Knocking Over Domino: Two Trees Mulls Overhauling Massive Williamsburg Development, Including Reducing Affordable Units

Exactly two years ago tomorrow, the City Council approved a sweeping $1.4 billion redevelopment plan for the Domino Sugar refinery

The old—and in the way—plan. (CPC Resources)

Exactly two years ago tomorrow, the City Council approved a sweeping $1.4 billion redevelopment plan for the Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront. One of the biggest concerns at the time (of which there were many) was that the grand promise made by developer CPC Resources to make 30 percent of the project’s 2,200 units would never be realized.

Nowhere in the zoning resolution was this mandated, even though it was the marquee feature of the 11-acre development, along with promises of waterfront access, top-notch open space and a school. The developer could build no affordable housing, though this would mean a smaller project, or use the city’s inclusionary housing program to gain a bonus for bigger buildings in exchange for a promise to make 20 percent of any units affordable. Anything beyond that was a promise, one even CPC Resources did not have to keep. The firm had signed a memorandum of understanding saying it would follow through on this promise, but in no why was it legally binding.

That is why when it was announced last week that Jed Walentas and his Two Trees development company is in contract the Domino site for about $180 million (three-times what CPC had paid for it in 2004, but also less an arduous and contentious public approval process), there were widespread concerns that Mr. Walentas would not live up to the promises of his predecessors. In a recent interview, the developer admitted as much.

“Basically, that analysis is correct,” Mr. Walentas told The Observer.

“That MOU was not signed by us and the zoning is what it is,” he continued. “But at the same time, I’m not tone deaf. I know there is a lot of interest in affordable housing in the community. If we can reach a broad level of support for more, and it is buildable, that is something we would consider.”

Mr. Walentas stressed that he still had no idea what his firm planned to do with the expansive site, which stretches for six blocks on the north side of the Williamsburg Bridge and is best known for its iconic Domino sign and smokestack-topped refinery building, both of which were landmarked in 2007. Mr. Walentas admitted it would be difficult to tamper too much with those two pieces, but the rest of the site remains up for discussion.

Yes, he is willing to take the whole damn thing back through the ULURP process, one of the reasons it is arguably much more valuable than it once was. When the rest of Williamsburg was first rezoned those eight years ago, turning it from a wasteland of warehouses into a wasteland of condos, Domino was to remain as the one major bastion to the area’s historic industrial character, a bit of grit and blue collar jobs still on the waterfront. The other small holdout was an area on the northern side of the neighborhood, bordering Greenpoint, where it just so happens Mr. Walentas has just opened one of the city’s finest hotels. So the city’s dreams did not exactly play out.

Mr. Walentas is willing to keep at it, even if one North Brooklyn development watcher called it “crazy to go back to ULURP.” Mr. Walentas sees things differently, and to his credit our source also noted that “if anyone can do it, he can.” Mr. Walentas said Two Trees would undertake a study of the entire site into the fall to determine the best course of action.

“To be honest, people probably won’t believe this, but we really haven’t even begun to develop what we think is the best plan for the site,” Mr. Walentas said. “We did our underwriting on the plan that is in place, but we’re going to take 4, 6, 8 months to study this and come up with the best course of action. If we come up with something better and build a consensus around it, that’s what we’ll build. If we conclude the plan that’s in place now is optimal, we’ll build that plan.”

He added that “you don’t need the ULURP to make an economic go of this,” so if his team were to go that route, it would be a sign of a superior plan.

Having a zoning in place does make negotiations easier, though. “We can try and rezone this, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll just go back to what we’ve got,” Mr. Walentas said. “It’s not like we’ve got the choice between something or nothing. We’ve got the choice between what has been proposed and what we might want to do.”

He stressed that whatever happens, there will be an intensive community outreach. “We do not even know what they are looking for at this point,” Mr. Walentas said. He also pointed out that the project had struggled in part because of the incredibly demanding parameters of the previous plan, which is why Two Trees will be exploring all possible options.

“Regardless of what the deal was with the previous people, it’s been several years and nothing’s gotten built,” Mr. Walentas said. “One of the biggest challenges is to make something happen. I do think affordable housing will be at the top of the list, but there’s a wide array of social benefits this project can offer, from schools to open space to community space.”

As far as an architect goes, Mr. Walentas said he has not even begun to think about that part of the project and is instead focused on completing the planning. He said he was open to working with multiple designers on the site but also acknowledged that he had met with the project’s original designer, Rafael Viñoly.

While the process is daunting, and any reduction in affordability, allowable as it is, will likely ignited a local firestorm, some local machers are looking forward to improving the project and, more importantly, finally having something built.

“The Domino rezoning was never a particularly good deal for the community, even with the promised affordable housing,” Ward Dennis, co-chair of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth said in an email. It was substantially larger than prior waterfront zonings, and didn’t address key infrastructure issues—transit, transportation and particularly open space.”

Perhaps negotiations with Mr. Walentas might help address some of these issues, while others have existed all along, Mr. Dennis concluded. “It’s encouraging that this developer is seriously looking at building some of that affordable housing,” he said, “but it has been clear all along that nothing was guaranteed, and that anything over 20% (the inclusionary zoning baseline) would be tenuous at best.”

Knocking Over Domino: Two Trees Mulls Overhauling Massive Williamsburg Development, Including Reducing Affordable Units