July 04, 2022

The Refinery ExteriorThe 1865 designated landmark in Williamsburg has been transformed behind its weathered brick facade into a one-of-a-kind office building.

For six years, developer Jed Walentas dreamed of turning sugar into gold on the Williamsburg waterfront. Now, the moment of truth is at hand for the former Domino Sugar plant at 300 Kent Ave., an 1865 designated landmark that’s been transformed behind its weathered brick facade into a one-of-a-kind office building.

The search begins this month to find tenants for the Two Trees developer’s 460,000 square-foot office block — a glass-wrapped building within the building that is the centerpiece of Two Trees’ $3 billion Domino site complex of apartments, stores, offices and a popular park.

The Refinery, as it’s called, is like no other adaptive reuse in the city. The arresting structure evokes a lost age of toil and sweat more viscerally than do routine conversions of downtown warehouses to offices.

When I first toured the place with Walentas in 2016, it was the spookiest void I had ever seen. The labor of past generations seemed entombed in catacombs of pipes, girders, 30-foot-high vats and catwalks that ended in midair.

Sugar was refined there until Domino moved to Yonkers in 2004. But the industrial-era grunge remained. As CBRE tristate CEO Mary Ann Tighe, the head of the office leasing team, recalled, “Your feet stuck to the floor from the sugar residue. It was black, icky and rancid.”

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The former Domino Sugar plant underwent a $250 million restoration and interior re-imagining.

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By next year, a 27,000 square-foot, glass-covered penthouse dome with spectacular river and skyline views will rise on the roof.

Today, after a $250 million restoration and interior re-imagining, nothing remains of the past except the 15-story brick facade and the big Domino sign. Taking the “cool factor” to a new level, the office building is inserted, like a ship in a bottle, inside the brick exterior, its glass-wall perimeter set back 15 feet from the facade.

Today, after a $250 million restoration and interior re-imagining, nothing remains of the past except the 15-story brick facade and the big Domino sign. Taking the “cool factor” to a new level, the office building is inserted, like a ship in a bottle, inside the brick exterior, its glass-wall perimeter set back 15 feet from the facade.

Walentas’ vision for The Refinery reminded Tighe of a line from Alexander Pope: “Consult the genius of the place in all,” she said, referring to architecture that “must fit logically into the character of its place.” (Tighe is surely the only dealmaker who brings 18th-century poetry to the table.)

“What the Walentases do is make a neighborhood more of what it intrinsically is,” Tighe said. “This building couldn’t exist anywhere else in New York but in Williamsburg.”

Natural light pours through church-like arched windows onto mostly column-free floors of 27,269 to 33,257 square feet with ceiling heights of up to 14 feet. A greenscape of hanging vines, plantings and 30-feet-tall sweetgum trees is being installed between the interior glass curtain wall and the outer masonry.

Amenities will include a shared amenities floor with a fitness center, ground-floor retail, a three-story atrium lobby and operable windows — almost unheard of in a modern building. By next year, a 27,000 square-foot, glass-covered penthouse dome with spectacular river and skyline views will rise on the roof.

Asking rents are expected to range from $55 to $85 per square foot. Tighe noted that the site has no commercial rent tax and there is a tax benefit for companies moving from Manhattan.

Walentas developed The Refinery entirely on spec — i.e., without pre-signed tenants. I asked Tighe if even cutting-edge creative tenants might balk at moving into so eerie-looking a structure fronted by a 250-feet-tall, 150-year-old smokestack. (Architecture is by Practice for Architecture and Urbanism and Dencityworks. James Corner Field Operations of High Line Fame is the landscape architect. Bonetti/Kozerski is credited with interior design.)

02-domino-refinery Natural light pours through church-like arched windows.

But Tighe said that such a pioneering approach is typical of the Walentas family. Jed’s father, David Walentas, created the neighborhood now called DUMBO mostly on his own.

Like his father, “Jed has absolute clarity about what he wants,” Tighe said. “He can do this because he has no partners. His company spends only its own money.

“There’s no replicating Jed’s success if it’s a success,” Tighe said. “You can’t say, ‘Let’s build another Refinery.’ ”