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Living in a Sugar Factory

domino sugar refinery brooklyn

What do a casket factory, a glass factory and a high-tech laboratory have in common? All are former industrial buildings that have been transformed into high-quality housing for low-income people. While some developers say that to build affordable housing we must sacrifice historic buildings and significant neighborhoods, history demonstrates clearly that we can have both. New York City has a long record of re-adapting historic buildings for many uses, including affordable housing.

The most famous example is the West Village’s WestBeth, where architect Richard Meier transformed the former Bell Labs into low-income artists housing in 1968. And there are plenty of recent examples that likewise prove both goals can be achieved. The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation transformed a casket factory into low-income housing, and in 1998 the Bowery Residents Committee converted a former glass factory in the East Village into housing for low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS. But at the iconic Domino Sugar factory site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we are hearing the same “either-or” argument.

For 148 years, ships delivered sugar cane from as far away as India to the Domino Sugar plant (originally American Sugar Refining Company) on the East River. In the massive factory buildings workers processed the cane into granulated sugar and packaged it for distribution. The Brooklyn plant was one of the largest refineries in the world, and by 1870 more than half of the sugar consumed in the entire country was refined here.

Thousands of Brooklynites worked there and many settled in nearby Wiliamsburg and Greenpoint, shaping the character of those neighborhoods. It was a terrible blow to Brooklyn in 2004 when sugar processing ceased. While Domino is gone, they left behind beautiful red brick buildings with round arched windows and the famed “Domino Sugar” sign.

These buildings have long been unofficial landmarks, and the community is urging the Landmarks Commission to designate them. Williamsburg wouldn’t be Williamsburg without them.The Domino buildings were bought by CPC Resources, the for-profit arm of Community Preservation Corporation, and Brooklyn developer Isaac Katan. While they haven’t publicly released their plans, the future of the historic buildings is unclear.

The Municipal Art Society strongly believes that the Domino historic buildings should be preserved appropriately. Feasible plans suggest that many of the historic buildings can be saved and adapted for residential use with plenty of space for new buildings. And preservation can also prove to be economical. In fact, Domino’s owners finance dozens of adaptive reuses of industrial and historic buildings across the state. In Syracuse, CPCR provided construction financing for the rehabilitation of the O.M. Edwards factory, where subway windows were once made.

New York City’s industrial heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate. The Greenpoint Terminal Market was destroyed by a suspicious fire earlier this year and developers demolished the magnificent Con Edison plant in Manhattan. When structures like these disappear, we lose a connection to our collective history and the character that makes New York special.

Neighborhoods where manufacturing and industrial buildings are retained and reused, like in DUMBO and SoHo, have an exciting character and some of the highest property values in the city. We’ve reused buildings effectively and efficiently before and now is no time to turn back the clock. The city must take steps to protect our heritage. And when developers tell us that affordable housing and historic preservation can’t coexist, preservationists and housing advocates must stand together and show them they are wrong.

The artificial divide between them must be mended. Brooklynites deserve an exciting new waterfront development that will provide sorely needed affordable housing and also preserve their history and neighborhood character.

A version of this first appeared in the Daily News.