Situated on an eleven-acre parcel of waterfront in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the derelict Domino Sugar Refinery remains one of the most recognized monuments of Brooklyn’s rapidly disappearing industrial past. Now, after a decade of false starts, new plans for a modern, mixed use megacomplex may put an end to the decaying colossus that was once the largest refinery in the world, marking the final passage of a working-class Williamsburg.
In the late 19th century, Brooklyn was responsible for over half of the country’s sugar production, with Havemeyers & Elders Sugar Company leading the pack of over 20 major refineries that called the borough home. The factory’s signature building—a towering redbrick structure that still stands today—was constructed in 1884 to replace an older sugarhouse that had been destroyed in a catastrophic fire. Three years later, 17 of the largest sugar refiners in the U.S. merged to form the Sugar Refineries Co. Trust, later reorganized as the American Sugar Refining Co., and branded as Domino Sugar in 1902. Domino and its predecessors operated on the waterfront for a total of 148 years; at its peak, the site employed over 5,000 workers, capable of producing over three million pounds of processed sugar a day.
With the growing use of high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners came a steady decline in demand for old-fashioned cane sugar. Production at the Williamsburg plant ended in the early 2000s with partial packaging operations lingering until 2004. The non-profit Community Preservation Corporation purchased the Domino site the same year for $58 million. Their plan would preserve and renovate the central refinery building, landmarked in 2007, and raise a battalion of architecturally offensive residential high-rises in the footprint of the surrounding industrial complex, razing the Raw Sugar Warehouse, constructed in 1927, and the Packaging House, a 1962 addition, in the process.
Two Trees teamed up with noted NYC firm SHoP Architects—the group is already leaving a lasting impression on the city landscape with the Barclay’s Center and the East River Esplanade. Unveiled Friday, their monumental plans seem tailor-made to appease the new population of Williamsburg, without limiting profits.
The plan is similar in scope to the vision of the CPC, with several key improvements. The buildings rise higher—up to 60 stories—to allow for more park space, including a one-acre “Domino Square,” where builders envision film screenings and outdoor concerts. Some of the structures include open spaces and sky bridges, an innovative solution sought to preserve harbor views for the inland community. The landmarked refinery building would be preserved and converted to office space, and several pieces of machinery would be salvaged for inclusion in a public “artifact walk.” In the face of such monumental changes, this may be of some consolation to New York nostalgics.
Developers are working with the YMCA to establish a community space on the site, and are also proposing a new public school. Street level retail would favor independent business over chain store tenants. Two Trees also intends to deliver on the previous developer’s promise of 660 units of “affordable” housing, though the condition was never legally binding.
With all these benefits, Two Trees is attempting to pacify a community that is weary of change, and concerned for its future. The Domino development marks a clear and dramatic manifestation of a contentious transition that’s been taking place in Williamsburg for the last decade. The area is well known today as an infamous haven for hipster youth, but 10 years ago the neighborhood was a quiet, working-class community of Jewish, eastern European, and Hispanic immigrants. Now, it won’t be long before the tattooed and the trendy are priced out, leaving room for only the wealthiest New Yorkers. Emerging across formerly affordable areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the familiar pattern is destined to change the face of our city. Call it progress or gentrification. Praise the plans, or lament the loss, there’s no stopping the reckless growth of New York City.
In its final moments, the Domino Sugar Refinery slips further into a speedy decay, introducing an element of the exotic to an already unfamiliar environment. Some of the alien interiors are coated with shallow puddles of tar, or dark sugar byproducts rendered the consistency of glue, or apple crisp. Others take on the appearance of an Egyptian temple in the impenetrable darkness, with row upon row of columns supporting the chasm of a vacant warehouse. Tinged aquamarine, the peeling factory floors of the packaging plant might be confused for the barnacled mechanisms of a sunken ship. The complex is unnervingly immense, presenting a seemingly endless series of floors connected by lightless, labyrinthine staircases. Alone in a factory that once employed thousands, up against its unfathomable depths, it felt like being in the belly of the whale—it didn’t take a miracle to get me out of there.
The next time you ride down the FDR or traverse the Williamsburg Bridge, take a good look at the sprawling industrial giant that was the Domino Sugar Refinery; it won’t be long before it’s preened and polished into the marketably modern new New Domino—another of the city’s rough edges, smoothed over in favor of gleaming glass.