Monday, October 20, 2008

Sunday in the Park at (New) Domino; the developer (obscurely) opens the door

Yesterday was an opportunity for a wide variety of Williamsburg residents to enjoy an afternoon in a remarkable space--the gritty concrete backyard of the closed Domino Sugar plant, open to the public--as the advertisement indicates--for the first time in a century.

There was popcorn and cotton candy, cider and hot chocolate--and, yes, dominoes. Hasids and hipsters and Hispanic residents cordially shared the same space, hinting at the promise of public space in such a diverse and often divided neighborhood. Some former workers in the sugar factory, which closed in 2004 after a bitter strike, also get a chance to revisit their stomping grounds. Many people brought cameras to capture the views of the Williamsburg Bridge and the shuttered factory.

Who's in charge?

But who was behind this event? You couldn't tell from the advertisement (above) in the Brooklyn Downtown Star or the Courier-Life chain. The poster on the street in Williamsburg, reproduced here, shows logos from advocacy groups like the Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

The opening of new waterfront space in parks-deprived Williamsburg is certainly a legitimate goal, but it shouldn't be used to obscure the ongoing debate over the development that would bring the open space.

The advertisement welcomed people to "Domino." So did posters at the site (below). But the project that would transform the 11.2-acre site is called New Domino (official web site). It would preserve and adapt the existing main refinery building and involve up to 15 buildings and 2.86 million square feet of development.

A major project

In other words, the current open space, and the nifty potential space, depicted yesterday in renderings marked "for illustrative purposes only," comes attached to a mega-project that faces a contentious approval process, likely over the next year. Visitors yesterday were shown two renderings, both emphasizing open space as opposed to the project as a whole--no 300-foot or 400-foot towers--plus, as shown in the photo above, a schematic rendering of the open space.

The event yesterday was "to let people know what it will feel like," and the renderings of the open space are "what we'll be proposing," Susan M. Pollock, Senior VP for CPC Resources (CPCR), the for-profit subsidiary of Community Preservation Corporation, told me yesterday.

CPCR is the managing partner of Refinery, LLC, which is developing the New Domino project; while CPCR has a 30-year history of financing affordable housing throughout New York, its silent partner, Isaac Katan of the Katan Group, has a much more controversial track record.

As I've written, while a for-profit subsidiary of a nonprofit, like CPCR, may have lower profit goals than an investor trying to maximize return, there may be pressure to build more units and build taller to deliver the (unannounced) return the investor needs, even if the decisions are being made by CPCR.

Interestingly, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who has supported the Atlantic Yards project without serious scrutiny, told The Brooklyn Paper in May that he can't support the project until CPCR opens up its books to justify the project's height and density.

And Refinery LLC has already spent nearly $560,000 this year on lobbying city officials and agencies, according to NYC Lobbyist Search.

(The New York Post, bizarrely enough, reported on the veiled waterfront open house, which offered nothing about the apartments planned, under the headline DOMINO EFFECT! B'KLYN HOME BUYERS CHASE SWEET LIFE: The economy may be turning sour, but potential residents sure are sweet on the chance to move into Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Factory.

(Metro also played up the residential angle, citing the possibility of ferry service: W’burg building offers free ride as tenant lure.)

Contrasts with AY

The New Domino project (right), unlike Atlantic Yards, will go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The four acres of open space would be mapped as city parkland, again an improvement over the Atlantic Yards open space, which would be managed by a nonprofit organization.

And, of course, there's no way we could have a "Sunday in the Atlantic Yards open space," since so much depends on superblocks, unless someone closed off Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues for a block party.

As with Atlantic Yards, however, the project is already delayed beyond its optimistic p.r. When the New Domino was announced in July 2007, construction was to start in 2008. I asked whether the credit crunch might affect the project. "Our financing is solid," Pollock said. "We have a lot of interest in the first phase."

She said that the seven-month ULURP process, which requires approval from the City Council and the City Planning Commission, along with advisory votes from the local community board, might start this fall.

So that offers a hint regarding the timing of yesterday's event. The opening of the waterfront certainly built some goodwill. But the veil over the developer's role should provoke skepticism as well.

1 comment:

  1. Your phrasing is a bit unclear in relation to the strike at Domino. The plant re-opened for a time following the strike, I believe it was operating for a year or two before the powers at be at Domino decide to close the plant shifting production to newer plants with less overhead in the south. Just wanted to clarify that a bit.

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