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Two Trees Invites the Community to Help Improve Domino Plan

Since its purchase of the Domino Sugar factory site, DUMBO-based real estate developer Two Trees Management Company has identified several aspects of the original development plan that are lacking, most notably in the area of open space.

The City Council approved the designs of former site developer CPC Resources (CPCR) in 2010. Two Trees acquired Domino for $185 million in mid-October. Developing Domino is expected to last ten years.

Last Thursday, Jed Walentas and David Lombino of Two Trees invited North Brooklyn residents to the first of several input sessions, seeking community suggestions for what should be done with the 3.2 acres of open space – which spans about a quarter of a mile along the East River in Williamsburg.

“We’re going to be a big neighbor in this community. We’re developing this site to own it long term,” said Walentas to those who attended. “We’re not going to sell condominiums here and take our money and go somewhere else. We’re going to be your long-term neighbor for better or for worse.”

At last week’s meeting, there was no shortage of ideas for Domino’s open space component. Suggestions for a waterfront ice skating rink, running track and sports field were among those floated. Residents noted that most of North Brooklyn’s fresh air activity spaces are along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or at McCarren Park – sites not as readily accessible to South Williamsburg residents.

Other suggestions included passive uses like community gardens, dog parks, more gathering space for food trucks, open markets and outdoor performance amphitheaters. There was also talk about the feasibility of a multi-level space similar to the High Line in Chelsea.

Manhattan-based landscaping architecture firm, Field Operations (who also designed the High Line), has been tapped by Two Trees to design the open space without sacrificing the integrity of the neighborhood.

“We have a strong sensibility of looking at the history and context of a place … and providing something that is truly unique,” said Lisa Switkin, senior designer at Field Operations. “We try hard to strike a balance between something that is both respectful of the greatest qualities that are there and at the same time brings new life and new ideas.”

One idea Switkin proposed – which met with quick approval at the session – was to develop a better connection between the upland and the waterfront, which she said was her primary critique of CPCR’s original open space plan.

“The waterfront didn’t seem public. You had a series of cul-de-sacs, and you had to go down switchbacks and stairs to get down to it,” she said. “It seemed more like a private backyard than something that was inviting and welcoming.”

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy and the extensive flooding along the Brooklyn waterfront, concerns were raised about how the plan would address future flood risks, whether via storm water management or shoreline protection.

“The river is going to flood from time to time. As we design and build buildings, we make smarter choices as we learn.” said Walentas. “It’s a combination of paying attention and making smart decisions and learning from previous mistakes and that knowing that you’re not going to solve all the problems.”

During the input session, Walentas and Lombino tried to keep the focus on the community’s ideas for the commercial uses, open space and community facilities at the Domino site. Residents’ comments, however, still turned to ongoing concerns about affordable housing and whether Two Trees will adhere to the previously approved plan, which had “guaranteed” that 30 percent of housing units would be rented out at below-market rates, a number which may not be economically feasible for the development. Residents also called out about the density of the project and how it might overload the already-strained transportation infrastructure in Williamsburg.

Leah Kreger, a registered architect at Indamine Ochre Architecture on Grand Street who attended the input session, believes that these issues should’ve been addressed more.

“In my opinion, the substantive issue is the zoning and the density. The other stuff is just icing on the cake,” Kreger said. “For the community to engage in that is a waste of the community’s energy.”

Kreger, who has followed the developments surrounding Domino since the original CPCR acquisition, said she’s pleased that Two Trees is putting more emphasis on community input and support, but has doubts about whether the developers will actually take any of the community’s suggestions into consideration.

To assuage those concerns, Walentas and Lombino pointed to their track record in DUMBO, where their developments incorporated suggestions from that community’s residents. The developers plan to reconvene with the community in January to show the plan’s progress before taking it to the city.

Lombino said he understands why residents may still be skeptical, in spite of the developers’ transparency throughout the process.

“There have been lots of promises made and many visions shared over the last eight years, and yet the site remains dormant with zero benefits delivered,” he said via email. “There are things that we can’t commit to, but if you look at Two Trees’ track record as developers, we deliver on our promises.”

The developers said they have not spoken to city officials yet about possible plans for the site, and don’t intend to bring any plans to the community board, the borough president, the city planning commission or city council until they draft a plan that garners support from the community.

“It’s going to be fairly lengthy process,” said Walentas to those at the input session. “But we’re taking it very seriously. We’re going to own it forever. And it’s really, really important to us.”

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