The controversial residential development proposed for the site of the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg has cleared every planning and landmarks hurdle. But despite the green light from the city, the site sits dormant. The developer, Community Preservation Corporation Resources (CPCR), declined to comment on the status of the project, but in September, Architectural Record reported that the company was seeking additional investors to move the project forward. The Rafael Viñoly-designed New Domino complex of five towers is slated for 2,200 units, 660 of which the developer says will be affordable housing.
While CPCR may be on the hunt for cash, a community group is seizing the hiatus to revive interest in an alternative plan that envisions the site as a mixed-use “cultural hub” that includes galleries, event spaces, a hotel, and a marina, as well as 200 affordable housing units. The group, which calls itself Williamsburg Independent People (WIP), compares its proposal to the repositioning of the Bankside Power Station in Central London to become the Tate Modern, one of the top attractions in the UK, with almost 5 million visitors per year. In fact, WIP has consulted Tate deputy director Alex Beard about their efforts. “I know the site, and it’s a wonderful one, a piece of architectural heritage” said Beard of the Domino refinery and its riverfront industrial site, similar to the Tate. “The Tate Modern was a dramatic piece of architecture in a central location but unknown within the city until the opening of the South Bank,” said Beard, referring to the Thames waterfront development.
WIP’s financing model would differ significantly from the Tate, which receives substantial support from the British government. But WIP plan supporters say that their project would sustain itself with income generated in several ways: from the sale of gallery space, marina boatslips, and parking spaces to be located underneath the affordable housing; from the rental of event space; and from tickets sales for admission to the art exhibits and other events inside the historic Domino factory building. Stephanie Eisenberg, a local resident involved in the alternative plan, argues that CPCR’s New Domino plan will cost the city more in the long run due to the infrastructure upgrades, including expanded transportation and sewer systems, that will be required to support the influx of new residents. “Our [WIP] plan won’t be a burden to the government but will pay its own way,” she said, adding that any development at the Domino site should benefit all parts of the surrounding community. “We’re proposing a cultural center that will be an economic engine for the neighborhood and provide living wage jobs.”
One unusual aspect of the WIP plan is a proposed gallery-condo model. Based on a statistic that over 90 percent of private art collections sit in storage, WIP is banking on art collectors’ desire to go public with their acquisitions, purchasing gallery space where they can curate their own exhibitions and art-related events on the waterfront site, which would be accessible by boat. Eisenberg said art collectors approached by WIP have already expressed interest in buying gallery space, and, with regard to the bigger picture, several potential but unconfirmed backers are interested in buying the entire site from CPCR.
With the city’s efforts to revitalize the Brooklyn waterfront, if the WIP plan can secure funding, it may be able to rally political support. Steve Levin, the city councilman representing Brooklyn’s 33rd district which includes the Domino site, dropped opposition to CPCR’s plan in 2010, but in a recent interview he expressed concern that the plan was still too big to be supported by existing neighborhood infrastructure. When asked about the alternative plan of the cultural hub, Levin said, “If another group has another idea, it’s worth hearing about it. There are a lot of potential development scenarios at the site.”