Before it ceased operations in 2004, the Domino Sugar refinery on the Brooklyn waterfront was, for more than a century, the lifeblood of the Williamsburg community.
“It was a good place for a lot of people because they spent their life here. If you had a job here, you were making it,” Al Henriquez, site manager for developer Two Trees Management, told Metro as he whisked us up an exterior elevator to the refinery’s rooftop.
For the past seven years, the Brooklyn native has lived, breathed and even dreamed about the Domino Sugar refinery redevelopment project, making him the perfect guide for a top-to-bottom — and sometimes scary for this writer who is afraid of heights — tour of the hulking brick building.
“No one knew” the magnitude of the project, Henriquez said, which was a deconstruction of the Domino Sugar refinery, not a demolition due to its landmark status. That means the permanent walls had to stay put, and Henriquez and crew spent two years breaking down literal tons of sugar-making machinery that spanned several stories by hand as “it was basically a machine wrapped in brick. The structure within the four walls was built around the equipment,” he said.
“It’s an incredible and very unique construction process so far,” added David Lombino, Two Tress’ managing director of external affairs. “It’s kind of like building a mini ship inside a glass bottle because you’re doing everything within the very strict confines of the existing façade.”
Some of the equipment salvaged from the factory can be seen as a permanent installation throughout Domino Park, which opened this past summer to give this historic section of Williamsburg its first waterfront access.
What’s next for the Domino Sugar refinery building?
Two Trees’ transformation of the former Domino Sugar refinery site features 11 mixed-use acres. Its first residential building, 325 Kent, opened last fall, and a second, 260 Kent, will open next year. The complex will eventually include two more residential buildings, and the factory itself will be redeveloped into 400,000 square feet of commercial space.
Henriquez and his crew are currently fortifying the refinery’s foundation before the building-within-a-building is constructed.
“It’ll take a couple years. I don’t think we have a set date, but it’s hard to see anything happening there before 2021 at the earliest,” Lombino said.
As Two Trees is “not actively marketing” the space, “it’s too early” to discuss potential tenants, he added. While the upper floors will be office space, the ground floor of the Domino Sugar refinery will be open to the public and house restrooms for Domino Park as well as retail space and a courtyard.
Being able to convert the Domino Sugar refinery into this mixed-use space “gives back public space, gives the community access to the waterfront, which was never the case, and creating commercial space where people are going to be able to work again is super important for the development of this community,” said Henriquez, who remembers sugar from the factory dusting cars in the neighborhood.
When work eventually ends, Henriquez will have spent more than a decade at the Domino Sugar refinery site and is “going to go sell coconuts on a beach,” he said with a laugh.
Video: Get a glimpse inside the Domino Sugar refinery
Check out the video below of Metro’s tour inside the Domino Sugar refinery, where sugar still actually wafts through the air and you can see pools of molasses easily mistaken for oil slicks and remnants of the lamb bone char once used to bleach and filter cane sugar still dusting the floor.