Forgotten History Behind New Brooklyn Waterfront Plan

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Photo by: Beyond My Ken

The Walentas clan’s design for a series of massive towers fashioned to resemble huge squared-off Cheerios on the Domino sugar site on the Williamsburg waterfront are the talk of the town right now. Plans were unveiled Friday and the reviews are now rolling in. “Maybe it spells OOOH,” wrote New York mag. “Sweet Spot,” headlined the Post. “Edgy,” said Crains.

No question, the $1.5 billion scheme is all of that and more. The plan is so vast—some of the buildings reach 600 feet—it will have to go back through the city’s land-use review process. That’s where a battle over size, scale and affordability was fought in 2010 over a previous proposal that later ran aground.

Meanwhile, the saga of the old sugar plant that once provided more than 400 well-paying blue collar jobs to Brooklyn is long forgotten. A bitter, 20-month long strike over employer demands to end all job protections ended in defeat in 2001. The plant was later flipped, then flipped again, its value soaring in anticipation of zoning changes that would allow residential construction there.

Someday maybe historians will map the ways in which thousands of entry-level jobs were chased from the Brooklyn waterfront. That was the path to the future, its advocates held, and, with more than a little help from political allies and well-paid lobbyists, they got their way. This much is certain: There’s no going back. But all those good people walking the halls of now-refashioned industrial buildings in what David Walentas brilliantly dubbed DUMBO, inhabiting the same “live-work” concept now envisioned for the Domino site, might be interested in knowing that there was once a big fight waged over that future.

The fate of what was then known as Fulton Landing tossed back and forth for more than a decade. There were investigations, lawsuits, charges of libel and a steady hemorrhaging of jobs. By 1997, Walentas, armed now with the support of Republicans in City Hall (Rudy Giuliani), and the statehouse (George Pataki), managed to finally push most of his plan into reality.

Back in 1983, when the battle was raging, City Limits asked a young reporter named Michael Powell (now of the Times) to write it up for us. Here’s his account, one still well worth reading.