From the top of her building at 330 Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Stephanie Eisenberg can see nearly all of two boroughs: the Williamsburg bridge, the United Nations, One Hanson Place, Greenpoint’s sewage treatment plant. But she prefers to look out over Brooklyn, with its church steeples and elevated subway tracks.
It’s lucky, because her view over the East River is slated to change in 2009, when the approximately 2,400-unit New Domino condominium development breaks ground at what is now the Domino Sugar Refinery across the street. With at least four buildings rising to 30 stories or more, the 11.2-acre project will no doubt transform the waterfront.
The question is, how?
With condo sales slowing across the borough – down 38.2 percent annually in the third quarter, according to appraisal firm Miller Samuel – Ms. Eisenberg is more convinced than ever: The New Domino plans must be scrapped. As head of Save Domino, a community group, she argues the site could be put to better use, namely as the Domino Center, a sprawling cultural institution modeled after London’s contemporary art museum, the Tate Modern.
“It’s time to rethink some of these gigantic projects and look at something in a more creative way,” she said. “The last thing this city needs is another 1,800 market-rate condominiums.”
MS. EISENBERG WEARS solid shoes, with her white hair swept into a scrunchie. She was born in the Bronx, moved to Manhattan after college, then came to Greenpoint to take over her father’s metal stamping business, which he started in Queens in the 1940s.
Her involvement with Save Domino began in 2007, when she affixed those two words in giant, lighted-up letters to the side of her building. (“Save Domino” has been supplanted, until after the election, by “Vote Obama.”)
She bought 330 Wythe from a neighbor in the 1980s, when “you could be shot just walking outside at night. South Third Street was a drug supermarket.”
It was her first residential building in Brooklyn (she was a partner on a project in Soho in the 1970s), and she spent almost 20 years transforming the 16-story brick building into 75 condos that “people making $40,000 or $50,000 a year could afford.” She didn’t advertise, and “if people were asking for amenities, I was like meh,” she shrugged. “This is not a doorman community.” Instead, residents appreciate the lobby’s exposed brick, the annual Halloween party, the rudimentary wind energy system, and, of course, that view.
Her plans for the Domino Center include 600,000 square feet of galleries, four acres of open space, and 200 units of affordable housing. The idea is to gather a group of art collectors who would lease space to store their art, creating public galleries without relying on public funding, and benefiting the neighborhood with jobs and tourism dollars without taxing North Brooklyn’s limited infrastructure. (The Tate, which bears an uncanny likeness to the Domino in photographs, has attracted 30 million visitors and created up to 4,000 jobs since it opened in 2000.)
“It could be a life’s work for anyone involved in this because it is a beautiful, beautiful space,” said Edward Bender, Save Domino’s online strategist. “And to bring that level of art, culture, and community-building to what is already a pretty cool neighborhood – but one that doesn’t have a central place – the impact that it could have could be just tremendous.”
Except that Save Domino doesn’t own the Refinery.
THE NEW DOMINO IS is a joint venture of the Katan Group and Community Preservation Corporation Resources, the for-profit development arm of a non-profit mortgage lender called Community Preservation Corporation, which develops affordable housing. They purchased the site in 2004 with the aim of making 30 percent of the units affordable.
“The whole structure of this [project] is to provide 660 units for the community,” said Lloyd Kaplan, the developers’ publicist. “We’ve gone out and said that that is the basis for moving forward. We’ve said it’s non-negotiable. It’s our mission, it’s what we do. It’s at the core of what the organization stands for.”
The joint venture isn’t worried about securing financing or buyers, since, Mr. Kaplan said, the project will be “stretched out over many, many years and be built in phases over time.”
Last June, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a plan that would preserve the Domino Sugar sign and leave the façade of the central building intact. At this point, Save Domino is speaking with lawyers and campaigning to have more of the site landmarked. They have launched a new Web site to promote adaptive reuse. And Ms. Eisenberg insists that there are investors interested in the Domino Center, although she says they haven’t committed yet.
For the factory owner and small-time landlord, however, the main question is, what are the “dozen other things to do” with the unused factory?
“What’s wrong with New York? Why are we losing our creative edge?” she asked. “There isn’t only one way of making money.”