Exclusive Q&A: The Architects Rebuilding Domino Sugar in Williamsburg


The Domino Sugar Refinery on the East River waterfront in Williamsburg is a hulking testament to the neighborhood’s industrial past: built in 1884 and shuttered in 2003, the factory site (chock full of “abandoned offices, lunchrooms, science labs, locker rooms and loading bays; floor after floor of vats, boilers and furnaces”) was finally landmarked in 2007. Now, a $1.2 billion redevelopment project has been approved for an eight-month public review phase, aiming to rework the three main buildings as a mixed-use site with a riverside esplanade. After the jump, we discuss affordable housing, bureaucratic red tape, and the iconic Domino Sugar sign with lead architect Rafael Viñoly and team, pairing Domino’s projected future with documentary shots of the abandoned buildings by urban photographers Nathan Kensinger and Jake Dobkin.

Courtesy of Jake Dobkin.

Courtesy of Jake Dobkin.

Can you share a little bit about the process of working on civic projects with the City of New York? How long does the process take; what sort of requirements must be met for new residential construction; is there as much red tape as one would imagine?

The client and RVA have been working with various departments from the New York City Government over the last 5 years as the project has been developed. In particular the project design has been reviewed extensively with the Department of City Planning to produce a design that works well within the larger context of the city and this particular location in Williamsburg. Other agencies that have been involved in the project are the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York City Department of Transportation, The New York City School Construction Authority, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and very importantly, the Brooklyn Community Board 1.

Through research in Williamsburg and listening to the community groups it became clear that this area was poorly served with regard to open space, and so as our plan developed over the last 5 years we have focused on improving this feature. The development of the open space plan has in particular involved extensive collaboration with the Department of City Planning and the Parks Department to try and achieve a balance of varied scale spaces which will be attractive to residents and the local community whilst encouraging activity at the site.

Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger, who wrote in 2007 thatMolasses covers every surface, burnt brown sugar cakes the floor, and a sickening sweet stench pervades the entire complex.”

How are you keeping the history of the old Domino Sugar Factory intact?

The central feature on the Domino site is the Refinery complex, which is comprised of three separate structures: the Filter House, the Finishing House, and the Pan House. The Refinery buildings were constructed in 1882 and it was here that the raw sugar cane was processed into its finished product. The Refinery complex was designated a New York City Landmark in 2007 but the team’s proposed alterations, lead by Beyer Blinder Belle, including a roof-top addition were approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2008.

In addition, scattered around the open space, facing onto the waterfront, will be a series of industrial artifacts salvaged from the demolition of the existing buildings to retain a sense of the site’s industrial history.

What will happen to the iconic 40-foot high Domino Sugar sign?

The renovated Refinery complex will feature on the roof of the new addition the Domino sign. It is a key feature of the new development.

Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger.

660 of the 2,200 proposed residential units are allotted for affordable housing (30%). Is that number government-mandated? What are the design and construction differences between “affordable” and market-rate developments?

For a project of this scale, 20% affordable housing is government-mandated. The client team, because of its corporate mission to provide affordable housing, has pushed for the higher percentage and is also offering the units with much lower income criteria than is typical, in order to widen the opportunities for affordable housing. (Detailed description here.) Plans and details of the apartments are not yet developed, but the ‘affordable’ units will be designed to meet the standards set by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The ‘affordable’ units will be located on both the waterfront and upland parcels of lands and designed so that they are integrated into the overall development.

What sort of commercial and cultural enterprises do you imagine for the complex? I imagine it’s pretty accessible from Manhattan (via the Williamsburg Bridge) and from Brooklyn/Queens (via the BQE).

The ground floor plan has an extensive variety of retail spaces lining the street elevations and this retail is intended to activate the street spaces. There is a mixture of floor plate sizes that can accommodate a variety of retail uses from supermarkets for local residents through to smaller scale restaurants, cafes, boutiques and arts stores. As the site develops, we hope to be able to look at a wider range of activities with one of the phases containing a significant amount of commercial and community use space. This is intended for smaller scale commercial spaces and as the neighborhood develops we hope to also provide office space and jobs for local residents. There is also a large community use space within the Refinery complex which will be used for either a school or a series of community spaces depending on the needs of the community as the area evolves.

Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger.

Courtesy of Jake Dobkin.

What strategies will you incorporate to try for LEED certification?

Strategies that have already been investigated include controlling storm water runoff and diminishing the ‘heat island’ effect through the use of green roofs; energy efficiency to exceed the current building code by 10%, up to 75% of construction waste to be recycled, energy efficient light systems and reduced water consumption for the buildings. The project is targeting LEED Certification and as the design/construction process develops we will work with the latest strategies to make the project a model for sustainable development.

A rendering by Rafael Viñoly Architects of The New Domino development on Kent Street between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets in Williamsburg.