Sweet movie: Domino doc explores controversial project

A sweet future for sugar plant
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Gilbert

A new documentary about the plan to turn Williamsburg’s former Domino Sugar factory into a massive housing development has all the trappings of a festival circuit favorite: a grandiose plot, an historic setting, a punny title, lots of conflict, and plenty of twists.

Filmmakers Megan Sperry, Brian Paul and Daniel Phelps chronicled North Brooklyn’s largest development project — which calls for building high-rises and 2,200 units of housing at the former waterfront industrial site — in their nearly finished documentary “The Domino Effect.”

We decided to check in with the moviemakers, who might be sitting on a suprprise ending after last week’s shocking news that Domino’s builder defaulted on its $120-million loan and has been shopping the closed sugar factory around.

Aaron Short: Could you have asked for better timing?

Megan Sperry: Selling the property was always a possibility. We knew it was going to happen, whether it was six months or six years, because it kept coming up in conversation with residents.

Brian Paul: It seemed inevitable at the time. There was a lot of confidence. When people suggested that this might never get built, they were thought of as crazy.

Daniel Phelps: CPCR put so much money into the sale of an idea, but their books weren’t open. That’s why there was so much speculation.

AS: You interviewed lots of public officials, but why are most of them cut from the film?

BP: You could cut Domino opponents Councilman Steve Levin (D–Williamsburg) and Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Williamsburg) to make them seem like heroes, which wouldn’t be accurate.

DP: We decided to cut them because of the complexity of local politics in Brooklyn. For viewers from outside the neighborhood, explaining the competing factions of the local Democratic party is too complex.

MS: We didn’t have them being emotional, except on the steps of City hall. Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D–Williamsburg), a Domino supporter, was very melodramatic, but when we sat down with her, she was full of contradictions.

BP: We didn’t want to make Diana into a villain in this. Vito is killing industrial businesses in other parts of Williamsburg because of the Loft Law and Diana is trying to keep manufacturing jobs.

AS: Who’s ultimately to blame for the rezoning of the site and the stalled project?

DP: Mayor Bloomberg’s policies. The mayor gave up all hope for manufacturing.

BP: The vision of the Brooklyn waterfront as a giant Battery Park City comes from the power of the real estate interests in the city. The mayor seems to measure economic development by Frank Gehry buildings.

DP: There’s a disconnect between policymakers and the working class. This administration is not making decisions for the working class. There’s an insensitivity of the redesign of these neighborhoods.

MS: It’s easy to blame Bloomberg, but there’s been a continuous process to subsidize privately developed housing since the 1980s.

AS: What’s the most haunting imagery from the film? I think it’s the archival footage inside the Domino factory in the early 1990s.

MS: We got that from Isabel Hill, who directed “Made in Brooklyn.” Workers were talking about the factory being turned into luxury condos even 18 years ago.

DP: Doesn’t that suck in retrospective? Everybody saw it coming.

AS: What will happen to the Domino project?

MS: It will eventually get developed, but CPCR will not develop it.

BP: You have a memorandum of understanding signed by CPCR for 30 percent affordable housing. If someone else buys the property, they don’t have to follow that. And they can build something as ugly as The Edge.

DP: Breaking it up is the only way. It makes so much sense now.

AS: What are your goals for this film?

BP: We hope the conversation can be expanded beyond what type of condo can be developed on the Domino site. Why not have the city build housing directly. It’s called public housing.

MS: You’re not even allowed to think about public housing these days, but it can be anything. It doesn’t have to be ugly.

“The Domino Effect” documentary filmmakers Daniel Phelps, Megan Sperry, and Brian Paul are ready to release their new film, just as the owners of the former Domino Sugar factory are putting the site up for sale.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini