Today it’s a dirty swath of land in the shadow of a decrepit 19th-century factory now, but in two months it will be a thriving riverfront park with athletic courts, historic artifacts and a children’s playground—the factory will still be there.
Domino Park is a six-acre public space being built by Two Trees Management on the Williamsburg waterfront. It’s part of the firm’s rehabilitation of the former sugar refinery site. Roughly eight weeks out from its grand opening, the district is beginning to take shape.
“It looks a lot different today than it did yesterday,” Dave Lombino, managing director of external affairs at Two Trees, said Thursday afternoon. “We’re at that phase of construction where it’s making a lot of progress every day.”
Designed by the James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm behind the Chelsea High Line, the privately-financed park will include a waterside esplanade, a dog run, bocce courts, a sand volleyball pit, open fields and a factory-themed playscape, among other features.
As of late last week, trees had been planted on the site and the stonework for much of the walkway was in position, if not set if not cemented in place. Planters and benches were installed and final touches were being made to the pier reveal—a roughly 8-by-12-foot cutout that gives visitors a glimpse at the exposed water and pilings below.
Also in place were elements of the “artifact walk,” a path flanked by pieces of machinery salvaged from the factory, which was once the largest producer of refined sugar in North America. These pieces include syrup tanks, screw conveyors and a pair of large cranes connected to an elevated catwalk that has been painted light blue to match the plant’s original aesthetic.
“It acts as a kind of threshold and entrance into the park,” Lisa Switkin, senior principal at James Corner Field Operations said. “Some artifacts are in place, some have been shifted close to their original locations and that gesture was to get people to inquire and think about the history of the place, to ground it here at the refinery and to create a really unique experience.”
Sugar processing began at the site in the 1850s but the complex’s signature structure was built in 1882, claiming the title of tallest building in the borough at the time. Operations continued there until 2004. Like many factories of its era, the Domino facility was home to unsafe work conditions and lengthy standoffs between ownership and labor.
Along with forging a spiritual connection to the past, Two Trees will also use the park to create physical connections with the community.
Stretching a quarter-mile, roughly from the Williamsburg Bridge to the south to Grand Ferry Park to the north, the project will extend River Street from its current terminus at Grand Street to South Fifth Street. South Fourth, Third, Second and First Streets will also connect cars, bikes and pedestrians to River Street. The first layer of pavement has been poured for the thoroughfare and second will soon follow.
“The public east-west street grid will be extended closer to the river, hopefully drawing in the entire neighborhood into the park and closer to the water,” Lombino said.
Domino Park was conceived as a community tradeoff for Two Tree’s sweeping redevelopment of the 11-acre industrial campus, an endeavor which aims to bring modern offices to the defunct refinery and erect a trio of high-rise apartment buildings, including 260 Kent, due to open next year.
In total, the development will include 2,100 market-rate and 700 affordable apartments, 600,000 s/f of office space and 200,000 s/f of retail.
Understanding that the complex would stand in stark contrast with the rest of the medium- and low-rise neighborhood, Lombino said Two Trees wanted to invite the surrounding community to enjoy the waterfront in ways it never had before.
“The way we see the river now is wildly different than it was seen by residents in Williamsburg and people, in general, for a century,” he said. “This is really the first time that it’ll be opened up to the public.”
He also noted that the area, which is represented by Brooklyn’s Community Board One, has long boasted the worst ratio of people to open space in the city.
Much has changed since Two Trees and James Corner first presented their redevelopment plans at City Hall.
“We actually presented our first concept ideas for the park literally three days after Hurricane Sandy,” Switkin said. “It, obviously, changed the way landscape architects think about waterfront edges all over the world but especially here since it just happened.”
In response, the firm raised the platform above the hundred-year flood line. This made the park level with Kent Avenue and removed the previously-planned stairs and switchbacks that would have brought visitors closer to the water.
This came during the development’s second run through the Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. Two Trees had already won the city’s approval for a plan that would have allowed it to convert the landmarked factory into condos but it decided to pivot and anchor the site with a commercial development.
Instead of building offices on the factory’s existing floor plates, the company will gut the building and use it as a shell that wraps around an entirely new structure set back seven to 10 feet from the brick exterior.
Under the previous plan, Lombino said Two Trees might not have had the same incentive to invest in the park, which the company plans to operate in perpetuity.
“If you’re a condo developer you want to maximize the space between what you paid for [a property] and what you sell it for on the day you sell it,” he said. “Then you’re done, you move out.
“When you build rentals and you’re committed to the life of that property over 10, 20, 30 years or more, it connects you more to the neighborhood in the sense that your interest is long-term,” he continued. “It allows you to invest in something like this park, which will, of course, add value to our money-making assets here but it’ll also contribute to everyone else in the neighborhood’s quality of life.”