When Jane Jacobs famously said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” she might as well have been foreshadowing the successful partnership formed between SHoP Architects, James Corner Field Operations, and Two Trees Management. The team, who collaborated on the 11-acre Domino Park master plan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been hailed for creating a benchmark standard in perfecting the process for designing and understanding what it means to maintain a park that actively participates in a two-way dialogue with the community.
Dating back to 1856, the Domino Sugar Refinery, for which the site is named, was the largest refinery in the world, producing 98% of the sugar that was consumed in the United States. When the business shuttered in 2004, it signified the end of the last major active industrial operation on the East River waterfront. However, the pause of activity was quite brief, as Two Trees Management purchased the site to restore the lifeblood of urban activity to the river by reconnecting it with the community. Today, the site pays homage to the industrial history of Williamsburg, while also modernizing it into the present day. With monolithic housing developments- more than 700 units of which are affordable, the Refinery building which is being transformed into an office complex, and the delivery of 5-acres of public space at Domino Park, the area has been completely revitalized and is now an iconic spectacle of Brooklyn.
Early on in the development process, Two Trees Management emphasized the importance of creating a site that would give back to the community through intentional programming of Domino Park. David Lombino, Managing Director at Two Trees Management said that the team understood the importance of community buy-in and input for how the park should function. “We tried to set the bar in terms of the number of grassroots movements, elected officials' involvement, and continuing conversations with the community board to listen to what their constituents desired. We wanted everyone to have their own piece of it, and to even bring in residents of Manhattan as well. In a city where neighborhoods are often overwhelmed with new developments and because the parks tend to be viewed as the backyards of residential towers, we knew that people might be reflexively against this proposal as well. Through sophisticated conversations with neighbors, we were able to accomplish our goal and generate excitement and buzz around the future development,” said Lombino.
While Williamsburg residents shared their aspirations for the future of Domino Park, SHoP Architects and James Corner Field Operations were well underway in closely collaborating on the functionality of the site. One of the first big design gestures that was implemented created the connection to the water’s edge by extending River Street through the length of the site. For SHoP specifically, another one of the design goals was to create a skyline that could compete with the enunciated silhouette of Manhattan. Elliot Mistur, Senior Associate at SHoP who worked on the Domino Sugar master plan from its inception through the completion of 325 Kent, said that establishing the identity of the site was something that was front-of-mind for the design team. “Brooklyn at the time didn't have a unique skyline. We needed to emphasize the appetite for taller buildings that aren't necessarily easy to construct to bring some distinction to Domino Park,” said Mistur. “We knew the buildings on the site could easily become monotonous so we needed to ‘design to differentiate’ and to let other authors take part. What was important is that we focused on how the master plan would be most effective, and delivered the recreation space as the first commitment to the community, and let the buildings come second.”
Domino Park is a great lesson learned, and the process of its success is in our DNA of how we approach our projects. We need more parks that really look and feel like New York City.
Lisa Switkin, Senior Principal at James Corner Field Operations shared a similar sentiment on her team’s goals. “We needed to engage in a full lifecycle of engagement and stewardship- which is not usually common. Finding that first urban design move or mechanism that signals and deepens the relationship with the community was critical to the success of this park,” she said. Her team’s goal for the design of the park was to find a balance between the context and the character of the site, and ground the resources of the refinery into the city. When considering the programming of the park, Field Operations heavily considered the more than 1,000 responses of community input to create spaces that would emphasize family-oriented activities and a strong desire to unite the South and North sides of Williamsburg. Recreation space, such as a volleyball court, children’s play areas, places to eat and sit, and a strong desire to learn about the history of the site came together to create a gradient of passive and active spaces.
"This park reflects the diversity of the people, and the outreach created the bond and sense of ownership. It wasn’t about talking just once, but a continued conversation to see what the park could become. Ultimately, this fruitful relationship has created an eagerness to learn and a new way of setting the bar for development that engages the community,” said Switkin. “Today, given the consequences of the pandemic, there is a heightened awareness of the significance of parks and open spaces for not only community, but recreation, respite, protest, and general health and well being.”
In our current COVID-19 world, where space in a dense city has become less of a luxury and more of a necessity, Domino Park gained national news attention due to a creative solution of drawing 6-foot social distancing circles on the grass to demarcate where visitors could safely sit. “In the early days of the pandemic, people were desperate to get outside and get fresh air, '' said David Lombino. “As a result, Domino Park was overwhelmed with neighbors and residents. People weren’t socially distancing so we went out to a hardware store and bought paint to create the circles. People latched onto it and it took off in popularity.” Lombino also mentioned the value of parks and greenspace, and the critical role that they play in Two Trees’ future development opportunities.
The first two years of the park’s inception have proven that continuous community engagement and intentional outreach from the very beginning of a project is critical to the success of public spaces. Domino Park has become a magnet for bringing in New Yorkers and visitors alike- and as the world evolves, Williamsburg has little reason to doubt that Domino Park will evolve in parallel, and will always be ready to serve the community’s needs.
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