The Domino Sugar factory is still visible on the banks of Williamsburg—though now it stands empty. At night, the illuminated “Save Domino” sign beams brightly over the water. In this constantly changing neighborhood, the Domino Sugar Factory has come to represent the struggle between development and conservancy.
A Brief History of the Domino Sugar Factory
After the Civil War, New York became the biggest provider of refined sugar to the United States, and for a period of time the Domino factory in Williamsburg was the largest sugar refinery in the world. At one time, the factory employed over 4,000 workers and processed 3 million pounds of sugar a day. In 2004, after nearly 150 years of service, the factory shut down due to a steady decline in demand.
Developers Refinery LLC purchased the property with plans in mind to make Domino Sugar a residential building with 2,220 units and 220,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor. The plan is called “New Domino.” Because of the Community Preservation Corporation’s guidelines, at least 30% of these units must be made available as affordable “low-income” housing. The developers estimate that this project would cost $1.5 billion dollars and most likely wouldn’t be completed until 2021.
The Argument Against Development
There are two very strong arguments against this development. Groups like the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth in Williamsburg, for instance, believe that the Domino Sugar Factory should be considered a national landmark, and that its original structure should not be altered. The Waterfront Preservation Alliance and the Landmarks Conservancy agree that a huge development would destroy the history and architectural legacy of the Domino Sugar Factory.
Other groups, such as Community Board 1, are more concerned about the presence of “low-income” housing and how the influx of people would affect the neighborhood, particularly in terms of commuting and the real estate value of the area, about 11 acres of land on Kent Avenue between Grand and South 5th Street. Most people agree that the development of a large 40-story building on the waterfront would impede on existing residents’ views of the waterfront.
On June 22, 2010, Councilman Steve Levin summed up the arguments against the development: “People have concerns about the height, the density, the transportation negative impacts and open space negative impacts that this project will have.”
Save Domino, a group headed by Stephenie Eisenberg, hopes that the historic and architectural legacy of the Domino Sugar Factory can be maintained by making it a public place for art—the Domino Center, modeled after London’s Tate Gallery. This plan would provide for 60,000 square feet of gallery space, up to 4,000 jobs, and 200 affordable housing units.
Current Status of Development
The City Planning Commission approved of Refinery LLC’s New Domino plan in June 2010. The new residences will provide both market-cost units and affordable housing, with public access to the waterfront. The conflict rages on, however, as many residents of the area are concerned about an increase in population. For instance, during rush hour the L line (the only train in the neighborhood the travels direct into Manhattan) already suffers from severe overcrowding. Currently, the development awaits City Council’s approval to move full steam ahead.