By Ida Susser
The Domino Sugar Factory, a landmark site, is about to be demolished for more upscale residential/office space development—à la Bloomberg—and in several recent articles in the New York Times this has been taken as fait accompli. Yet there is still a chance to stop it. New Yorkers have just elected a new mayor, with a major agenda for affordable housing and a call for attention to the lives of middle and working class people. The Domino site, recently acquired by a private developer, Two Trees, after much controversy and a failed effort by the prior owner, still has to make it through a number of approvals.
This leaves open the avenue for another option, currently known as the “Tate with a Twist,” that would provide 250 units of affordable housing for people that make 40% to 50% of the Area Medium Income (AMI), or $29,000–43,000, as well as affordable artists’ studios. This proposed development, to be largely privately financed, is to turn this historic monument of industrial New York on the NYS Registry of historic places into private museums, somewhat along the lines of the enormously successful Tate Modern in London, as well as a theater, concert hall, and hotel for gallery tourists. Among other things, the museum would stress interactive community art, train youth docents, and develop children’s programs.
However, the Tate Modern was a publicly financed project, with free admission. In contrast, although administered by a non-profit organization, the private art collectors and other profit-making enterprises involved with this site will be counting on tax subsidies available to develop NYS-registered historic sites as well as the tax deductions for renovation under J51. They will also be benefiting from the historical and artistic cachet of the Williamsburg neighborhood, not to mention from the laborers who toiled in the sugar factory and the sugar cane workers who contributed to the Domino Sugar empire. It seems only fitting that the city’s residents demand that meaningful community engagement, low-cost admission, and socially informative content be incorporated into this project. If developed along these lines, and can be construed as another form of gentrification, the Tate with a Twist would provide a valuable cultural addition to the New York City environment, reflecting the powerful working class history and newer artist arrivals of the Williamsburg area.
Two Trees’ Technical Memorandum of October 31, 2013, states they will build up to 660 units of affordable housing. However, they are not legally bound to build any. Affordable housing was not included in the zoning amendment approved in 2010 or Two Trees’ proposed “modifications.” In addition, recent affordable housing such as that at 15 Dunham Place targets people who earn up to 200% of AMI, or $163,000.
If Two Trees’ new plan is approved it will reinforce the growing inequality in the neighborhood. It represents just the kind of planning that has led to the rejection of the Bloomberg heritage and the strong opposition vote for Bill de Blasio. The hope is that de Blasio, in spite of the overwhelming corporate support he has recently collected, will not abandon the local population that just elected him and will say no to this kind of overwhelming project of 60-story buildings filled with expensive apartments, that most New Yorkers could never afford.
The Bloomberg administration’s focus on attracting a global elite to the city by subsidizing luxury apartment development and privatizing services and amenities has led to withdrawal of government investment in vital public services and has increased economic and housing insecurity among middle and working class families. By promoting development that only benefits a select group of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the residential population, the city has undermined its position as a cultural, political, and economic center.
My own longterm research in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, a neighborhood used as a model for redevelopment in other neighborhoods in the city, highlights many of the policy issues that rezoning and development have precipitated. Since the 1970s, the residents of Greenpoint/Williamsburg – across all ethnic, racial, and immigrant groups—renovated their own homes and worked collectively to negotiate conflicts, improve parks, and mitigate the surrounding contaminated environment. They created, over time, a socially connected and lively neighborhood with deep historical and kinship roots. It was this vital, culturally exciting, and diverse community that attracted luxury real estate developers and their high-income clientele.
Gentrification is a pallid term for what has really been going on. The 2005 rezoning precipitated a massive string of real estate investments, which now threaten the existence of the community itself. Over the past five years, there have been unprecedented displacements, shocking in their rapidity, among the Latino and white working class population, and also among the artists, writers, actors, and dancers who moved here after being displaced from the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village.
With de Blasio as mayor, residents may find an opening to transform the old industrial buildings of Domino Sugar into an asset for the whole community—and the city. The Tate with a Twist offers affordable housing, public space including roof top gardening, and community-based activities. If the project lives up to its current vision of engagement with community art and the creation of living wage jobs, and is made affordable for all New Yorkers, it may represent a positive step towards a new agenda.
Ida Susser is a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and is the author of Norman Street: Poverty and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood, Updated 2012.