Williamsburg's Last Domino: A Gentrification Time Bomb? 

The site of Domino's old sugar refinery, an industrial ruin along the East River, doesn't feel at all like the heart of Williamsburg—more like the fringe. As it stands, Kent Avenue, which abuts the core of the Domino site between South 2nd and South 5th streets, looks like Brooklyn's West Side Highway: a strip of asphalt with hardly a stoplight, where you can spot plenty of fast-moving vehicles but few people. Over a couple of hours on a recent sunny weekday afternoon, the only pedestrians I saw were a handful of dog walkers, a mailman, three dark-skinned teenagers chatting about development, and a photographer snapping a few frames of industrial ruin.

She had certainly come to the right place. The Domino site, where the developer CPC Resources plans to build 2,200 housing units on 11.2 acres of land, starts at South 5th Street, underneath the Williamsburg Bridge, amid clanging echoes of thudding traffic. Weeds grow from every crack and grating. Walk north, and you pass a solid brick building whose erstwhile ground-floor windows have been bricked over. A sign that reads "CAUTION/KEEP CLEAR/LOADING DOOR" is affixed to a solid brick wall. Past that is another building without any real windows at all.

Across the street lies a vacant lot posing as a parking lot, and a few cute but fortified apartment buildings. (Their west-facing facades can forget about ever seeing the sun again. The new development they'll face will climb 34 stories.) An unofficial tree census of these few blocks yields... one.

But then you squint north, and you can make out the hulking glass towers of Northside Piers. A few blocks to the south stands Schaefer Landing. The Domino site, and its surrounding area, is not a no-man's land—not really. It's the last waterfront lot standing in the way of what would make Kent Avenue a shimmering, uninterrupted lane of condominiums, of development, of gentrification—what Councilman Steve Levin calls Brooklyn's "Gold Coast."

Dennis Farr, a local activist and lifetime resident, is standing alongside me underneath some of the project's scaffolding on an afternoon in late July. In the middle of our conversation, he looks at me, seriously, and says: "Atlantic Yards pales in significance to what's gonna happen here."

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.

On July 29, after negotiations and some modest compromises, the city council approved a change to the zoning law that would allow the Domino plan to move forward: it was the project's final hurdle, and a decade of construction should ensue.

Up to that point, much of the opposition to the Domino plan had been predictable, if valid. A few politicians gave voice to their constituents' concerns about the community's character and the neighborhood's infrastructure: that it was already impossible to get a seat on the L train, that 40-story buildings would be out of context with the surrounding architecture.

In what barely seems like an actual compromise, CPC Resources agreed to shorten their planned 40-story towers to 34 stories: The resulting towers will just be thicker, so the project's density remains unchanged. The developer also agreed to host a shuttle bus that will ferry residents to the Marcy Avenue J/M/Z station, to relieve increased ridership on the already overburdened L train.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, whose district includes the Domino site, still opposes the plan, despite the changes the council secured prior to passage (although he is the first to admit that, without a vote in the city council, he was simply an observer to the whole process). "The project is still as dense as it was," he tells me over the phone, noting that it's also still too tall—he would favor a height cap of 28 stories, more in line with the nearby developments—and without concrete plans for more services: no additional trains, no new fire houses or police stations or schools—"everything you need to accommodate the numbers of people moving into Domino," roughly 6,500 new residents.

He wants shorter towers, less dense development, more open space and more affordable housing. "I don't mind them"—CPC Resources—"making a profit," he tells me, "but it doesn't have to be half a billion." The developer has said the project would be unfeasible if it were less dense or included more affordable housing. "I don't believe them," Lentol says. "They may not be able to make half a billion," but they'll still make plenty of profit.

Of course, Lentol can finger-wag all he wants. But "until there's an outcry from the people about a lack of amenities, they're not going to get any." If there's any kind of silver lining here, Lentol seems to be saying, it's that the project will beget what we could call The New Domino Effect: it'll show residents what this kind of development really looks like, how bad it is for their communities, so that they'll rise up and stop developments of this kind from happening in the future.

Not everyone is opposed to the Domino plan: several politicians, including the mayor, and community organizations have expressed their support. Reaction has split along racial and socio-economic lines, with much of the support coming from a segment of Williamsburg's South Side Latino population. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Councilwoman Diana Reyna have been prominent faces of support—though the development lies outside of Reyna's district—as has Father Rick Beuther, of the South Side's Saints Peter and Paul Church, along with many of his congregants.

The plan's proponents talked up the increased open space and high percentage of affordable housing. "The past few years have not been friendly to our community as... businesses, families and properties are squeezed out of our neighborhood," Reyna told a rally of bused-in supporters wearing yellow "Domi-YES!" t-shirts this June, according to the Daily News. "This is a vision of what the Latino community in the south side has wanted for so many years."

Beuther, who by accounts is an admirable advocate for the poor, admitted to the Williamsburg-Greenpoint News that his church has accepted donations from CPC in the past, but he would not admit it to me: every time I called the parish, a different secretary told me that Father Beuther couldn't come to the phone; several messages went unreturned. Multiple emails to Rep. Vazquez also went unanswered. It was as though supporters were so confident of their coming victory that they no longer needed to argue their position in the press.

Councilman Steven Levin was one of the project's most vocal opponents, though in the end, after the "compromises," he changed his position to one of support. When I spoke to him, he admitted the project still wasn't perfect: that he'd like more affordable housing, less dense development, lower buildings. (Like many critics, he worries about more passengers on the subway. "Take the Bedford L at 8:45 in the morning," he tells me, "and you'll have to wait for three trains, or go backwards"—he quickly corrects himself—"go east a few stops.")

The city council traditionally defers development decisions to that community's councilmember. If Levin was unhappy with the development, couldn't he have stopped it? "At a certain point," he told me, "that was difficult to do." The city planning commission had approved the plan, which also had significant support from the mayor, several other politicians and community groups.

Finally, Levin admits that it was never his intention to kill the project, just to maximize the community's benefit from it. "We did our very best to get as many changes as possible," he tells me. Aside from the shorter towers and shuttle bus, he assured the extension of the set-to-expire Tenant Anti-Harassment Fund and a commitment to neighborhood arts funding. The Bloomberg administration also promised to "look at the feasibility" of a traffic study of the neighborhood—for which Levin said the community has been clamoring over the last seven or so years—as well as to offer continued support for, though not a hard commitment to, the conversion of the old Engine 212 house into a community center, the "Northside Town Hall." In short, he seems to have gotten a handful of modest promises and a few commitments to consider making commitments.

Levin says he's looking toward the future: he notes that Domino won't be the last development in the neighborhood—tens of thousands of new residents will arrive in coming years. He wants to maintain the vibrancy of the neighborhood. "These things collectively will help," he says.

To which Dennis Farr would most certainly call bullshit.

The day we meet, Farr's tattoo-covered arms poke out of a blue t-shirt; a dark ponytail juts out of a Cardinals cap. It's hot and sunny, and he has a day or two's worth of beard. Thirty-nine years old and a proofreader by profession, Farr is a lifelong resident—give or take a few excursions into other neighborhoods with girlfriends. He's had family in the area since the 1950s, when many Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City, although he tells me the South Side's Latino population goes back at least 100 years.

An "agent provocateur" in the neighborhood for 20 years ("I like that so much better than 'activist'"), Farr has plenty of problems with the Domino project. But they don't have to do with overtaxed infrastructure, or the abundance of luxury housing, or simple Marxist binaries of rich versus poor. For him, the Domino site is emblematic of everything that's been wrong about 30 years of gentrification, decades remarkable only for their mediocrity—a mediocrity that the Domino project will exemplify.

It begins with aesthetics. The Kent Avenue corridor, from Schaefer Landing to Northside Piers (the Domino site would be the last, ahem, domino to fall), will become notable for its dull, homogeneous architectural style. "A kind of Lego blockism," Farr calls it. "Playground architecture." (The landmarked buildings at the Domino site today, which the Havemeyers didn't just own but also helped to design, date back to 1882; they are thought to have replaced others destroyed by fire, and their brick-and-metal designs were primarily a pragmatic matter of fireproofing.) "You've got 11 acres of prime waterfront real estate?" he adds, excitably. "You're seriously gonna put up a bunch of building blocks?"

The political fights, like that between Levin and Bloomberg, are illusory, Farr contends: each side represents the typical, the narrow-minded—those who can conceive of development only in terms of new office space or condominiums. "It's a failure of imagination," he says. "A man like Levin should go Alexander the Great on motherfuckers!"

For the Domino site, Farr has suggested, instead, a community college, which would help erase what he tells me is the greatest distinction between the neighborhood's locals and its transplants: a college experience. Williamsburg has always had white people, but the post-white-flight whites have tended to have more college educations than their predecessors. And because they're young, and have been in college not so long ago, Williamsburg has become the "superimposition of a college campus on an urban locale." A college town without a college.

While we talk, hanging on the scaffolding railings outside the northernmost of the old Domino buildings, the conversation quiets; a group of men approach, whom Farr has pegged as security guards. He warns me that they may harass us. I very nearly hold my breath.

But they pass without incident, only glancing at us. "That one in the blue shirt is definitely security," he tells me after they've gone. "He kicked me and my friend out of here once. We were taking pictures."

Farr, who may be more of a big-picture man than a pragmatist, tells me the neighborhood has, in recent years, consistently fallen short: that, if America during the George W. Bush years could be characterized by squandered opportunity, the same could be said of North Brooklyn during the Bloomberg years. ("It's almost like George Bush moved in.") In the aughts, Williamsburg saw a dramatic rezoning and a rush of large-scale development, but ended up with little to show for it besides a shuttered firehouse. When thinking about Williamsburg, Farr says, we need to stop thinking about the stores, about the strips of pan-Asian restaurants that prove the area's hipness. We need to stop thinking about what's being consumed, and start thinking about what's being created.

"The thing about Domino Sugar," he says, "is not what it builds but what it will replace. Or displace." When people talk about the gentrification of Williamsburg, they don't talk about what it has created, but only about the "bad things" it has replaced. For the gentrifiers, the former landscape needs to be destroyed, or at least gussied up beyond recognition—the past needs to be razed so a new culture can be overlaid, a culture that then celebrates its own superiority. To claim that gentrification has improved the community, Farr tells me, is "preposterous." How did the boutiques on Bedford Avenue make life better for the Latino community? Gentrification is not about what's been achieved but about the illusion that achievement has occurred. The idea. The feeling.

Farr contends that CPC sees Domino as the culmination of this "progress." "What a sad culmination that would be," he says.

Later, we're standing under the northernmost building's shadow, on South 2nd Street, saying our goodbyes. A storm's approaching, and the sky is a dramatic mess of gray. "Every time I look at the building on a cloudy day like today, " he tells me, " I think of Lovecraft." We break apart, and the sky does too, pouring down rain: a real summer storm has arrived, and North Brooklyn's soon-to-be Gold Coast will never be the same.

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