The developers behind the “New Domino” project in South Williamsburg are trying to sell it off, either in whole or in parts, after defaulting on a $125 million loan. The 11-acre site on Kent Avenue, once home to the Domino Sugar refinery that shuttered in 2004, would feature multiple high-rise towers and other buildings, creating 2,200 units of housing. The current developer, the Community Preservation Corporation, won a long rezoning battle after it made some modest concessions and gained the support of its political opponents: 40-story buildings would be shorter (34 stories), but fatter; a shuttle bus would take residents to the nearby J/M/Z stop, thus ameliorating the extra burden on the overcrowded L train; and one-third of the housing would be affordable, not just the minimum legal requirement of 20 percent.
But that high percentage of affordable housing, like so much else, was just a promise—not a legally binding requirement. “The potential sale of the Domino Sugar Factory is profoundly concerning,” Lincoln Restler, Democratic leader for Assembly District 50, tells us. “While CPC made a series of promises to the North Brooklyn community... a new owner would in no way be obligated to follow through on those community benefits.”
Such promised benefits got the project green-lighted. The city council, which approved the rezoning, traditionally defers development decisions to the local councilmember. Williamsburg’s City Councilmember Steve Levin initially opposed the project, but then reversed his position after negotiating some perks. “We did our very best to get as many changes as possible,” he told me in 2010, like the height reduction. It was never his intention to kill the project, just to maximize the community’s advantage, including the extension of the then-set-to-expire Tenant Anti-Harassment Fund, a commitment to neighborhood arts funding, a promise to look at the feasibility of a traffic study, and continued support for the conversion of a firehouse into a town hall.
Many of these modest benefits have been followed through on, but the developer’s promises—the more significant ones—could potentially be forgotten and ignored by a new buyer. It’s not just the amount of affordable housing. The creation of five blocks of new parkland, which would open the waterfront there to the public for the first time in a century, could be scrapped. (Consider Bushwick Inlet Park, the greenspace the Williamsburg community was promised in exchange for the 2005 rezoning, which the mayor’s office now has no near-term intention of finishing.) The historic Domino sign, promised to be preserved, or noted architect Rafael Vinoly’s design could be junked; why not exchange the latter for something cheaper and uglier, a la the Atlantic Yards after Gehry?
“All I can I say is that I am not surprised, and I don’t think that anyone in the community is surprised either,” Megan Sperry, one of the filmmakers behind the documentary The Domino Effect, tells us. “This was a major concern for the community from the beginning. That is why they fought so hard to make sure that the affordable units and the amenities would be locked-in indefinitely for the project. There were suspicions from the beginning that CPC was going to get the property rezoned and then flip it at a much higher sale rate, turning a great profit for themselves. They refused to show their finances throughout the [rezoning process]; many believe that this is because they never had enough money to develop the property. Like the Atlantic Yards project, The New Domino is proving that real estate development in New York City is a series of broken promises. When it comes to actually meeting the concerns of the community and its residents, the ‘effort’ on behalf of the developer is a grand illusion.”
A recent New York Times piece documented CPC’s downfall, its transformation from a respected non-profit that assisted the poor and working class with affordable housing into one with a for-profit development arm, overreaching and in over its head during a tough economy—and not just with Domino, but also with several other properties in the tri-state area. Salaries have been cut, offices closed, and staff let go. (CPC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Local resident and Domino opponent Dennis Farr sees the potential sale—which he says has always been an inevitability—as a chance to do it over, and do it better. It “re-focuses an opportunity to demonstrate Williamsburg’s profound imagination and responsibility to the human and social good,” he tells us. “The prognostication that luxury condominium developments would not be built on the Domino Sugar site was indeed a curse upon CPC that extends to any large-scale luxury condominium real estate agent considering development of ‘New Domino.’” He suggests instead the creation of a university, and cites Bloomberg’s recent effort to build a school on Roosevelt Island as a model. “Williamsburg can do greater,” he tells us.
Six thousand people are coming to Williamsburg, and nothing will ever be the same...
Aug 18, 2010