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Oooh, Williamsburg

A so-what plan is trumped by daring.

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Rendering courtesy of SHoP Architects

Building in New York is gladiatorial. Developers and community march into combat, often with gruesome results. The saga of the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg gave everyone something to hate in the proposed stockade of slabs. Fortunately, the developer ran out of steam and unloaded the ­eleven-acre site—along with the miserable, city-approved plan—on Two Trees Management, the creator of Dumbo.

In a gesture of masochistic genius, Two Trees’s Jed Walentas hired SHoP Architects to start from scratch. In their new plan, pairs of towers linked by bridges coalesce into a kind of skyline writing—maybe it spells OOOH, an appreciative response to the Domino Sugar sign. At the site’s north end, a residential building leans on an office tower. The refinery itself, kitted out with more offices, stands beside a full-block open square. Next door, a ­U-shaped low-rise steps invitingly down to the neighborhood. Hard by the Williamsburg Bridge, a pair of slender columns are laced together with glass. The openings make the waterfront porous and the silhouettes varied, a huge improvement on the architectural numbness that has invaded Williamsburg in recent years.

For Walentas, electing to go through the approval process again is like having a root canal just for the hell of it. It’s hard to argue that his motivator is greed, since the new proposal whittles away some market-rate apartments, keeps all the affordable units, adds less-profitable offices, shuts out megaretailers in favor of small stores, and increases the open public space by almost 60 percent. Maybe Walentas really wants what he says he wants: a round-the-clock New Dumbo.

There’s a trade-off: The tallest of SHoP’s towers would rise to a lofty 598 feet. Badly designed tall buildings are oppressive, but good ones make streets livelier. The new plan pulls back from the water, widening the park and making it a genuine public amenity instead of the high-rises’ sliverlike backyard.

In the end, others will design some of the buildings, but for now, getting the rules right is crucial. Walentas has the old plan in his pocket, and he says he will build it, grudgingly, if the new one fails. That would be disastrous. The city rarely gets this good a chance to extricate itself from a planning mistake. Yes, the new Domino would mean more creeping Manhattanization, but that sure is better than the alternative: the New Jersification of Brooklyn.


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