost any day and you are likely to find some form of film production going on somewhere, drawing hoards of gawkers - if stars are involved - and fouling traffic
Last year alone, the industry pumped $2.6bn into the city's economy, paying for crews, lighting, catering, hotel rooms and so forth. The number of feature films shot, or partially shot, in New York soared to 221 from 69 in 1993. There has been a similar jump in the numbers of television shows made in the city, as well as a rise in related activities, including commercial and music video production.
Industry insiders warn that the De Niro-Miramax project still faces many hurdles, not least over financing. So far, Mr De Niro and Mr Weinstein are believed to have secured about $70m, half from private backers and half from city and state funding. But a further $80m or so must be found.
A possible saviour may be the Union Labor Life Insurance Company, which is studying the plans. "We're taking a hard look at it," said one official from Union Life. "It's clear that New York doesn't have enough studios to handle both television and film production that could take place there. What's unclear to us is exactly what types of studios should be there - film or television - and where they should be."
The Navy Yards hardly seems the most hospitable spot for limousine-stars who like to be pampered. It is not in Manhattan, and the surrounding neighbourhood, though emptied of the brothels that used to thrive there, is not exactly Beverly Hills. Donald Trump, the legendary New York developer, was quick to join the fray yesterday, proposing an alternative site on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
The now-derelict Navy Yards were at their pinnacle during the Second World War when ship-workers toiled round the clock to produce warships, aircraft carriers and auxiliary vessels for the Allied campaign. Among the great ships launched there was the USS Missouri. The yard began to atrophy after 1960, when a fire ravaged the aircraft carrier Constellation, killing 50 people.Reuse content