The Walentas' $1.5 billion vision for the Williamsburg waterfront
"There's an extaordinary monotony that's developing along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP Architects, on Friday afternoon in his offices near City Hall.
"In terms of architecture, we really believe Brooklyn deserves better."
This rendering for the Domino Sugar factory site in Williamsburg, which his firm prepared at the behest of DUMBO developer Two Trees, is what Chakrabarti means by "better":
The $1.5 billion plan calls for four new buildings and the redevelopment of the fifth, the original refinery building, which would house office space. The northermost building (the one farthest to the left in the rendering), would house both residential and commercial space. The third tower, and the project's centerpiece, would house luxury apartments in a building that looks something like an untorqued version of Rem Koolhaas' CCTV headquarters in China. There would be more apartments in the fourth and fifth buildings. The latter, the project's tallest, would top off at about 60 stories.
All of which, at least architecturally, is a marked departure from the site's original plans.
In 2004, CPC Resources and the Katan Group bought the site, bounded by Grand and South Fifth streets and the East River, for $55 million with the intention of converting it into a mostly residential development, with a small amount of office space thrown into the mix. Their plans, viewable here, would have added five high rises to the Williamsburg waterfront, in addition to a redeveloped refinery, with a thin park in between, a la the Edge or Northside Piers.
Though in 2010 the developers got government approval to move forward, the plan, and also the partnership, fell apart.
Two Trees came in to pick up the pieces, paying $185 million for the 11 acres.
Now, Jed Walentas, a principal at Two Trees and the son of Two Trees founder (and DUMBO reinventor) David Walentas, sees "opportunities for improvement."
For one thing: the parkland.
The original open space, which was required by zoning law, was less public park than "privatized front lawn," according to Walentas.
In his proposal, Walentas increases the amount of park space from 3.29 to 5.25 acres, in part by taking out one of those proposed towers and turning its footprint into "Domino Square."
He's also proposing that River Street, which now dead-ends at Grand, be extended in between the buildings and the park, so as to create "a really well-utilized public waterfront park."
Other differences: While the original plan called for about 100,000 square feet of office space, Walentas wants 630,000.
The project would, like the original, feature 660 units of affordable housing, but unlike the original plan, and unlike other developments along the Williamsburg waterfront, the affordable housing residents would have access to the same amenities as people in market-rate apartments.
(Chakrabarti called the model of development that bars affordable housing tenants from accessing the same amenities as their wealthier cohabitants "socially horrible" and "architecturally horrible.")
The new Domino would also feature a school, a recreation center and ground-floor retail, which Walentas intends to lease only to "small-scale, independently owned" businesses.
The Walentas family would subsidize those retail rents, in so doing following a paradigm of its own making.
David Walentas created modern-day DUMBO from whole cloth, and he did so in part by offering small retail establishments very good (often free) leasing terms. The idea is that cheap rent draws artists, and wealthier residents follow.
The Walentases hope to get their government approvals this year, start construction next, and complete the whole project in 10 to 15 years.
One thing this project will not do is fit in.
"It's not contextual, quote unquote," said Chakrabarti. "Contextualism is an opiate for the masses."
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