The Domino Effect Documentary: Why It Matters Now

by Heather Van De Mark on

Last year, The Domino Effect documentary hit the film festival network showing the complex process of gentrification using the Domino Sugar factory building in south side Williamsburg as a case study. For those uninitiated, the Domino Sugar factory is one example of industrial manufacturing jobs leaving North Brooklyn to have the land redeveloped as luxury waterfront high-rises.

Myself and about 30 other people watched a free screening of the Domino Effect at the Greenpoint Reformed Church last week. Given the wide scope of the subject covering almost a decade–gentrification, new vs. old communities, class segregation, real estate economics, affordable housing, decline of manufacturing, job decline, uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) process, political propaganda–it’s not surprising that the film feels a bit superficial at times.

In 2004, the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) purchased the 11-acres of Domino lots for $55.8 million. The documentary explores what happened after that including support and dissent among politicians, developers, residents and community organizations. The documentary ends with CPC receiving City Council approval on their proposed development plans in 2010, although the community remained divided on the issue. Shortly thereafter, in 2012, CPC sold the 11-acres of the Domino Sugar factory to Two Trees Development corporation for $185 million.

A Few Comments, Questions and Quotes from The Domino Effect:

> Will the local community benefit from the proposed CPC development?
While, it’s hard to guess what while benefit a community in a future, it is possible to acknowledge that waterfront high-rise development will certainly change the community. As Bloomberg mentioned in his 2013 State of the City address, he wants to “begin creating a new community called Greenpoint Landing.” Greenpoint Landing is a different waterfront development project, but the sentiment is the same. New (i.e. better) communities are going to be created in place of the long-standing communities in north Greenpoint and south side Williamsburg.

> Conversation started and ended with affordable housing. No one talks about the 70% of luxury condominiums.
In the documentary, there was support by many, including civic and church leaders, because the proposed development would provide 660 units of affordable housing. The “660” mantra dominated the discussion. This eliminated, or greatly reduced, any conversation about the impact and influence the 2,000+ luxury apartments would have on the community.

> If they want to build, let them build on the empty lots.
This comment is a strong reminder that these developments aren’t about long-term city planning solutions. The film showed several empty lots, and worse, half-constructed abandoned residential complexes scattered throughout North Brooklyn in the late 2000s. Are we building up a diverse, sustainable community or just a waterfront?

> Restaurant and retail jobs trap people in poverty level-wages.
While the topic of manufacturing decline in industrial Williamsburg and Greenpoint is a major issue, the film reminds us that the retail and restaurant jobs that the proposed CPC development would bring are usually minimum wage jobs with no potential for promotion or growth. The film also points out that manufacturing jobs pay roughly $16,000 more each year and hire higher proportions of minorities and legal immigrants.

> People who need the help the least, get the most.
As housing becomes less and less accessible for many in North Brooklyn, the idea of affordable housing is incredibly persuasive. But what does affordable housing mean? Based on the CPC plan, of the 660 affordable housing units: 150 units would go to those making a household yearly income under $96,240; 310 units would go to those making a household yearly income under $48,120; 100 senior housing units would go to those making a household yearly income under $39,000; and another 100 family apartments would go to those making a household yearly income under $24,060. (Income numbers are based on the official New York City average median income for 2012.) And to reiterate, this is 660 affordable units out of some 2,200 available units. In a presentation by Two Trees earlier in this year, they noted that the law mandates that they only devote 400 units to affordable housing.

© 2011 Alanna Rios. Used with permission.

What Does All of This Mean for the Neighborhood Today?
Earlier this year, Two Trees proposed new development plans for the Domino Sugar lots which included taller buildings for more open land space on the ground, unusual architecture (a building shaped like a square donut) to prevent shadowing the neighborhood and other new features that were not part of the CPC proposal.

As a result of these changes, Two Trees will have to go through the ULURP process all over again starting roughly in June of this year. After the screening, makers of the film Brian Paul and Megan Sperry, shared their view that Two Trees was seemingly tying the community’s hands: either approve our new plans or we’ll use the city approved CPC plans.

If you have something to say on this issue, now is the time to start saying it.

Get Informed. Get Active.

  • Read up on this on-going issue with coverage from GWAPP: Domino Sugar.
  • Attend a free screening of The Domino Effect. Playing April 22 at Videology in Williamsburg and April 29 at the Historic Districts Council in Manhattan.
  • Contact your local representatives.
  • Attend community board and city council meetings. CB1 public hearing meets next on May 13, 2013.
Heather Van De Mark

Heather Van De Mark

Heather is a designer/writer specializing in non-profit organizations and social causes. Originally from central NY, Heather settled into the charming Greenpoint neighborhood in 2011. While most of her community activism takes place from behind a computer screen, Heather can often be found at CB1 meetings, the McCarren Park track and any of the parks along the waterfront.