Where Sugar Once Ruled, a Face-Off Over the Future
By JAKE MOONEY
October 1, 2006
The bright yellow Domino Sugar sign next to the Williamsburg Bridge is among the most distinctive features of the Brooklyn waterfront.
Now, the sign may point the way to the borough’s next big historic preservation fight.
Last month, the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg formally asked the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider the old sugar factory for landmark status.
A plan for a project combining market-rate and low-income housing at the site is being drafted by the partnership that bought the property shortly after the factory closed in 2004. It consists of the Community Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit organization, and Isaac Katan, a private developer.
The preservationists, supported by the local City Council member, David Yassky, want any development to conform with the factory, a hulking brick Romanesque Revival structure that dates to the late 19th century and recalls an era when New York was the nation’s leading sugar producer.
Mr. Yassky angered local preservationists last year by helping to override the landmark designation of a nearby warehouse. The Domino plant, he said, is more significant. “It’s an icon,” he said. “It’s a landmark in the popular sense of the word. When I talk to people in Queens or Manhattan about that part of my district, I say it’s right by the Domino Sugar factory, and they know where that is.”
Ironically, Alice Rich, a member of the waterfront alliance, said her group’s efforts had benefited from the rapid development that followed the comprehensive rezoning of the local waterfront in May 2005. “People,” she said, “can see what’s disappearing.”
The developers, who have yet to unveil concrete plans, warn that too much preservation could jeopardize their project and the construction in the area of low-income housing.
“We certainly support preservation,” said Lloyd Kaplan, a spokesman for the property’s owners. But he added, “Our priority is affordable housing, and we want to achieve a balanced plan.”
The Rev. Jim O’Shea, president of Churches United for Fair Housing, made a similar point. “If you look at it in human terms,” he said, “how many families do you want to knock out of housing in the community, at what price, and what are you preserving?”
There may be room for compromise. Mary Habstritt, president of the Roebling chapter of the national Society for Industrial Archeology, said that she would like to see more kept intact than just the distinctive Domino sign. Some of the old factory’s equipment, if preserved, could tell the story of the refining industry that once thrived along the waterfront, she said.
But she, along with Mr. Yassky and Ms. Rich, says that preservation and housing are not incompatible. “There have been lots of industrial buildings put to other uses, including residential,” Ms. Habstritt said. “It just demands creativity and openmindedness.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company