Future of Domino Could Be Its Past

Local Group Sues Landmarks Commission

By Reid Pillifant

For months, it seemed the last hurdle in the massive makeover of the former Domino Sugar factory would be the series of public meetings that mark the final stages of the re-zoning process.  But in late March, a local group launched a pre-emptive strike against those plans, filing a lawsuit that claims the entire site should be protected as a historic landmark.

Williamsburg Independent People (WIP) sued the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for failing to properly review the property for historic landmark status, and for not adequately reporting how it arrived at its decision. “Landmarks didn’t get it right.  They just didn’t do their job,” said WIP member Stephanie Eisenberg. “This site shows the progression of industry from the 1860s to the 1960s.”

In 2007, the LPC protected three of the buildings on the site, which together form the brawny red brick building that defines the waterfront property. But the building also contains several smaller structures—an old boiler house, powerhouse and warehouse—which were not designated as landmarks.

Last summer, when WIP asked the LPC to consider those three buildings, LPC indicated they had been evaluated along with the remainder of the site. WIP then filed suit, claiming the secretive nature of LPC’s process makes it impossible to tell whether the buildings were properly evaluated. The suit also argues that the commission’s chairman, Robert Tierney, has too much individual discretion in determining which buildings receive public hearings.

“We have received the official papers recently and are in the process of responding to them. We believe there is no merit to the case and are prepared to vigorously defend the matter,” said a spokesperson for the city’s law department, which is representing LPC in the litigation.

A 25-page report on the property, issued by LPC after the public hearing in 2007, contains a lengthy history of the main structure—known as the Pan, Filter & Finishing House—and the refinery’s significance to the industrial history of the neighborhood and the borough. (When it was built, the 150-foot building was the tallest structure on the Brooklyn waterfront, equaling the new skyscrapers in Manhattan’s financial district.)

The report makes only passing mention of the other buildings. Summarizing the public hearing held in June 2007, it says, “Some speakers requested that the site be expanded to include related structures, while others insisted that designation should not interfere with the creation of affordable housing.”

Designating the buildings would seem to require significant changes to the proposed plans for the site. The property’s owner, CPC Resources, envisions four new towers on the property—two rising to 30 stories and two rising as high as 40 stories—but preserving the remaining buildings would confine the amount of available building space.  Currently, the project calls for 2,400 residential units, with a goal to make 30 percent of the units available as affordable housing.  CPC Resources is not named in the suit, but declined to comment on pending litigation.

WIP would like to see the site used for a cultural center, and often invokes the Tate Modern in London, which transformed a defunct power station into a modern art museum.

The suit by WIP follows an earlier lawsuit by another preservation group—the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation—that used much of the same legal reasoning.  In November, a judge ruled that the LPC must report all its recommendations to the full committee. 

LPC has appealed the ruling, and in the past, it has argued that all requests are considered by a five-person committee, with the opportunity for commissioner input, before the chairman decides whether the property should advance. LPC claims that asking the full commission to hear every case would create an unworkable burden for its staff.

The CECPP case may hinge on the organization’s legal standing—since the suit included properties throughout the city, not necessarily close to where the plaintiffs live. WIP’s suit would seem to solve the standing issue—even if the CECCP decision was invalidated—because WIP’s members all live in the vicinity of the Domino Sugar factory. The lead plaintiff named by WIP is Ceal Holzman, who has lived in the area for 30 years.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Holzman said of the LPC decision. “They want to keep one building, and tear out one of the main buildings.  It’s all a unit.  We’re not trying to keep a little postage stamp and say this is what it was.”