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Domino Sugar Plan Redefines A Waterfront
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Aerial view rendering of the buildings that will be designed for the 11-acre Domino Sugar factory site
The buildings designed for the 11-acre Domino Sugar factory site will be tall but slim and porous, allowing light and air to penetrate the surrounding Williamsburg neighborhood. SHoP Architects PC

A revised plan to redevelop a former manufacturing plant and construct several other inviting structures along the East River in Brooklyn will help bring vibrancy and commerce back to a flagging waterfront.

March 26, 2013—For years, residential waterfront development in New York City has too often “privatized” the water, restricting access to the lucky—and usually wealthy—occupants of luxury buildings. Now, a dynamic new residential and commercial development at the Domino Sugar factory site on the East River in Brooklyn seeks to bring the community into the picture. As the local hipsters might say: “Sweet!”

The Domino Sugar factory, adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge, dates from the mid-19th century and once employed 4,000 workers who produced more than 50 percent of the sugar used in the United States. After the plant shut down in 2004, redevelopment plans culminated in a Rafael Viñoly-led scheme for four towers and 2,200 apartments. Although the plan won city approval, it lacked public support and the Two Trees development firm, which paid $185 million for the 11 acre site, sought a fresh approach.

The new plan, designed by New York’s SHoP Architects PC—the firm that designed the striking Barclays Center for the Brooklyn Nets basketball team—calls for five buildings, including the repurposed historical refinery building, covering 3.3 million sq ft. One building, already nicknamed the Donut, has two 40-story, 55 ft wide towers set 120 ft apart and joined at the top. Two slender 60-story towers, connected by a sky bridge, comprise the tallest structure. Another building looks like an inverted letter “L” resting atop a shorter slab structure that will contain offices. 

 Waterfront view rendering of buildings setting back from the East River, which includes a park and civic plaza

The architects want to reverse a trend toward “privatizing” water,
setting the buildings back from the East River and adding a
waterfront park and a civic plaza to open up access to the
waterfront to all. SHoP Architects PC

SHoP has imagined taller but slimmer, more porous buildings than those in the previous plan, designed to permit more air and light to pass through. The Donut and the taller building have large openings to accomplish that end. The number of apartments is the same as before, but the new plan calls for 60 percent more open space (5.3 acres), designed in part by the New York City-based landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the creator of Manhattan’s High Line. (See “New York’s ‘High Line’ Railroad to Become an Elevated Park,” Civil Engineering, July 2006.) The open space is key to the charm of the plan, which may spur designers to rethink waterfront development.

“We’re very interested in redefining what typically happens with large waterfront developments,” said ShoP principal Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, the chief designer of the project, who responded in writing to questions from Civil Engineering online. He said many waterfront residential development tends to “privatize” the water so that the front of the project is the waterfront that belongs to the residents “and the back of the project is something that is more poorly designed that addresses the neighborhood—or turns its back on the neighborhood.

“We wanted to change that so that the neighborhood and the waterfront have equal importance in the design, and the architectural design should be one of openness and connection,” Chakrabarti explained.

To achieve this, the buildings will be set back from the water, creating a quarter-mile-long waterfront park. One building from the previous plan was scratched in order to make room for a public plaza and a new small street will be inserted between the buildings and the open space “as a way of declaring that the open space is public for all,” Chakrabarti said.

 Ground level view of project site which displays residential units, retail space, and office space

The project will feature 2,280 residential units, almost 80,000 sq ft
of ground-floor retail space, and more than 630,000 sq ft of office
space, including the renovated landmark refinery building. SHoP
Architects PC

The design was informed by waterfront developments in Toronto as well as Barcelona and other European cities, Chakrabarti said. “One of our takeaways from visiting great waterfront neighborhoods is you feel the presence of the water before you get to the water,” he said. “The block sizes change; you see the changes in the light because the water reflects into the sky differently. So we wanted to design this not only for the site we were given, but also for those two or three blocks inland, so they can feel it’s for them as well.”

The waterfront park will feature access to the East River for boating, recreation, and picnicking, and the plaza is envisioned as a site for fairs and performances. The park will also have an “artifact walk,” featuring salvaged items from the factory and creating a Williamsburg version of the High Line. But Chakrabarti also wants to honor the factory site’s heritage as a working waterfront, so the refinery building will be used to satisfy the increasing demand for small business space in Brooklyn. If plans are approved, he said, the building will have double the number of workers as the refinery did in 1960.

“Both in Rotterdam and Hamburg we’ve seen the return of a working waterfront,” said Chakrabarti. “So maybe there’s a different way of thinking about our waterfronts, not just as places of luxury or leisure, but as economically productive.”

Superstorm Sandy, which devastated waterfront areas throughout New York City, has also influenced SHoP’s design. The setbacks of the buildings make room for permeable parkland that can act as a sponge. Streets will follow the natural grade so the storm water will drain by gravity. Building lobbies and retail entrances will be raised several steps and critical mechanical systems have been moved up from basement levels. “We don’t have to run away from waterfront development; we simply need to design more smartly for it,” Chakrabarti insisted.

The New York City-based architecture and planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle LLP, which has a strong portfolio of work on historic landmarks, has been tasked with remaking the refinery building. SHoP is designing two of the four remaining buildings, including the Donut, and will help curate the architects for the other two in what is envisioned to be a 10- to 12-year project. The theory is that more cooks will make for a less bland architectural stew. The first structure to be built will be a 600-unit apartment building shaped like an elongated letter C.

Community response to the plan has been enthusiastic, Chakrabarti said, so he is optimistic about city approval. Nor does he believe there are any daunting engineering challenges. “The largest span is 120 feet and the world knew how to do that many years ago,” he explained. “There are some minor cantilevers, nothing past the 1/3 rule. This is very straightforward from an engineering perspective.”

Given the prominent location of the Domino plant—directly facing Manhattan’s East Side—the project could give Brooklyn both a skyline and a profile that the borough has long sought.


 

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