The Derelict sugar refinery in the southwest corner of Williamsburg has been the subject of a fierce dispute in recent years. If you live in the area you’ve probably seen “Save Domino” stickers, shirts, street art, and signs abound. It’s a complex issue that has spanned several court cases involving primarily CPC (Community Preservation Corporation), The Katan Group, and Two Trees Management. To top it off there has been a public outcry over the proposed development plan.
It’s a complex but important issue (sticky situation? Sugar pun? Eh…) for many reasons, so I’m going to try to break it down a bit. It’s worth discussing because of aesthetic, economic, historical, and environmental concerns that affect the community at large, and if for no other reason, because you don’t want to be embarrassed next time it comes up at a cocktail party and you have no idea what everyone is talking about.
First it’s important to understand who is involved, and what their interests are. In 2004, amidst the rapid gentrification of Williamsburg, the site shut down after 148 years of operation. Some 200 workers lost their jobs, many of them after several decades of steady work. It was acquired by CPC, with the intention of developing the property into a massive commercial complex incorporating parks, store fronts, and of course; condos. The project was initiated by CPC Resources, the for-profit division of the CPC. In their initial plan they pledged to designate 30% of the 2,200 unit development as affordable housing. CPC’s Resources' major partner in this development was the Katan Group.
The development plan was met with a significant community backlash. In addition to the plants historical status, its was a long standing pillar of the neighborhoods production based community. Lawsuits were brought against CPC claiming that their plan was an unnecessary over development, destructive to the community, and not environmentally sound. As permits were filed the problems compounded for CPC. Opponents pointed to the original 30% affordable housing being quietly reduced closer to 20%, and made accusations of unsafe asbestos removal procedures. The project made slow progress over the next 8 years due to opposition from community groups including Save Domino, and the Williamsburg Community Preservation Coalition. It seemed that locals were not too sweet (hmmm…?) on the plans. In addition to resistance from locals, CPC was encountering financial troubles due to speculative lending and the subsequent market crash.
In 2012 The Katan Group sued its then partner, CPC Resources. The Katan Group claimed negligence on the part of CPC for their failure to move forward with their development plans, however CPC beat the lawsuit. Due to their financial troubles they attempted to sell the property to Two Trees Management, where upon they were once again sued by Katan; this time for not pursuing the highest possible price in the sale. The Two Trees sale was finally approved by the court, and the management company is now in the process of filling for permits to begin demolition. The Two Trees plan is to tear down 2 of the 3 buildings on the site and begin construction on the much disputed complex. The third building (the refinery with the famous sign) is protected by its landmark status. Two Trees plans to restore the iconic building and convert its interior into office space amidst a complex that is being described as a "mini-neighborhood." The current plan is expected to create over 3,000 new jobs in the area, and developers are vowing to keep big franchises out of the store fronts in favor of small, local owners.
That pretty much sums it up. The project is still being hotly disputed between conservationists and developers and predictably so, the building is an undeniably iconic piece of old Brooklyn architecture, and the property is unavoidably attractive to developers. The Domino dispute in some ways is microcosmic of the larger struggle of old industrial Williamsburg against the decade of gentrification that has befallen it. For better or worse, the Domino development plan is moving forward, but my guess is that as the debate rages on, the landmark buildings won’t be going down like dominos. Ok, no more puns.