In June, an iconic section of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg waterfront opened to the public for the first time in 160 years. Domino Park is one of the first completed elements of the larger Domino Sugar Refinery Master Plan, a transformation of an 1880s factory site into a brand-new multi-use development that will reshape the borough’s skyline.
What makes the park unusual—aside from the equipment salvaged from the original refinery, such as a row of 36-foot-tall syrup-collection tanks and two metal cranes repainted a vibrant shade of turquoise—is that it was underwritten entirely by private funding. Two Trees, a Brooklyn-based development company, worked with landscape architects James Corner Field Operations to surpass the minimum requirements for public waterfront access required by New York City zoning to create a public amenity that serves as a public ambassador, of sorts, for one of the borough’s biggest development projects of the last decade.
Lisa Tziona Switkin is a senior principal at James Corner Field Operations, which worked on the High Line, among other high-profile projects. She says that her firm’s main goal for the park design was to create a connection between the park and the surrounding neighborhood.
“We wanted to take very seriously reconnecting [the space] back into the city, and do that in an effective way,” she says.
Chris Sharples, AIA, co-founder and principal at SHoP Architects, the project architects for the entire 11-acre Domino Sugar Refinery project, was not enamored with the previous plan for the site. “There’s always the dead end where streets stop and you don’t sense that connectivity,” he says. “We looked at how the streets would actually comb through the development and reconnect the Williamsburg community with the waterfront. It was really a cross-grain way of thinking.”
The historic refinery site’s redevelopment has been in the works since 2010, but following the recession when the original developer couldn’t follow through with its city-approved plan (and evoked controversy for the somewhat insular nature of its plan), Two Trees stepped in, retooling the existing plans to include 60 percent more public space along the waterfront.
“The base plan pretty much privatized the waterfront,” Sharples says. “It was really designed for the development and culminated in a series of cul-de-sacs, but it didn’t really invite the community outside of the development into the public open space along the waterfront.”
Justin Garrett Moore, who managed the project’s urban design when he worked at New York’s Department of City Planning and currently heads the NYC Public Design Commission, says that Two Trees reasoned that a better configuration of public space would allow better long-term design for the neighborhood, and a better added overall value. The full redevelopment will eventually include four new buildings situated in close proximity to the park, as well as the renovation of the original 19th-century factory building.
“It’s an amenity that immediately serves the development, but it also changes the site plan dynamic,” Moore says of the park. “Two Trees said, ‘We want public space to be at the heart of this development.’ They wanted to create a new gathering point for the neighborhood. It’s not just a waterfront walkway, but a place for the life of the city to have a space. They, by far, exceeded the zoning requirements.”
New Model, New Trend
Domino Park is just the latest example of a larger trend—across the country but particularly in New York—of new public spaces being brought to fruition through private money. As recently as a decade ago, the term “public-private partnership” was most frequently used in the context of big, if not particularly inspiring, public projects: highway infrastructure, and other undertakings whose costs usually topped $100 million. More recently, however, city governments have seen partnerships with private companies as viable options in delivering innovative public spaces.
“In this tax-cut world, public-private partnership and cross-sector partnership is really important,” says Susan Chin, FAIA, executive director of Design Trust for Public Space. “What we’ve found is that having that cross-sector partnership [means that] everybody has kind of a piece of the action and owns this place. If you want volunteers to garden, they’re really eager and happy to get involved in some way, shape, or form. And then, having that developer be involved—they’re proud of this development, right? They want to show that they’ve done the best thing that they possibly could for the community.”
There are plentiful examples around New York of how this new model is playing out. Brooklyn Bridge Park’s construction was funded through city capital funds, but its operation is entirely financed through revenue generated by a hotel and condo building located on the adjacent property.
Chin emphasizes that community input and involvement are essential components in the process of bringing any new public space to fruition, something which SHoP and James Corner Field Operations, in partnership with Two Trees, tried to be mindful of when planning Domino Park.
“They [Two Trees] actually had those conversations with people in the community to get input and buy-in around the idea that a better public space, or a different configuration, was something that could be a positive,” Chin says. “Eventually, when they got to a certain point of really figuring out the project, they did charrette-style meetings where the designers would come and present ideas and get feedback. That’s fairly atypical for a developer to do that.”
Lastly, Chin says that a key component for successful management of a public space created by a private entity is a commitment from that entity to maintain the amenity over time.
“The compact that you’re going to have—for not only just building it but also maintaining it— is really critical, whether it’s maintained with the same level of quality and interest you had envisioned,” Chin says. “Having that level of community engagement, where the community holds the property owner and the folks who are involved [accountable]—holds their feet to the fire—is also a critical piece.”
The Future of Public-Private Spaces
Public spaces play a vital role in the social and economic life of communities, and in New York City in particular they’re at the heart of public life—shared resources where experiences and value are created. Domino Park is one of the shiniest and newest examples of a privately underwritten public space, but it’s unclear how this new model is going to play out over time when it comes to issues of maintenance, upkeep, and security.
Another older and more well-established example of innovative management models that have proven to be successful includes Manhattan’s Bryant Park, which is publicly owned and privately managed by the Bryant Park Restoration Corp. The park’s 55 summer employees oversee security, sanitation, gardening, and special events. It has become such a popular spot for banner events during the summer months that one of its biggest problems has been having to turn down engagements that look promising in terms of generating revenue. The park is able to financially support itself because of its popularity, but in the process it has arguably lost some of the spontaneity inherent to non-programmed spaces.
Bryant Park, unlike Domino Park and its counterparts (such as the 4 acres allocated as public space in the public-private Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side largely constructed on city land and managed by the Hudson Yards Development Corp.), has been a part of New York’s urban fabric since 1911, and has more or less always been a product of its prime Midtown location. The NYC Public Design Commission’s Moore posits that public space is supposed to serve the existing community first and foremost—an ideology that has fueled critics of the High Line, which, despite generating a predicated $1 billion in tax revenues to the city over the next 20 years, is overwhelmingly visited by white tourists, according to a City University of New York study.
With this new model, then, inevitably comes a slew of new questions about who these spaces will primarily serve, as well as how security will be enforced and whether that security will favor the space’s owner or its users. How will the spaces integrate with the existing surrounding communities? According to the U.K.’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a social policy research center, “People make places, more than places make people.”
In the case of privately funded and managed public spaces, the push and pull between people and the spaces they inhabit may take new and unprecedented forms.