Domino’s $1.3 Billion Makeover Hits Trouble: James S. Russell

New Domino
An architectural rendering of the waterfront esplanade park that is part of the New Domino project planned for construction in Brooklyn. The developer, Refinery LLC, has agreed to build the park as part of its $1.3-billion 2.8-million-square-foot residential and commercial development. Source: CPC via Bloomberg

With its grubby bricks, broken windows and rusting storage tanks, the old Domino sugar refinery looks more like a crumbling medieval fortress hunkering on New York City’s East River than the centerpiece of a $1.3 billion development.

Rewriting the common package deal, the New Domino project will first build homes for families earning as little as $23,040, which reflects an unusually deep subsidy. Luxury apartments will pay the bill.

An impressive amount of low-cost housing is just one of the extraordinary public benefits the development promises. Yet the size of the project is very large -- and controversial.

The New Domino development has plans for 660 units of below-market housing within 2.8 million square feet of residential and commercial space on five waterfront blocks that are rich with potential.

Its fate now lies with the City Council, which is expected to approve or reject the project before the end of the month.

The for-profit arm of affordable-housing developer CPC Resources Inc. is the managing partner of developer Refinery LLC, and they are joined by the New York-based Katan Group.

They are seeking approval to start construction next year, even though the neighborhood is awash in stalled housing projects, victims of the recession and credit crunch.

“The project looked like a pretty good bet four or five years ago. Now it’s a more difficult bet,” said Michael Lappin, president and chief executive officer of CPC, in an interview at his Manhattan office.

Brick Walls

Architect Beyer Blinder Belle’s design for turning the central and oldest part of the brooding factory -- which the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has saved from demolition -- into marketable apartments is a complex undertaking. All new floors and supports must be erected within massive exterior brick walls.

Lappin estimated the cost at about $50 million more than conventional new construction.

The developer will also build a four-acre, 1,300-foot-long public waterfront esplanade park. While Lappin wouldn’t say what the park would cost, a fair estimate is at least $20 million.

Master-plan architect Rafael Vinoly sensitively frames the refinery complex with the two largest towers, shaping them as soaring 40-story bundles of 55-foot square blocks. Some of the blocks drop away as the towers rise, creating Lego-like setbacks that slim the silhouette.

The tower views are some of the best in the city, ranging from the adjacent Williamsburg Bridge and the Ozlike tableau of Midtown Manhattan to two more East River bridges, Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Top Dollar

The luxe apartments have to command top dollar, because they must help finance the park and the refinery restoration, and subsidize the below-market housing. Lappin expects to tap local and federal housing subsidies, although the supply of government subsidies is volatile.

“We’re pinning a lot on the economic value of the site to allow us to do these things,” Lappin said.

Yet locals are mad because they’ll face bulkier buildings and worsened traffic. They rightly worry that amenities like the park will come out of their pockets if the project can’t be built as planned. Promised benefits have vanished before -- at Columbus Center, Times Square and the moribund Moynihan Station project.

In fact, the nearby Schaefer Landing and Northside Piers high-rise developments show how clumsy design can suck the life out of sound planning.

Design Compromise

The New Domino tries to do right by the community, yet it comes at some compromise to the design. Taking away all the pipes, chutes and tanks that now envelope the refinery building will leave a prettified oversized lump, depriving it of the raw power of brute utility. The park, designed by landscape architect Quennell Rothschild & Partners LLP, has been painstakingly negotiated into blandness. The setting deserves better.

It’d be great if the Vinoly towers didn’t get dumbed down and the factory and park designs were refined, but I don’t hold out much hope. New Yorkers -- and most Americans -- haven’t chosen a more reliable way to pay for parks and low-income housing, so these high-risk yet compromised Faustian real-estate bargains get made.

Or they do as long as wealthy buyers are willing to pay extraordinary sums for residences that underwrite the social benefits.

(James S. Russell is the U.S. architecture critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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