Design Writer Has Sweet Dreams for New Domino

Thursday, June 17, 2010

You can do better! (Manu_h/Flickr)

The simmering opposition to the New Domino plan from the local community and especially its City Council rep has been well-noted, but the reaction from the design community has been more muted. And while the approval from the City Planning Commission, and the forthcoming showdown at with Councilman Steve Levin mean the project is pretty much headed for an up-or-down, maybe slightly tweaked if not entirely scrapped vote, design writer Stephen Zacks had made a bolder proposal, calling for the plan to be scrapped not because it is too dense and under invested, but because it is not visionary enough. “These unique sites are opportunities to generate new forms of urbanism and orders of magnitude greater revenue, instead producing the high volumes of similar units that are now languishing on the market,” Zacks declares in a letter to the Council (in full, after the jump). He has a few ideas of his own, something called Domino University, but is also soliciting them from others. Feel free to leave them in the comments section, or on his Facebook page.

Dear Honorable Members of the New York City Council:

As a part of the New York City community of architects, designers, and urbanists, we recognize that condo developments in upzoned areas have brought enormous benefits to the public through new tax revenues, high-quality architecture, affordable housing, waterfront parks, and remediation of brownfield sites. But as the market has seemed to have been over-saturated by condos and the rental vacancy rate remains unaffected by the inclusionary rezoning process, we are inviting you to consider a new model of development for the Domino Sugar site, one of the great icons of manufacturing in the area of North Brooklyn and, indeed, the United States. As you may know, Domino was the first sugar company to use branding to sell its products, and it remains one of the most recognizable brands in the country. We believe that the current plan to preserve the landmarked buildings and provide open space, affordable housing, waterfront access, and generous community space is a good start, but we think there can be a more ambitious and visionary approach to this site‹and to waterfront development in general‹which embraces the history of Domino and uses the site to prove that there is another way.

As a city, we have progressed far beyond the point we had to beg developers to invest in New York. We are in the unique position of having investors compete for the right to put billions of dollars into complicated sites that require hundreds of millions in infrastructure, even during the worst recession in decades. The Domino site presents an absolutely unparalleled opportunity, and we ask whether its redevelopment according to the same model befits its enormous significance. While we have made great progress, this model still has not lived up to the standards for design and urbanism that the city must aspire to for the next century. The Domino Sugar site is Williamsburg¹s High Line. It is clear that the market is still supporting
well-designed, high-quality architecture and urbanism. These unique sites are opportunities to generate new forms of urbanism and orders of magnitude greater revenue, instead producing the high volumes of similar units that are now languishing on the market. We believe that Rafael Viñoly is a superb architect capable of great work, but this inclusionary condo model does not permit the creativity and dynamism that could be supported by this architect, this community, this site, or this city. We ask you to send this plan back for revision, to incorporate the care and attention to detail in site planning and land use that it deserves.

As a body empowered with the ability to accept or reject this plan but not, perhaps, to propose a new model of development, we ask you to take a risk. We all remember the terrible plight of New York during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and we never want to go back to a time when burning buildings was more profitable than designing new ones. Rejecting a 1.5 billion dollar investment in our city, especially one that is loaded with community benefits, is a risky step. But it¹s also a vote of confidence in New York City: that we can do better, that we can begin to create a city and an architecture, and a model of urban development that is fitting for a world-class city, a city that embraces its immigrant communities, a city
that is in constant transformation as every generation takes hold of it and reshapes it for itself. We ask you to consider the Domino site an example for what can be accomplished in every neighborhood and every district in the city with more attention to detail, more care, more originality, and a greater level of inclusion, not represented by percentages of units, but by a vision that connects to the history of the place and the future of the city. The Domino University plan is the beginning of a process that can begin to impact the core problem that we still face after decades of redevelopment: a rental vacancy rate that remains below three percent. We need new housing in New York City, but not of this kind. It’s time to explore a new way, and the Domino site is the place where it can begin to happen.


Stephen Zacks

11 Responses to “Design Writer Has Sweet Dreams for New Domino”

  1. Stephen Zacks says:

    Tip of the hat to Arch Newspaper for posting a note about this, and to Matt Chaban, whose reporting I always appreciate. Just would emphasize that Domino University is not my idea and I didn’t contribute in any way to it, but I’m supporting their attempt to provoke discussion about the site and to propose a new model. Here’s a link to the Facebook note with a discussion about it, which I do, indeed, welcome comments and signatories to:!/notes/stephen-zacks/a-call-for-new-vision-for-urban-development-at-the-domino-sugar-site/131365000226829

  2. Dennis sinneD says:

    My name is Dennis Farr. I am a lifelong Williamsburg resident, and I support Zack’s bold call. Macro-real estate mires, and it isn’t simply an economic issue. I walk the neighborhood, baffled by an aesthetic graveyard, haunted by stalled developments that are but skeletons of tombstones. Sensitive to the promise of the community’s changing cultural and population trends, I’m plagued, “Is this what we’ve wanted? Is this what we deserve?”

  3. Ethan Pettit says:

    There was a time when I too had an instinctive negative response to the proliferation of condo buildings throughout Brooklyn. During the city council elections this time last year, I railed against the trend. Hours and hours of walking through neighborhoods from Bushwick to Gowanus have modified my response to this trend considerably.

    I do agree with Zacks that “condo developments in upzoned areas have brought enormous benefits to the public through new tax revenues, high-quality architecture, affordable housing, waterfront parks, and remediation of brownfield sites.”

    And while it is true that we are in a recession and a housing glut, it is also true that the population of NYC is growing by half a million per decade. The new residential units all over Brooklyn will eventually be filled, and we will eventually be thankful for them. But at the same time, it will not surprise me if many of these units are quietly cycled out of the “luxury” category and into the “subsidized” or genuinely “middle-income” category.

    As for aesthetics, much of this new architecture is in fact of high quality, as Zach’s points out. But even that of it which is of low quality or has been done “on the cheap,” is no worse or cheaper than many houses that were built half a century ago. This is especially true in parts of north Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which have a characteristic “”vernacular” of cheaply built town houses that are now of some vintage.

    I love these houses! Back in the 80s an artist friend of mine rented a floor of one of these vinyl-sided shacks in Greenpoint. One day he ran a bath, then lay down on his bed for a minute to smoke a joint. When he woke up, the entire building had lurched sideways. The running bathwater had washed away part of the foundation. To be sure, there was a lawsuit. But apparently it was not the most devastating expense in the world to repair. A matter of drying out the building, jacking it up again, and inserting new concrete piles.

    Many of the cheaper condos going up in neighborhoods in north Brooklyn actually compliment the “vernacular” architecture of this region. It is simply that the newer buildings offer more space, light, air, and efficiency than the older ones.

    History will judge the aesthetic and the practical value of the new architecture in Brooklyn. I believe the bulk of it will pass the test.

    All that aside, Stephen Zach’s stroke of urbanist genius on the matter of the Domino site, has been to approach it with affirmative language. The intro to this post points this out: rather than saying the proposal is “too much,” as almost everyone else in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint opposition is doing, Stephen says it is “not enough” to be called a great urban vision. Here here!

  4. Mary Habstritt says:

    Domino University is the kind of creative idea that gives me hope that we can really find a way to serve all the interests of the community and still remind the world that Williamsburg was once the Sugar King.

  5. Patrick says:

    You people are living in a fantasy land…try selling that proposal to a bank

  6. Dennis sinneD says:

    @ Patrick, how exactly do you think college campuses have been built across history? Sure, there are donations, and alumnae funds, and endowments, AND THERE ARE BANKS. Banks frequently invest in higher education, expect a payoff, and get it. What fantasy land do you live in?

  7. Dennis sinneD says:

    @ Patrick, how exactly do you think college campuses function and have been established right now and across history? Would perchance “banks” be involved? Indeed, “banks” frequently invest in higher education. Sure, there are donations, endowments, alumnae funds, AND THERE ARE BANKS. Banks fund higher education settings, expect a payoff, and get it. If not, there would be no college campuses, and, in turn, there would be no “bank.” What fantasy land do you live in?

  8. Dennis sinneD says:

    I mean, what architectural plan and/or large scale design is realized without “banks”? Is the poster not aware that if Zacks is indeed reaching out towards a professional community with a call for greater vision, a call that clearly includes ideas like Domino University for example, is there not an assumption by that professional community that financing is indeed available?

    I mean, c’mon, stop being ridiculous people. Clearly, “Patrick” is not someone familiar with how urban plans develop. There is indeed money for University–if there is public money being directly used via subsidy or indirectly excluded via tax abatement, then indeed there is money for University. The “fantasy” here is dependent on aligning with the fantasies of those who hold the purse strings.

  9. ryan the girl says:

    I am a resident of the Southside, a tenant organizer in the neighborhood and new Community Board member in Greenpoint/ Williamsburg. If one thing has become clear to me during the ULURP process for the “New Domino”, it is that Williamsburg needs a new vision, one that looks back to what made it a strong neighborhood for centuries, and one that looks forward to the future. If you actually take the time to look at the Domino University idea, you would see that it clearly does both. What made Williamsburg capable of providing home and hearth to generations of Puerto Ricans, Polish, Italian, Eastern European Jews and many other immigrant groups was its factories. Nothing more than jobs, jobs, jobs. As our community look toward Superfund status for the Newtown Creek and a hopefully a cleaner non-toxic estuary in 20 years, it should also be looking how to re-create jobs in the 2 remaining IBZ zones. Clearly, a Domino U which focuses on the green energy ideas of the future would be worthy of big investment. A project that most people feel has no promise of clearing all 6 phases in even 20 years or a University that will build a job base in an emerging technology…..Hmmmm, which one sounds like the better investment? This New Domino plan was hatched in the glory days of the always growing housing boom before the economic crash; it has not been altered in any sense to deal with our new economy. Don’t we all feel like it is time for these banks to take on a new vision; That’s not fantasy, more like good business and in reality a way better investment.

  10. Dennis sinneD says:

    By the way, I flat reject Ethan’s logic on the comments herein, that the new style of condos, being ugly and looking cheap, thus comport with the “former architecture.” Firstly, that’s specious, an inappropriate line of congruence, that ugly should build on ugly. Secondly, ugly and looking cheap does not in of itself reflect on complimentarity, even if the preceding architecture is “ugly and cheap.” The language needs nuance–the styles are certainly clashing. The newer style is dominated by pseudo-modernity, or, whatever style the professionals claim it is. That style is absolutely peculiar to the design style or styles of the community pre-2000. We must reject thought that endorses settlement on ugly and cheap-looking because, seemingly, the community is accustomed to it.

  11. […] this rush hour concern. However, beyond mere pros and cons, widely-published writer Stephen Zacks criticizes the plan for supporting the status quo of development and lacking the vision and creativity […]

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