Williamsburg's Last Domino: A Gentrification Time Bomb? 

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The Havemeyer Family, namesakes of the neighborhood street, began refining sugar in Manhattan about 1807, before relocating to Brooklyn in the 1850s. Within another half century, they had purchased several other refineries, creating the consolidated Domino Sugar in 1901, which then controlled nearly the entire American sugar market.

In 1919, when the population of Brooklyn stood at roughly 2 million, the Williamsburg refinery employed 4,500 workers—such a substantial amount that when the company threatened to move jobs to New Jersey in the teens and 20s, the government allowed the company instead to close two streets west of Kent Avenue so it could expand, cutting off public access to the waterfront, which remains restricted to this day.

But the refinery's post-war workforce shrunk steadily, thanks to the cheap supply of corn syrup and a national trend toward deindustrialization. By 2001, fewer than 300 employees remained, and in 2004 the refinery was finally shuttered. The land was scooped up by CPC Resources, the for-profit development arm of the non-profit Community Preservation Corporation, whose mission is "to stabilize, strengthen and sustain low and mixed income communities"—to bring investment into neighborhoods where investment is low, and to help low-income people secure housing and loans.

Of course, Williamsburg in 2010 isn't a low-income neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination. But it's still home to lower-income families that remain from Before the Gentrification. Many of them live on the neighborhood's South Side, not too far from the Domino site.

Three of the old Domino buildings are designated landmarks, and CPC Resources' plan for the site incorporates them as the development's "centerpiece" that will, according to its website, "serve as a reminder of the vibrant industrial heritage that once dominated the Williamsburg waterfront." The iconic Domino Sugar sign that faces Manhattan will be preserved as well, though moved: along with new windows, new balconies and a new "internal structure" (basically, a gutting), the landmarked refinery complex will receive a "rooftop addition," what in renderings looks like a three-story greenhouse, on top of which the Domino sign will stand, off-center.

Around the landmarked properties, CPC Resources will erect four towers: two at 34 stories, the other two at 30. Both Northside Piers and Schaefer Houses, the largest nearby developments, rise fewer than 30 stories, which will make Domino's towers the area's tallest. Across Kent Avenue, the development continues in what the company calls the "upland portion."

"The architecture is designed so that there are no discrete 'buildings' in the traditional sense," Richard Edmonds, a spokesman for the project, wrote in an email. "The project consists of 'modules' that are linked together. These groups of modules are separated by the street grid."

"Yes," he continued, "the plan has four slender towers, but those towers are connected directly to other modules." (The development's architect is Rafael Vinoly, responsible for, among other things, the under-construction 121st precinct police station in Staten Island, which New York Magazine has called "a long, levitating slab.")

The project will contain 2,200 new apartments, 660 of which the developer promises (though not in any binding legal document) will be reserved for low-income families. That's 30 percent affordable housing, well above the legal requirement that 20 percent of luxury development be reserved for low-income residents. One hundred units will be rented to families of four earning under $25,000; 310 will be for those making roughly $45,000. Another 100 units will be rented to seniors making just under $40,000; another 150 will be sold to families making almost $100,000 a year.

The plan also calls for retail and commercial space, which the developer promises will bring 1,000 permanent jobs, in addition to the short-term construction jobs. It will also create four acres of open space, including a five-block waterfront promenade that would restore public access to this part of the East River in Brooklyn for the first time since the Havemeyers wrested it away nearly a century ago.

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