Jed Walentas Plants a Tree (or Two) in Williamsburg

A bird's eye view of the Domino Sugar site, as Two Trees would like to develop it.
A bird’s eye view of the Domino Sugar site, as Two Trees would like to develop it.

When Two Trees Management bought the old Domino Sugar site from CPC Resources and a reluctant Katan Group, a local developer told The Observer that Jed Walentas would be “crazy to go back to ULURP” for a rezoning of the site, which had already been approved for thousands of high-rise apartments.

But going back to to everyone’s favorite acronym (to pronounce, at least) is exactly what Mr. Walentas intends to do. He and SHoP, the New York-based architecture firm that Bruce Ratner tapped to design the Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards after Frank Gehry proved too expensive, called a group of reporters to SHoP’s offices near City Hall on Friday to show off their plans for the site.

The first thing Mr. Walentas spoke about was Two Trees’ desire to expand the amount of parkland included in the project—adding two new acres—and to make it more accessible to the public.

He criticized the open space in the old site plan as something that “felt very much like a privatized front lawn for people who lived there,” and spoke about his desire to pull the buildings back inland to make more space for the quarter-mile-long waterfront park, as well as add a new public street between his buildings and the waterfront.

The old sugar refinery will house office space.
The old sugar refinery will house office space.

But the extra park space comes at a price: the towers will have to rise higher to make up for the smaller footprints. The tallest tower on the site would rise to 598 feet, or about 60 stories—much taller than the 340-foot maximum height in the currently approved plan.

Of the project’s height, Mr. Chakrabarti conceded that “there’s no architectural way to hide that” on the edge of a neighborhood that otherwise tops out at around six stories.

“Contextualism is an opiate for the masses,” said Mr. Chakrabarti at one point during the Q&A. Refreshing candor, but a line that he may want to work on before the community board meeting.

Overall built square footage would rise to about 3.4 million, with a full half a million extra square feet of office space, which the developer claims will triple Williamsburg’s existing commercial space. As previously reported, the office space will rent for much less than the apartments—about $25 a square foot, half what Mr. Walentas says he can get for housing—though with so much of it, perhaps he’s hoping he can make up for it on volume.

Jed Walentas says he'll accept lower rents to get independent retailers.
Jed Walentas says he’ll accept lower rents to get independent retailers.

To accomodate all the extra office space, the site would lose 116 apartments (which should please the community), as well as some of its retail (no two-story big box stores in this plan) and about a third of its parking.

In lieu of the Rafael Viñoly masterplan that CPC-Katan wanted to build, Two Trees will be bringing in SHoP to design two of the buildings, with the other sites handed off to other architects.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, the SHoP principal who spoke for the the firm at the meeting, seemed eager to build the taller rectangular tower with the cut-out in the middle, whose rendering bears a faint resemblance to the towers SHoP has planned for Atlantic Yards. The differentiated window framing, featured somewhat haphazardly at Atlantic Yards, will be accentuated and formalized into a “game of squares,” as Mr. Chakrabarti called it, though he downplayed the similarities to SHoP’s work at Atlantic Yards.

The Observer spoke to local councilman Steve Levin, who represents the waterfront neighborhoods from Brooklyn Heights to Greenpoint, and his first observation about the plan was that “from a design and architectural perspective, it’s certainly bold.”

His number one concern, though, is affordable housing.

Two Trees, the councilman said, “had their lawyers look at it, and they said you’re not bound by the commitments made by CPC” on affordable housing. “But from my perspective, I want to make sure that whatever commitments CPC made are realized.”

“They’ve committed to 660” affordable units, he continued, “but they aren’t going to say that’s necessarily going to be 30 percent.” (Two Trees wants to build 2,284 units in total under the new plan, and 30 percent would be 685.) Jed Walentas Plants a Tree (or Two) in Williamsburg