Jun 18, 2010

A Call for New Vision for Urban Development at the Domino Sugar Site

I had planned to write about the "poisonous cocktail of vanity and self-delusion" that is New York architecture criticism this week, the violent contradiction between its wild celebration of genius and its fire-and-brimstone condemnation of the economic system that generates the architecture being valorized, due to its utter lack of a framework for understanding urban economics. Then I got side-tracked by events and writing architecture criticism, or architecture reporting, at any rate. I was also going to write about the fun mushroom-hunting adventure in the New Cavalry Cemetery in Sunset Park with the very cool Janette Kim and Chris Kennedy as part of the Safari 7 project and the Queens Art Express, which began as a part of a project examining the city's landscape against the backdrop of the 7 train's path, a fantastic look at a slice of the communities and ecologies of New York.

I was also going to take that opportunity to talk about what a state of disarray the Columbia graduate architecture program otherwise remains in after years of inattention and institutional inertia, with a lot of the same faddish people who seem better equipped to train young fops than practicing architects still there--despite great new hires like Vishaan Chakrabarti and the emerging landscape architecture program--but maybe this has changed since I last spoke with some of the graduates and great people nonetheless teaching there. (I never totally understood who Mark Wigley was but he seems more politically connected with the architect establishment than intellectually engaged in the world. From what I gather his main credential is having curated the largely discredited Deconstructivist Architecture show more than 20 years ago. What does Columbia GSAPP have to say and what is it doing in relation to this enormous, dynamic, evolving city we live in? Producing more speculative studios? I love theory but the intellectual tradition that his framework for architecture criticism is grounded in is extremely outdated and useless for making anything happen. Columbia needs to take its great housing studio program led by Michael Bell and use it to start contributing to a vision for New York City affordable housing development that can be made into a reality. Bell ran a wonderful studio last year on Hunters Point South, the site on the edge of Long Island City that is being developed into a massive complex of 5,000 units of affordable housing by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, but without the studios being eventually gauged against to the economic feasibility of the designs, they cannot contribute to a new model for housing in the city. However, Rafael Vinoly's design for New Domino would not have made it past the first week in Bell's studio. It is a massing diagram, not a design much less a concept.)

Instead I ended up embroiled in discussions with a group of North Brooklyn natives and long-time residents who are kind of disappointed by the results of the rezoned waterfront so far. Though I had been arguing with them in defense of condo development for many months, I had to agree that it was merely OK, and the design, planning, programming, and overall vision could be so much better. I wrote a letter in support of their call for a new model of development in the plan for the New Domino project currently seeking approvals from the City Council, posted it as a note on Facebook, and invited people to sign on to it. I added a statement that in a very provisional way assembles some ideas to suggest another "vision" for the site and the neighborhood, inspired by my friends whose Domino University provocation started the conversation. I blame them. I intend to read whatever part of it is readable in 3 minutes to the City Council on Monday. There will also be a rally against the project at 10 AM led by some local pols, Steve Levin, Joe Lentol, and Vito Lopez, the head of the local Democratic machine, and one in favor of it at 9:30 led by district Council member Diana Reyna. (None of them even mention it on their websites.) If you would like to join me, read a part of the rest, or contribute your own new vision, please join us, or sign on to this statement:

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Dear Honorable Members of the New York City Council:

As a part of the New York City community of architects, designers, and urbanists, we recognize that condo developments in upzoned areas have brought enormous benefits to the public through new tax revenues, high-quality architecture, affordable housing, waterfront parks, and remediation of brownfield sites. But as the market has seemed to have been over-saturated by condos and the rental vacancy rate remains unaffected by the inclusionary rezoning process, we are inviting you to consider a new model of development for the Domino Sugar site, one of the great icons of manufacturing in the area of North Brooklyn and, indeed, the United States.

As you may know, Domino was the first sugar company to use branding to sell its products, and it remains one of the most recognizable brands in the country. We believe that the current plan to preserve the landmarked buildings and provide open space, affordable housing, waterfront access, and generous community space is a good start, but we think there can be a more ambitious and visionary approach to this site—and to waterfront development in general—which embraces the history of Domino and uses the site to prove that there is another way.

As a city, we have progressed far beyond the point when we had to beg developers to invest in New York. We are in the unique position of having investors compete for the right to put billions of dollars into complicated sites that require hundreds of millions in infrastructure, even during the worst recession in decades. The Domino site presents an absolutely unparalleled opportunity, and we ask whether its redevelopment according to the same model befits its enormous significance. While we have made great progress, this model still has not lived up to the standards for design and urbanism that the city must aspire to for the next century. The Domino Sugar site is Williamsburg’s High Line. It is clear that the market is still supporting well-designed, high-quality architecture and urbanism. These unique sites are opportunities to generate new forms of urbanism and orders of magnitude greater revenue, instead of producing the high volumes of similar units that are now languishing on the market. We believe that Rafael Vinoly is a superb architect capable of great work, but this inclusionary condo model does not permit the creativity and dynamism that could be supported by this architect, this community, this site, or this city. We ask you to send this plan back for revision, to incorporate the care and attention to detail in site planning and land use that it deserves.

As a body empowered with the ability to accept or reject this plan but not, perhaps, to propose a new model of development, we ask you to embrace a new vision. We all remember the terrible plight of New York during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and we never want to go back to a time when burning buildings was more profitable than designing new ones. Rejecting a 1.5 billion dollar investment in our city, especially one that is loaded with community benefits, is an ambitious step. It’s a vote of confidence in New York City: that we can do better, that we can begin to create a city and an architecture, and a model of urban development that is fitting for a world-class city, a city that embraces its immigrant communities, a city that is in constant transformation as every generation takes hold of it and reshapes it for itself. We ask you to consider the Domino site an example for what can be accomplished in every neighborhood and every district in the city with more attention to detail, more care, more originality, and a greater level of inclusion, not represented by percentages of units, but by a vision that connects to the history of the place and the future of the city. The Domino University plan is the beginning of a process that can begin to impact the core problem that we still face after decades of redevelopment: a rental vacancy rate that remains below three percent. We need new housing in New York City, but not of this kind. It's time to explore a new way, and the Domino site is the place where it can begin to happen.


James Andrews, artist and teacher
Magda Biernat-Webster, photographer
Kristi Cameron, editor
Cameron Campbell, designer
Daniel D'Oca, architect, planner and professor
Dennis Farr, community activist
Deborah Gans, architect and professor
Christoph Gielen, photographer
Lisa Kahane, photographer
Nadya Karyo, design talent headhunter
Olympia Kazi, director of the Van Alen Institute
Janette Kim, landscape architect and professor
Cedomir Kovacev, designer
Sara Kraushaar, filmmaker
Ryan Gabrielle Kuonen, community organizer
Garret Linn, artist
William Menking, architect, founder and editor of The Architect's Newspaper
Alan W. Moore, artist, activist, and co-founder of ABC No Rio
Amber G. Myers, activist
Thaddeus Pawlowski, architect
Ethan Pettit, urbanist
Arleen Schloss, performance artist and video pioneer
Jesse Seegers, Masters of Architecture candidate 2013, Princeton School of Architecture
Astrid Smitham, architecture graduate student, ETH Zurich
Amy Stringer-Mowatt, architect
Eva Schicker, photographer
James Trimarco, writer
Stephen Zacks, writer and reporter

A Vision for the Future

As architects, designers, urbanists, and city leaders we are constantly volunteering and being asked to imagine new ways of creating spaces and adapting old spaces to new uses. We participate in competitions and design studios, we engage in discussions and write reviews, we look at plans and proposals and give them our approval or disapproval. We are rarely agents of urban development and site programming. But now, with New York City having achieved a unique status as a “superstar” city, we are in a position to create a new model that corresponds to our idea of what a great city should be. A $150 million dollar investment in the High Line produced billions of dollars of value-added real estate investment around it; for a comparable investment in historic preservation and environmental remediation on the Williamsburg waterfront, we can transform Domino into a social, educational, economic, and commercial center for one of the most creative and diverse communities in the world.

The Domino Sugar factory is situated at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects north Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan. The area is home to many of the city’s immigrant communities and a foothold for young migrants from the rest of the country and the world. It is a community filled with entrepreneurs busy inventing software, designing spaces, opening shops, crafting objects, making clothing, producing magazines and newspapers and websites, working in and starting some of the best restaurants, fashion houses, and design firms in the city. They’re college graduates turning rooftops into farms, and kitchens into start-up companies selling organic food and creating beautiful and unheard of fusions of ethnic cuisines. They’re milling the interiors and industrial designed products and modeling the high-design spaces of Manhattan and the rest of the city and country. They’re teaching in the city’s expanding universities, creating new musical genres, writing movies, books, and dramas for television. They’re performing scientific and medical research, curing diseases, and transforming our ability to live healthy lives.

Instead of taking the profits from market-rate condos and using it to pay investors and fund other market-rate developments, Domino Art City would be a self-sustaining development that nourishes creative and immigrant communities in the city. We propose to redevelop the site in such a way that 70 percent of the 2,200 housing units will be raw live/ work rent-stabilized units freely adaptable by tenants and maintained by a private nonprofit management company. These units would be rented on a preferential basis through a special lottery system to second-generation neighborhood residents unable to afford market-rate rents, past area residents displaced by development, and new under 35-year-old migrants to New York who will apply for artist and immigrant residencies. Another 30 percent of the units will be devoted to supportive housing for at-risk youth aging out of foster care, low-income tenants from other areas of the city, and other groups in need of supportive services, with the help of state and federal funds. The cost of site preparation and historic preservation will be funded by grants, matching funds, and the sale of tax-exempt bonds.

The 140,000 square feet of community space already allocated within the plan will be designed to accommodate the Domino Educational Community, including an elementary school, kitchens for entrepreneurial start-up food companies, an urbanism think-tank and development company that conceives and produces community-based projects, expandable annexes for educational workshops, green urbanism research and training, pilot schools such as Domino University, the School of the Future, and Public School New York, and a large open raw warehouse space for ad hoc musical and performance events, flea markets, exhibitions, art installations, and other large-scale indoor gatherings.

The area facing the waterfront esplanade would be rented to small-scale businesses and revenue generating recreational facilities, including a large beer-garden, a foodie village, and an amusement park. A part of the facility would be specifically programmed by stakeholders from the Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish communities that have made the area their home, along with the West Indian communities to the southeast whose historical relationship to sugar plantations and Domino sugar is particularly important.

This growing, vibrant community would be a part of a new vision for downtown Williamsburg that would extend its benefits to the under-served communities of the JMZ subway line, extending into Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, Ridgewood, Middle Village, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill. A new subway stop for the JMZ trains at Broadway and Bedford and a reconfigured route that fluidly links it to the commercial and business centers midtown would ease pressure on the L train and support billions of dollars of new investment extending to the east. The subway stop would be integrated into an urban design plan for the transportation infrastructure of downtown Williamsburg, where automobile traffic from the Williamsburg Bridge and the BQE overpass haplessly intersect with the elevated JMZ train, the bus depot, and the pedestrian overpass. This would be integrated with the new landscape design for the BQE trench currently being undertaken by Susannah Drake of Dland Studio.

A series of public forums and short competitions would be held, including an ideas competition for the programming and overall landscape urbanism scheme for the site, an urban design competition for the downtown Williamsburg transportation infrastructure, and then the Domino site would be divided into separate parts to be designed by several different architecture firms to maintain the fine-grained character and diversity of the city.

ABOVE: An image from Dland Studio's study of a Cobble Hill section of the BQE: RECONNECTION STRATEGIES: BQE TRENCH IN BROWNSTONE BROOKLYN. It has expanded this work to the Williamsburg section of the BQE.
Towards a Greater City

This project if fine. It's OK. You should vote for it if you want New York to be fine. You should vote against it if you think we can make great neighborhoods. Don't just vote no. Let's start a process by which we can make this project great. Let's form a working group within the city's department of design and construction in cooperation with the NYC Economic Development Corporation that actively develops sites like these in neighborhoods everywhere around the city. Let's create special places that we LOVE and think of with affection. The skills and competency are here. We have great architects. They're doing great projects around the world, designing whole neighborhoods and cities. Let's let them work here too.

We'll form a committee composed of appointees from a couple of neighborhood organizations (NAG and OSA), the head of DDC as a representative of the mayor's office (David Burney), representatives from the council (Diana Reyna and Steve Levin), a development expert (Vishaan Chakrabarti), a representative of the city's Economic Development Corporation, a few architecture experts (James Corner, Mark Robbins), and a representative of the MTA.

We'll hold a 6-week competition for ideas for the Domino site and its relation to the transportation infrastructure of downtown Williamsburg that includes two programs, one for downtown Williamsburg, one for the Domino site. We'll have a well-publicized presentation of the ideas in a large warehouse in Williamsburg and take comments from the community. We'll revise the program according to the best ideas for design, development, and urbanism. We'll invite two short lists of architects, one with urban design, planning, engineering and landscape urbanism expertise, the other with architecture and landscape architecture expertise, to create landscape urbanism designs for the sites. Then we'll take that plan, divide it into separate projects for the housing, waterfront, community space, education, transportation, parks, and other components, and issue RFPs for each of them to be designed by separate teams of architects, landscape architects, and engineers.

The link below is a sketch of the initial Domino University proposal on the part of long-time Williamsburg residents and colleagues, Dennis Farr, Ethan Pettit, and Eva Schicker. I think it needs to be expanded and revised and could use the help of professional architects, planners, and developers, but it could be the seed perhaps of a new way of thinking about sites like these that could take advantage of the many other ideas and possibilities out there.

William Harvey at Williamsburg Greenpoint News + Arts has penned an editorial calling for a North Brooklyn creative economy zone that resonates with this project as well.

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