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Bitter Debate Brews Over Domino Sugar Plant

May 13, 2008

By Josephine Minutillo

While “adaptive reuse” and “loft living” have become popular catch phrases for developers transforming old industrial buildings into trendy condominiums, others are shouting “not so fast”—and perhaps none as loudly as those opposed to converting the Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn into a residential complex. During a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) public hearing, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects was sent back to the drawing board after its proposal for a five-story glass rooftop addition to a landmarked refinery was met with considerable disapproval.

Domino Sugar Plant
Image courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects

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The New York-based firm specializing in historic preservation was given the task of squeezing as many units as possible into, and on top of, a 12-story-tall masonry structure that actually comprises three separate buildings: the filter house, pan house, and finishing house, collectively referred to as “the refinery.” This Romanesque Revival-style structure sits in the heart of an 11.5-acre waterfront industrial campus in Williamsburg, a hip neighborhood where condo buildings are quickly rising. The project is part of a $1.2 billion master plan envisioned by Rafael Viñoly Architects that calls for residential towers, retail space, and a park. The entire development will contain up to 2,200 housing units, 30 percent of which are labeled affordable.

Local activists have lobbied to protect the entire campus, arguing it’s a vital thread in the city’s historic fabric. Once one of the largest sugar processing facilities in the world, the plant opened in 1884 and operated until 2003. A year later, the complex was sold to CPC Resources, the for-profit subsidiary of the Community Preservation Corporation, whose plan to clear the site and build housing units was immediately challenged. It didn’t help that one of the partners in the purchase was mega-developer Isaac Katan, who has long battled Brooklyn preservationists.

While the campus did not earn landmark status, the LPC did grant the coveted designation to the refinery, meaning alterations would require approval by a majority of the 11-member commission. During a March 4 hearing, only two commissioners said they could support Beyer Blinder Belle’s scheme. Overall opinion was that the glass box was too large and did not adequately reference the building’s industrial heritage. The architects’ failure to integrate the Domino Sugar sign, a long-time luminous presence on the East River, also disappointed.

The LPC will schedule a second hearing once it receives a revamped design, which the developer says should happen within the next two months.

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