There is an old saying, mistakes are correctable, choices are made.
In the case of the redevelopment of the Domino Sugar site on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront, the wrong choice has been made. A 50-year backward glance offers in hindsight an example of a bad choice that allowed the demolition of Penn Station, one of the most of significant architectural masterpieces of New York, to make way for a sports arena. Since then, citizens have been demanding that there be some attempt at trying to make up for the loss by adaptively re-using the old Farley Post Office, as a new transportation hub, because the present station with the sports arena built above it, is a “shabby” mess.
Déjà vue! The Domino Sugar Site, which is considered one of the 11 most endangered industrial sites in the United States, is in the process of being demolished, in order to create a money-making machine for the developer—five 45 to 55 story buildings—at the expense of the community, the City, and the State of New York.
The City’s decision to allow a developer to demolish the iconic Domino Sugar site was of course, in the name of affordable housing and jobs.
But how can City politicians go wrong? Let us count the ways:
1. The affordable housing is not guaranteed 2. The jobs are not guaranteed 3. The income level of the affordable housing is not guaranteed. 4. The developers have created “poor doors” and non-sharing of the amenities, etc. 5. The public contributes lots of public money in the form of 25-year tax abatements to the developers with absolutely no enforcement of the City and State laws governing the property tax abatements.
The question remains: why do the politicians keep making the wrong choices for the City and the people living here? Is it about a lack of creative thinking, a fear of committing to something extraordinary? Or is it more sinister, that they are afraid of the hand that feeds them, i.e., the real estate industry?
An obvious opportunity has been missed, a plan that would have created a cultural corridor using the local waterways surrounding our four island boroughs plus the Bronx, to connect New Yorkers and tourists to attractions in close proximity to the water.
In fact, NYC & Company (the official tourism board for the City of New York) posts on their website (the first-ever official report on the City’s tourism industry) that “one of the most important objectives is to bring tourists to the outer boroughs,” but it seems that the concept was lost somewhere between mayoral elections.
Despite this “most important” goal, the City hasn’t seized upon any new opportunities, to promote or encourage new tourist destinations into the outer boroughs.
It was a group of individuals, who call themselves Williamsburg Independent People, who first presented an alternate idea to the community in 2005.
The ingenuity of re-adapting the Domino Sugar site as an arts center is that it blazes a trail for creating the cultural corridor using the NYC waterways. Ferryboats would create a hop-on, hop-off model. For instance, it would be possible to take a boat to all the five boroughs with connecting buses for inland destinations: Red Hook in Brooklyn, or Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Noguchi Museum in Queens, or to the new park being built, right on the water in the Bronx. Tourists would be able to hit several attractions in Manhattan by ferry boat such as The Jewish Museum and The Intrepid. The Tibet Museum in Staten Island would be a short walk from a new ferry stop. According to the designers of the alternate plan this would also be at no cost to the city, as there would be private investment available to implement the services and the plan.
More pluses for the community and the City: The WIP plan they say would not create additional burden on the limited transportation system. Instead, it would guarantee and create living wage jobs for the community, and art programming for kids. The model of creating private museum spaces, part of the plan, would democratize art as people would be able to view collections that are not otherwise publicly available. An experimental theatre and small concert hall would be part of the plan. And finally, it would have self-financed affordable housing on the inland parcel. Because it is self-financed, it would be reserved for community-residents at the lower levels of the affordability spectrum. The WIP group say that their plan would yield 250-300 units of affordable housing. The plan also includes a marina, and a boutique hotel.
Is it necessary for the City to give away millions of dollars in tax abatements, when there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to score on so many points: the people, the City, the State, and the developer. Williamsburg Independent People estimate that the cost of gross revenue, without the hotel, would be between 80 and 100 million dollars a year. And it is not a one-time benefit; it would be in perpetuity.
To offer a comparative example, the Empire State Building earns 60 million a year from ticket sales to their observation deck, alone, greater than the entire rest of the building’s earnings. Towns have revitalized themselves by creating cultural attractions like Tate Modern in the UK; and MOCA in North Adams, Mass, which recreated itself as a cultural center.
The current Domino developer, Two Trees, have themselves demonstrated the power of turning the Domino facility into a cultural hot spot. 130,555 people came to see Kara Walker’s massive Sugar Mama Sphinx inside a portion of the Domino complex, soon to be demolished. It showed just how appealing the Domino Sugar buildings are as a location for the arts. They had more people attending on average per hour than the Banksy show at Tate Modern in the UK did.
But London gets that art is an economic engine, and that it can utilize old buildings that the entire world admires. NYC doesn’t get it.
Is there still time to reverse a mistake? Possibly, if they stop demolition.
Another saying is that what you don’t know, won’t hurt you. Well, now that you know, everybody should be in pain.