By Adam Brock
A couple nights ago, a friend and I were wandering around Williamsburg, trading summer adventure tales and picking wildflower bouquets from vacant lots. We rounded a corner and came upon the old Domino Sugar Factory, a hulking brown edifice on the waterfront just north of the Willamsburg Bridge. Personally, I’ve always found it comforting that Domino, one of the last major relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past, is still around. As the rest of the once-scruffy W’burg waterfront begins to take on the glitz and glamour of the skyline across the river, the Domino complex remains, stubbornly resisting the inevitable.
No more. According to Atlantic Yards Report, the site has been bought by a developer and is now slated for a gargantuan redevelopment plan – 2.8 million square feet, to be exact. Turns out that the very lot I was picking flowers from, currently surrounded by modest walkups and 1-story warehouses, is slated to be a 120-foot tower. No wonder the Atlantic Yards folks are paying attention – the “New Domino” is looking like a sequel to Bruce Ratner’s vilified megadevelopment a couple miles to the south.
Now forget, just for a moment, that the real estate industry has this town in the palm of its hand. Forget the fact that the development plans are already underway and, as Curbed put it, “prying it loose at this point will take an effort of herculean force—not to mention hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, presumably from city coffers.” Let’s just take a moment to think about what, hypothetically, could be done with this building: a major waterfront landmark in a diverse, rapidly growing cultural district, in a city that (in theory, at least) is finally beginning to support the development of green, walkable communities. If this were Europe, the municipal government wouldn’t let developers anywhere near a site with this much potential.
But this is New York, and so it’s up to us, the concerned citizens, to convince the city that the Domino site deserves more than another set of towers. A group of local artists have begun doing just that, rallying to put up a giant “save domino” sign on a nearby apartment and putting together an alternate proposal calling for a massive cultural center in the vein of London’s Tate Modern.
Sounds like a good start to me – but integrating culture into the development plan is only the half of it. I see acres of potential for agritecture, providing the neighborhood with jobs and fresh produce. I see a native plant green roof, attracting wildlife and absorbing stormwater. I see those two industrial chutes turned into children’s slides, like in Germany’s acclaimed Landschaftspark. And I still see plenty of room left over in the six-square-block site for affordable housing, overpriced yuppie housing, a museum, and performance space.
Part of the philosophy of ecodesign is to harmonize the many interests at stake in a project – those of the developers, the artists and the working class, but also those of the waterfowl, the climate, and future generations. Sounds idealistic? Look at nature. Natural systems are constantly maintaining a balance between seemingly opposing forces, creating a dynamic equilibrium that works to everybody’s benefit. Extending that approach to social systems means sitting down with all the interested parties (or their human representatives) and getting people talking.
In the case of Domino, I have no doubt that it’s possible to provide both housing and cultural amenities, to design a development that enhances the community while still turning a profit – but only if everyone involved is willing to work together. Can Domino be saved? At this point, probably not. But as an exercise in imagining what our city could become with the right support, it sure doesn’t hurt to try.