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Domino silos with graffiti

New Yorkers are only learning about the grandeur and glory of the Brooklyn waterfront just as its industrial past fades and dies. For much as we like to talk about “reopening” the waterfront to the public, the truth is that the waterfront was historically closed so long as it was industrial. And nowhere was that more true than in Williamsburg, where the immense sugar refineries and warehouses ruled the East River from the Civil War foreword, barring all casual wanderers. Sugar’s reign came to a whimpering end in January 2004 when the American Sugar Refinery Company shut down operations at the Domino Sugar refinery site. A few months later, the 11-acre site was sold to developers for $55 million.

Yet this sad story of industrial decline has taken a hopeful turn. After serious business problems, the original developers sold the site to Two Trees Management—perhaps the country’s premier Urbanist developer. Two Trees principal Jed Walentas threw out the previous plan, even though its Rafael Viñoly design had made it through the city’s arduous land-use review process, and turned instead to SHoP Architects, lately most well known for Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. Calling SHoP’s plan for Domino project “striking,” critic Paul Goldberger says it is “full of fresh thinking and creative imagination, designed to be part and parcel of the sweep of the waterfront on both sides of the river, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines beyond.”

While a few vocal critics have attacked the cutting-edge architectural designs as too big and too high, at Untapped we urge readers to consider the boldness of SHoP’s plans in contrast to the homogeneity of architecture now dominating the Brooklyn waterfront. Even more important: we hope SHoP’s ideas will influence the future of the waterfront. More development is inevitably coming. That’s good for Brooklyn and good for the city’s tax base, but let’s make that development brilliantly audacious and fully worthy of the world city in which it’s being built.

Opened in 1884, the American Refinery Building was designed in the American round-arch style, a variant of the German Rundbogenstil and the Romanesque Revival style, noted the Landmarks Preservation Commission in their 2007 designation.

Opened in 1884, the American Refinery Building was designed in the American round-arch style, a variant of the German Rundbogenstil and the Romanesque Revival style, noted the Landmarks Preservation Commission in their 2007 designation.

Or, as Walentas adds, “We have this incredible historical place with a dominant position on the waterfront and in relation to the Manhattan skyline. We’re going to embrace the place’s heritage, its industrial texture and fabric, and save what we can save—the huge refinery building that you can see from Manhattan, for example. We’ll expand the open space so that we can make a showcase of the large industrial artifacts that are scattered throughout the buildings. We’ll re-use the gantries, and clean up and rebuild the syrup tanks. And we’ll make the whole thing accessible to everyone, transforming the property from a private enclave to an integrated part of the city.”

With decades of molasses coating the walls, the raw sugar warehouse looks a bit like a modern art installation.

With decades of molasses coating the walls, the raw sugar warehouse looks a bit like a modern art installation.

How dangerous was the work? Very. The mixer's blades tell part of the story.

How dangerous was the work? Very. The mixer’s blades tell part of the story.

Eye bath stations throughout the refinery building stand as bleak reminders of dangerous work.

Eye bath stations throughout the refinery building stand as bleak reminders of dangerous work.

The Future: 21st-Century Park on a Great Urban Waterfront

The industrial waterfront is gone, but a new, more welcoming waterfront will takes its place.

Two Trees founder David Walentas created the neighborhood of Dumbo (under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges)—and thereby invented an entirely new form of profitable urban development. He converted Civil War warehouses and 19th-century industrial buildings, attracted unique retailers and restaurants through subsidized rents, mixed office and residential to create a 24-hour neighborhood, and in general marched to his own drummer, despite being constantly thwarted by the Koch administration in the early 1980s. Today, urban scholars and practitioners make pilgrimages to Dumbo to try to figure out how it was done and how to replicate the model elsewhere.

Jed Walentas doesn’t plan to replicate Dumbo on the waterfront, but he is applying Two Trees development principles that will combine new construction with a strong preservation element and magnificent open space (which he prefers to call a park). His major innovation within the 3.3 million-square-feet development will be to build over 630,000-square-feet of office space (six times what was previously approved, and enough for 3,000-4,000 workers) along with 2,200 rental apartments, 80,000-square-feet of ground level retail space, and about 60 percent more open space than the previous plan (5.25 acres rather than 3.29). To accomplish all this he’s willing to sacrifice some profit to principle: at $25 per square foot, commercial rents are about 25 percent lower than residential. David Lombino, Two Trees’s Director of Special Projects, says, “We know from our experience in Dumbo that commercial space for creative workers pays off by helping to energize a neighborhood.”

What’s more, Walentas wants to build the office space in the refinery building, which is going to be stunningly expensive to renovate. For one thing, it has no real floors and no real internal structure, but is instead “just a weird labyrinthine of equipment, much of which is completely integrated with the structure of the building,” says Walentas. Massively big equipment will have to be removed and new space constructed within the empty shell of the building.

Without real floors, the refinery building is a warren of partial floors, supports, and catwalks.

Without real floors, the refinery building is a warren of partial floors, supports, and catwalks.

The trick is he’s going to need city approval to build the office space, and that means he has to go back through the Uniform Land Land Use Review Procedure. But he’s convinced that it will be worth the trouble, saying, “We want an energetic, 24-hour community. That means work mixed with residential.” And Brooklyn needs precisely this kind of hip, iconic space to attract the young high-tech work force that bring both dollars and vitality to neighborhoods.

Which brings Walentas back to his cherished park: “By running River Street, which now dead-ends at Grand Street, through the site and pulling the buildings back from the water, we’re changing the sense of the space from a private front lawn for a special enclave to a public park. This is the most fundamental urban gesture. We want the park to be part of the daily life of tens of thousands of people living in the community. It will become a very broad-based gathering space.”

It will also provide a crucial link in the ancient Brooklyn dream of an accessible waterfront for all. And that is a dream worth cheering.

The area's only public park at the moment is Grand Ferry, snuggled between the Domino site and the New York Power Authority's Kent Avenue Power Project.

The area’s only public park at the moment is Grand Ferry, snuggled between the Domino site and the New York Power Authority’s Kent Avenue Power Project.

Much of the Brooklyn waterfront remains closed to the public. Domino’s sister building–the low, white Austin, Nichols & Co. warehouse–that was also financed by Havemeyer & Elder, offers a public path along its western border.

Much of the Brooklyn waterfront remains closed to the public. Domino’s sister building–the low, white Austin, Nichols & Co. warehouse–that was also financed by Havemeyer & Elder, offers a public path along its western border.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association and director of its Center for Urban Innovation.

8 Comments

  1. Brian Paul says:

    As a planner and a resident of the area, I am increasingly dismayed with each new celebratory article on Two Trees’ plan that fails to properly consider the impact of extreme density or consider any kind of alternative to Battery Park City-style residential tower development. After numerous others, this article spurred me to write a long response — available here (http://thedominoeffectmovie.com/trapped-in-the-two-trees-box-commentators-continue-to-miss-the-big-picture-and-fail-to-critically-analyze-two-trees-plans/)

    Some highlights:
    The Community Preservation Corporation blatantly lied to the public throughout the process to win its rezoning, Two Trees now stands to profit immensely off the deception of the Community Preservation Corporation and the fecklessness of the Department of City Planning and public officials. Two Trees is effectively using the 2010 CPC zoning as a gun to the community’s head – “We already have the right to build 3 million square feet. Give us 400,000 more square feet and we’ll do some things you like – adding mixed-use and local retail – or else we will just build the CPC plan or sell it to someone who will.”

    Two Trees will not condone consideration of anything less than their proposed 3.4 million square feet. Let’s be very clear about just how large this is in context. According to the Department of City Planning’s PLUTO data, the entire surrounding area of the twenty city blocks bounded by Kent Avenue, Grand Street, Driggs Avenue, and South 5th Street, has less built square footage (3.28 million) than what Two Trees is proposing for Domino. And with 2,284 proposed apartments, Two Trees’ Domino will more than double the population of this area (with 5,388 residents according to Census 2010). The closest subway stations are more than half a mile from Domino and all the streets in the area are narrow one-way streets that were not designed to handle the proposed level of density.

    This Battery Park City model of waterfront development dominated by luxury residential is killing the dynamic mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity character of Williamsburg. Industrial jobs in the 11211 zip code have decline by more than 60% since 2000 and the Hispanic population in Community Board 1 has declined by 23.6%, — a decline that is undoubtedly connected both to the loss of blue-collar jobs and the loss of nearly 16,000 affordable apartments (at rates less than $1,000 a month) during this same period.

    Unfortunately the opportunities were constrained by the 2010 rezoning gifted to CPC and the new $185 million price paid for the land by Walentas and Two Trees. But even so…does Two Trees need to build 3.4 million square feet in order for the deal to work? A simple financial analysis reveals that Two Trees could build 2.4 million square feet with 40% affordable housing and still generate strong profits in a similar timeframe. (see my link above for full analysis).

    Of course Two Trees does not need to build so big to turn a healthy profit. And of course Two Trees could provide more public benefit. But in the public-private partnership model we’ve seen on the waterfront and elsewhere in the City under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, the public is always the junior partner and the greater public good is constantly sacrificed for the developer’s profits.

    Although it is an improvement from the pathetically low bar set by developments like Northside Piers and the Edge, Two Trees’ proposed development continues to follow the same basic model – high-rise development dominated by luxury residential that will spur a new wave of displacement in the surrounding area. Mr. Walentas is well aware of this and has already sent canvassers to the surrounding blocks seeking to purchase additional development sites to further the creation of his luxury-techie-Dubai vision of the Southside.

    Local “leadership” cheerfully signs-off on Two Trees’ complete takeover of the neighborhood without scrutiny, and abdicates any role in determining its future. Commentators cheer that we’ll have something better than just towers and Duane Reades. The chance at creating something truly innovative and beneficial to the neighborhood and greater New York City public begins to slip away.

  2. […] relief aid this summer [NYT] 7. Go behind the scenes at Two Trees’ Domino Sugar factory: PHOTOS [Untapped Cities] 8. Nearly 20,000-square-foot lot in Crown Heights on sale [Brownstoner] 9. Nonprofit Behavioral […]

  3. Morgan says:

    Why is it a given that development is automatically good, and good for Brooklyn? It’s not good for the tax base, all these developers got abatements in order to convince them that waterfront property in New York City is profitable even if it’s not in Manhattan, so none of these new upper tax bracket residents pay real estate taxes. Many of these new developments have been bad for Brooklyn, as they have been poorly planned and poorly executed, and are more of a burden than a benefit to their neighborhoods. The developers and the city made promises to Williamsburg and Greenpoint when they pushed through the rezoning over the objections of both residents and city officials involved in the situation, and those promises have been very slow to be fulfilled, or do not seem likely to be fulfilled at all.

    • JuliaManhattan says:

      Are you talking about the 421 program? That doesn’t eliminate taxes for the “new upper tax bracket residents” but abates them on a 10-year schedule, after which full taxes are paid (unless the developer opted for affordable housing). Enacted when NYC was on its knees and had virtually no development, the 421 program was cut back geographically (Manhattan below 96th) and its benefits reduced in the boom yrs. Even under the most generous scheme, however, residents pay the old property taxes as well as the taxes on the new value at a 20% increment every second year. Would New York be better off if it were smaller & poorer, w/ people & businesses leaving rather than trying to move in? We know what that’s like—NYC lived through this in the 70s.

      • Brian Paul says:

        Julia you are right about the 421-a program being enacted in the 1970’s when NYC was “on its knees.” While it has been scaled back from the most high-value areas of the city (unless 20% affordable housing is provided), do you really think we need to be offering such generous incentives anymore? 421-a has become a zombie policy that has outlived its original purpose and is now functioning as a massive giveawawy to the developers and wealthy condominium owners — and it’s now costing the city over $1 billion a year! That’s a huge figure considering a $65 billion total city budget. We are spending more on 421-a than the entire budget of HPD! You know better than to suggest that eliminating 421-a would “take us back to the dark days of the 1970’s”…the historical moment is entirely different and there is now a massive demand for urban living that now longer needs to be incentivized.

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