At the Domino Sugar Refinery, a Glass Egg in a Brick Shell
In the early 1900s, about 60 percent of the sugar consumed in America passed through the same spot — the Domino Sugar Refinery, a brick monolith squatting on the edge of the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More than 100 years later, a sweeping redevelopment of the factory and its surrounding waterfront land is writing a second act for the space.
The process hasn’t been entirely sweet.
The refinery shut down in the early 2000s and was initially purchased by the Community Preservation Corporation, a developer with a track record of gentrifying other areas of Brooklyn. In its rezoning plan for Domino, a site that had centered a century of bootstrap industry would be transformed into a collection of glass-and-steel luxury high-rises. Community protests ensued with slogans about working-class locals being pushed from the neighborhood in favor of housing for the rich.
For several years, the rusting factory sat vacant, occasionally housing public art projects like Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Community Preservation Corporation’s $1.4 billion plan was eventually derailed by financial troubles and they defaulted on their loans. In 2012, they sold the 11-acre property to Two Trees Management, whose imprint is unmistakable in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, where luxury condominiums and warehouses converted into tech headquarters now dominate the cobblestone landscape.
The Two Trees plan focuses on adaptive reuse and open space, with a campus where public plazas, offices and retail shops are stitched in with luxury housing along more than half a mile of waterfront. And while some locals continue to balk at the march of trendy cafes, high-end boutiques and million-dollar condominiums into their once-gritty neighborhood, others have applauded the Two Trees plan as a model of sustainable development. The team scrapped Community Preservation Corporation’s blueprint entirely and started from scratch, landing on a plan that includes a large public park (which opened in 2018) and 700affordable housing units, priced below market rate and available through lottery for low- and middle-income families.
At its heart is the refinery building, whose brick shell, which has been declared a landmark, was carefully hollowed out and its roof removed. Tucked inside like a nesting doll, a 15-story glass structure — a building within a building — now stands, capped with a 30-foot glass dome penthouse where natural light streams through. Vertical gardens are planned for the negative space in between.
Two residential towers on the campus — 325 Kent and One South First — are open and fully occupied, as is Ten Grand Street, an office tower. The full development, which will include 4,000 apartments and 700,000 square feet of office space, is slated for completion in 2027.
In December, in a high-wattage homage to history, an LED replica of the original neon “Domino Sugar” sign was hoisted onto the walls of the sugar refinery and lit up. Inside that structure, Two Trees is currently seeking tenants for high-end office space.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Lisa Switkin of James Corner Field Operations, head of landscape design
The refinery has this symbolic weight. There were these new glass walls on the inside of the refinery, and the brick facade on the outside. We were really excited about thinking about this in-between space.
There’s a roughly 10- to 12-foot gap between the brick masonry of thebuilding and the new glass interior. It creates this unique microclimate. It’s open to light and sky. And we started to think: What if this was a garden? In some ways it operates as a palate cleanser between the old and the new.
We were inspired by American woodlands and Tennessee shade gardens, which have a thick understory of ferns and mosses and ground covers. It’s a living threshold.
Al Henriquez, site manager
I’ve been working on this project for more than 10 years. The refinery building itself is unlike any other. That building was practically a machine wrapped in brick. It wasn’t set up for future occupancy. So once we removed all the equipment that they used for the sugar-making process there was very little structure left to build on. It was very challenging to keep the facade intact and build within the shell. It’s almost like building a ship within a bottle.
We built temporary towers on the exterior of the building and braced the facade from the exterior. Then we built a new structure inside the shell.
Every floor was different than the next. So we had to take our time and really study how they built the structure back in those days. I had worked on buildings that had been given landmark status in the past, but nothing of the scale that we’re working on now.
Megan Sperry, documentary filmmaker, “The Domino Effect”
I am a documentary filmmaker, an educator and an advocate. When the Domino Sugar Factory closed, I was working at Teddy’s Bar and Grill in Williamsburg, which back then was a totally different community, with a lot of immigrant and blue-collar families. It was really sad when they closed Domino. Those folks came into the bar afterward, and they were at a loss.
The film followed the rezoning process for Domino. It became very personal because I was seeing all of these people getting pushed out of the neighborhood. The Achilles’ heel for any community is that developers bet on working-class folks being too busy to be able to show up and have any real say in the process.
I think that it was smart for Two Trees to open the public park first, because you get the community out there and you give them all of these amenities. But I don’t think it balances out. A studio apartment at the high-rises at Domino is around $4,300 a month. I don’t know any low-income or even middle-income folks who could afford that.
Ruchika Modi, managing principal at PAU and main architect on project
The refinery could never have been just a standard got renovation. Our immediate instinct was to leave the beautiful masonry facade the way that it is, and to insert a brand-new building within the existing building. The whole added up to more than the sum of its parts. There was an incredibly interesting dialectical relationship between the new and the old.
This refinery’s ground floor is public. It is part of, and an extension of, the park. Anyone can enter on the 10th Street side, walk in a very public passageway through the building, and out into the park.
Jed Walentas, developer, principal for Two Trees Management
When it comes to where talent and where human capital in New York lives, there’s been a huge shift to Brooklyn. We wanted the plan to be something that we would be super proud of, and that we really thought was the right urban solution.
Our first principle was to prioritize the public open space, ahead of the development sites. The second big gesture was the mix of commercial and residential spaces.
That’s why the refinery building is fully commercial. To be able to bring workers back into this building where literally thousands of people used come to work every day was our way of doing something radically different. History, including social history, is an important part of our city.