The High Line opened almost a decade ago. It was a moonshot project, but the final design, stretching 1.5 miles along an abandoned elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side, set a new precedent for what a park could be–and how it could transform a city, for better and for worse.
Now, the landscape architects behind the High Line, James Corner Field Operations, are opening an ambitious new park along the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn on the site of the Domino Sugar Factory, which was operational from the mid-1880s until 2004. After a decade of rezoning, gentrification, and rising housing costs, the park is a consolation prize for the South Williamsburg community, which is starved for public open space. With it will come four high-rise residential buildings (one of which is already built), and the old factory itself will be restored and transformed into office space and retail.
But while Domino Park might be a $50 million carrot for an area that has vehemently fought most new development, it sure is a beautiful one. Underwritten by the development company Two Trees, the park shares a design ethos with Field Operations’ work on the High Line: Rather than dismantle pieces of the old sugar factory and pave over everything with newness, the project’s head designer Lisa Switkin decided to preserve some of the factory’s industrial equipment and integrate it into the design of the park. Old syrup tanks, screw conveyors that mixed the sugar together, and even towering cranes are stationed around the six-acre park, acting as peons to history and pretty set pieces that will likely make this park just as Instagrammable as the High Line. “I feel like a lot of the waterfront parks are an erasure of everything that was there,” Switkin says. “For us it was the opposite.”
In that sense, Domino Park is the successor to the High Line. “There was a balance on the High Line between trying to amplify and respect what was there and add also new life and new programs and uses,” Switkin says. “I think that philosophy carried over to this project.” But the park’s stunning views and thoughtful design doesn’t tell the full story. It’s also the result of a decade-long battle for affordable housing and accessibility as Brooklyn continues its steady march toward gentrification.
Living history (and a dog park)
I visited Domino Park on a sunny May morning, when most of the landscaping had been put in and workers were putting the final touches on the park, which is set to open this coming weekend. It is a beautiful place, with the dramatic roar of the Williamsburg Bridge on its southern end and the city skyline as attention-grabbing as ever. The park is laid out in a series of sections, with more activity-based areas closer to the bridge–there’s a dog park, bocce ball court, a small turf field, and a regulation sand volleyball court. At first glance, the volleyball court is surprising. In a predominantly Latino area, you might expect that the designers would prioritize having a full-sized soccer field. But Switkin says that the locals have a particular affinity for volleyball, something Rob Solano, the executive director of community group Churches United for Fair Housing, who was born and raised in South Williamsburg, confirms. He says that a group of Argentine nuns at the Saints Peter and Paul church start teaching the neighborhood’s children to play volleyball as early as second grade.
As we walk further north, the park gets more expansive and less prescriptive. There’s a courtyard directly in front of the old factory, with a series of large stairs made from salvaged wood from the factory that doubles as seating, and one of those fountains that spurt short jets of water that kids love to run through. Because the community also wanted a park that was family friendly, the developers commissioned a custom play structure that tells the story of how sugar is refined–and regardless of the history, kids will probably have a blast climbing all over it. A taco stand by restaurateur Danny Meyer called Tacocina will provide food and drink, and there’s a larger picnic area at the park’s northern end.
Switkin’s crowning achievement is an elevated walkway called “Artifact Walk” that uses the old columns from the now-demolished sugar warehouse to provide another breathtaking view of the city skyline. “You don’t see it now, but there were all these other buildings–the packaging house, and the raw sugar warehouse,” Switkin says. “They were all connected by these little catwalks. It was part of the texture and the way people got around, so we wanted to bring a little bit of that story back.”
Pieces of the factory dot the entire park, supported by robin’s egg blue scaffolding (the inside of the factory was covered in the same turquoise hue). To choose which elements of the factory to use, Switkin walked the entire site and pointed out particularly fascinating or visually impactful pieces of equipment. “There’s something really visceral about being here and being next to these huge pieces of the machinery,” she says. “We were just trying to find a way that we could install that same sense of awe in the park.”
Switkin and her team began working on Domino Park in 2012, just weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit–she remembers walking to Two Trees’ office in Dumbo for their first meeting because the subways were down–and the storm’s devastating impact informed the park’s design.”The 100-year storm is always this hypothetical thing you have to plan for,” Switkin says. “It had just happened so it was on everyone’s mind.”
In response, the team had to calculate a new floodplain elevation, and ended up raising the ground level of the park between five and eight feet. The plants Switkin and her team chose are mostly natives that can act like sponges for floodwaters. And one benefit to creating a street between the park and the buildings is that it sets the buildings even further back from the water than what’s required–adding extra protection from future storms and flooding. The central plaza in the park was also designed to act as a floodplain if necessary.
For visitors, that choice has an immediate impact–it puts them further from the water. So, to help people feel more connected to the river, Switkin and her team designed a cutout segment in the middle of the park where you can see down to the pier’s piles and watch the water surging back and forth. Visitors will be able to walk over a short metal bridge across this pier reveal, where towering syrup tanks beautifully frame a shot of the bridge–perfect for Instagram.
When much of the Brooklyn waterfront was rezoned in 2005–enabling towers to sprout in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and nearby Long Island City, Queens–community groups were in dire opposition.”There was a lot of concern around affordable housing, about open space, and access to the waterfront, and industrial retention,” says Ward Dennis, a historic preservation consultant and long-time community member who has lived in Williamsburg for 25 years. “I think when you look back at it after 13 years or so, there has been some affordable housing, probably not as much as everybody thought and certainly not as much as the community wanted to see.”
The Domino factory closed in 2004 and was bought by the for-profit company Community Preservation Corporation Resources, which went through the rezoning process to transform the land into residential high rises with a plan many community advocates fought against. “It was along the lines of what you see everywhere else along the waterfront, but they supersized it,” Dennis says.
After the city approved the plan, which eventually won the support of affordable housing advocates, the CPC became mired in financial troubles. The current developer of the Domino site, Two Trees, bought the area in 2012 for $185 million. Two Trees, best known for turning the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo into luxury condos and tech offices, decided to take a different approach to engaging with the community.
“People were definitely fed up with new development,” says Dave Lombino, the managing director for external affairs at Two Trees. “They were in the midst of gentrification, they had felt there were a bunch of promises made on behalf of the city and developer that weren’t kept.”
To gain the community’s trust, Lombino and Two Trees CEO Jed Walentas hosted regular charrettes and meetings to stay in touch with locals and get their input on their designs. One change included turning an entire building site into an open square, which makes the park directly accessible from the street. The compromise was that the residential buildings are taller–something the community decided it could live with.
“We were part of the Domino rezoning. Originally we didn’t support it. By the end of it, it was just too good to pass up,” Solano says. “It has maximum affordable housing, a public park, and a tremendous amount of outreach.”
Seven hundred of the buildings’ 2,300 units will be affordable for very low-income New Yorkers–couples must make less than $29,000 per year to be eligible for a $640 per month one-bedroom. The park is the other big consolation for the neighborhood. Ultimately, the company will have spent more than $50 million on building Domino Park, which will open ahead of most of the development. The developers have carefully put in a public road between the still-to-be-built residential towers and the park, so it feels more accessible to the neighborhood–a key critique they heard during feedback sessions. While the decision to turn some of the land into a road might not be the most obvious design feature of the park, it is perhaps the most crucial one.
“We normally don’t think [the parks are] for us, that it’s for the people on the waterfront,” Solano says. Many of New York’s waterfront parks, like those in Battery Park City and Long Island City, do feel like a private yard for the million-dollar high-rise condos that tower over the river. Visitors to the park have to walk through the skyscrapers to access what is supposed to be a public open space.
Much of the outreach was aimed at overcoming residents’ skepticism that the park wouldn’t belong to them. “A lot of these people are 65-year-old seniors. To get them to the water, something that has been blocked out in their eyes, it takes an incredible amount of sensitivity. You can’t just email them,” Solano says. To ensure the locals knew the park was being built for them, Two Trees held meetings in local churches, printed flyers in Spanish, and held a seminar on applying for affordable housing so residents knew how to take advantage of it. “That takes money and resources and a commitment to do that,” Solano says. “If you don’t then you end up having a park with [just] white people.”
Despite the company’s efforts and Solano’s praise, Domino Park may still end up the purview of the affluent New Yorkers who move into Two Trees’ residential buildings as they’re built over the next decade. Regardless of developers’ efforts to design the park for the existing community, the design alone won’t curb the steady march of rising rents in the neighborhood. Proximity to Domino Park will be yet another selling point for South Williamsburg and encourage more outsiders to come and make their homes there. While construction continues on those buildings and within the old refinery building itself, it will be hard to forget that the park will live in their shadow.
Still, Dennis is optimistic. “By extending River Street and creating the park across the street, it does hopefully eliminate the idea that this is somebody else’s front yard and it certainly makes a wider and more ample public space,” he says. “I think it’ll be very popular. It creates the longest access point to the waterfront yet made in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and it does it in the middle of the south side, which has some of the worst access to public space.”
Perhaps Domino Park will point toward a new paradigm for developing New York City’s waterfront property. By bringing the city to the park, Lombino certainly hopes it will. The sugar factory building itself, which will one day become office space, is central to that plan. “We had the refinery building, which is an extremely rare and amazing piece of historical fabric around which our entire design was conceived,” Lombino says. “To preserve that and activate that was going to be our best weapon at knitting it together with the neighborhood and making it an interesting and exciting urban place–part of New York City.”