Domino Park: Privately-owned Public Infrastructure

Domino Park / Barrett Doherty

Domino Park on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn is an example of what has become common in the era of limited city park budgets: a privately built and managed public space. The $50 million, 5-acre park achieves multiple goals: it is an attraction for residents of the new 11-acre mixed-use development surrounding the site, a public amenity, and a bulwark against rising tides. As part of a broader deal with the NYC government that enabled them to expand the total square footage of the development, the developer Two Trees agreed to design, build, and maintain the new public park, with the guidance of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the 00s, then-NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg rezoned the city’s waterfronts from industrial use to residential and mixed-use. Only a few years ago, on this bank of the East River, sugar cane arrived from the Caribbean to be refined into sugar. For years, the neon red Domino Sugar sign remained a beacon.

To make way for the new development, which will include 2,800 apartments, including some affordable units; 200,000 square feet of retail; and 600,000 square feet of commercial space, a collection of old buildings in the Domino Sugar site were demolished, but the factory building itself was deemed conservation worthy and saved to be remade as a hotel.

During a tour of the park as part of the Cultural Landscape Foundation‘s Courageous by Design conference, Sanjukta Sen, ASLA, a senior associate with Field Operations, said the focus of the plan for the 11-acre development by Field Operations and SHoP Architects was to expand public access to the waterfront.

Leveraging the 40-foot-wide waterfront zone required by the city to be public space, the park is 100-feet wide, 1,200-feet long, and built half on elevated platform and half on earth. River Street was extended down the east side of the park, further creating a sense that the park is part of the public realm, rather than a private space just for nearby renters. These expanded public investments enabled the developer to benefit from larger buildings.

Domino Park / Daniel Levin

The design process began in 2012, and the park opened in 2018. Over those six years, Sen said Field Operations needed to resolve many challenges caused in part by the harsh conditions of the site.

“The East River is turbulent because of ferry wakes,” Sen said, “so we needed to create a structure.” The resulting platform is dense with steel and concrete so it can also handle storm surges. Areas of the platform are designed to let stormwater drain, reducing risk of flooding, with no lasting damage to the park. It’s not soft green infrastructure, but an elevated, hardened landscape.

Domino Park / Barrett Doherty

To ensure resilience to expected climate and storm impacts, the platform structure was lifted up as much as possible. Planning for sea level rise estimates of 30 inches by 2070, along with 100-year flood events, meant the middle of the platform is 17 feet off the water.

Sen said during a storm like Hurricane Sandy, the ends of Domino Park will still flood, but the platform is designed like a sieve that will drain quickly.

Field Operations also opted against a soft, natural coastline for the park, because given the limited set back from the water, there is a steep drop off, Sen said. Furthermore, at the time, the Army Corps of Engineers and NYC Department of Environmental Protection were prepared to permit a hard platform structure, but a nature-based solution would have entailed a far more complex and lengthy regulatory review and permitting process.

The salt spray off the East River and the raised platform also made selecting plants a challenge. Large trees need significant and heavy soil volumes. It was a puzzle creating a uniform design out of planters set both on terra firma and the platform.

The city and developer sought a park that offered a range of uses, and finding places for all of them required an intensive design process. All zones went through three stages of review with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The park includes a passive section, with a “beach” area with chaise lounges, lawn, and playground; a center water square, with splash pad, mist fountain, and cut-outs that provide a view of the river below; an active area, with a field for frisbee, volleyball and bocce courts, and a dog run.

Domino Park plan / Field Operations

Reusing factory infrastructure, including cranes for unloading sugar, Field Operations wove in elements that reflect the site’s industrial history. Now painted bright turquoise, the factory infrastructure becomes a vantage point for experiencing views of the river, Manhattan, and the rooftops of Williamsburg.

Domino Park / Barrett Doherty

The turquoise was inspired by a color on machinery in the original factory, but bright yellow was also a leading contender for a while. “It took many tests to get to that turquoise color. There are over 90 page of studies,” Sen said.

In keeping with its environment and history, the park incorporated a “robust palette” of materials as well. Cor-Ten steel frame planting areas, and yellow pine wood salvaged from a demolished factory building was transformed into new benches manufactured on site.

Domino Park / Barrett Doherty

To keep the park looking pristine, a staff of approximately 17 manage and maintain the site. In contrast, for a public park of this size elsewhere in the city, perhaps only a few parks department maintenance staff would be available, and they would also be tending to other parks.

In NYC, public spaces are owned and maintained by the parks department and partner conservancies or developers. For context, the NYC Parks and Recreation department’s operating budget accounts for just 0.6 percent of the city’s total budget, even after a 20 percent increase from 2021. The parks department’s capital budget this year is $7.1 billion, the highest it has been, and much of that will go to publicly-owned resilient coastal infrastructure. But Sen argues that “parks don’t get much love, so developers need to fill the void.”

Another major issue is the lengthy time to permit nature-based solutions in NYC. Questions are raised about the evidence behind green infrastructure as coastal defense, and the amount of maintenance required to maintain these systems.

As part of a 2018-2019 Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Innovation & Leadership Fellowship, Sen analyzed the implications of a piece-meal approach to coastal protections in which the city and developers build different levels of resilience to sea level rise and storms, perhaps some hard, some nature-based. Without a uniform and equitable approach, water will simply find the weakest link, and developers protecting themselves will increase flood risk elsewhere.

In her presentation, she argued that one possible solution is to take more than 40 feet of coastlines for natural flood protection systems that can further reduce community risks. She proposed larger mandated setbacks and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”

Field Operations seems to be further exploring these ideas with River Ring, another massive planned development, also with Two Trees, just a few blocks down from Domino Park. There a circular esplanade will extend into the river, leveraging existing concrete caissons to create greener breakwaters, along with protective salt marshes and tidal pools that also restore coastal habitat.

The River Ring / Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Field Operations
The River Ring / Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Field Operations

The project and others along the waterfront of NYC indicate a period of public and private experimentation with both hard and soft defenses against climate change continues. Varying coastal and riverfront conditions require customized resilience solutions. But according to Sen, no city government-wide effort to advance nature-based solutions has yet been developed.

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