A Spoonful of Sugar

Courtesy Landmarks Preservation Commission

Despite calls from some preservationists to protect more of the sprawling Domino Sugar Refinery adjacent the Williamsburg Bridge, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated only three interconnected buildings at the center of the site at its weekly meeting on September 25. The decision paves the way for the New Domino, a mixed-income development designed by Rafael Viñoly that will occupy much of the refinery’s land.

In an interview, LPC chair Robert Tierney said the commission had to balance preserving North Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront while still serving its current residents. “On the merits, this is clearly the way to go,” he said. “Assuming there are no other constraints—an unlimited budget, no housing, the community didn’t care—then it would be great to save everything, but you have to be realistic.” Part of the reason the community cares so much and wants to only preserve part of the refinery is that nearly a third of the New Domino’s 2,200 units will be affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

Not all of the complex could be saved while making room for such an ambitious project. The commission decided to keep the pan, finishing, and filter houses, which comprise the massive brick structure that is the heart of the complex, both historically and visually— it is the oldest intact portion of the complex as well as the tallest, with a 210-foot smokestack. It should make a nice counterpoint to a the 30- and 40-story towers that will rise beside it. (“How Sweet It Is,” AN 13_08.01.2007).

Some preservationists, however, see this decision as a whitewash job. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, applauded the Domino designation but said he wishes more could have been saved to better convey the history of the refinery. He was also concerned that the newer buildings could overpower the older ones. “Ten years from now, we’ll look at that, and will anyone understand what it was?” he said of the refinery. “We’ll have part of it, but is that enough? Is this really the purpose of preservation?”

Tierney did emphasize that the commission considered all buildings on the site and maintained only those worthy of preservation. This, however, does not include the concrete Bin House that has held aloft the iconic yellow neon Domino Sugar sign since 1960. (The developer has said it intends to keep the sign in some fashion.)

The 19th-century Adant House, which has been repeatedly modified, will not be saved. Neither will the many warehouses that line the site, which no one has campaigned for specifically. “The difficulty is not that we didn’t do enough,” Tierney said. “It’s that we did any preservation at all. It may seem like a given, but it is very possible nothing could have been saved. They’re going to keep the buildings that count.”

But which buildings count is a matter of debate, even for Tierney, given his statements during the September 25 meeting. “If sugar was king in Brooklyn,” he said at the time, “the former Domino complex for decades was its crown.” Does that then mean that only a handful of jewels have been saved?

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