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Exploring Brooklyn: A Journey into Design and Community Trust

Author: Brendan Willis (MRE' 24)

Editor: Pinyang Paul Chen (MRE' 24, MLAUD' 23)



Introduction

In early November, the GSD Real Estate Club embarked on the Inaugural Brooklyn Trek, seeking insights from industry leaders who prioritize good design and extensive community engagement. Contacts made by Carl Rodriguez, formerly the Chief Operating Officer of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and now the Chief Executive Officer of the Harvard Allston Land Company, allowed the Club to plan the first student-initiated trek to visit with two firms in Brooklyn, New York: Two Trees and Alloy.


 

Two Trees: Building Community Beyond Buildings

Our first stop was Williamsburg to meet with Two Trees Management Company, developers of the Domino Waterfront, which includes the recently completed Refinery at Domino. We were greeted by Dave Lombino and Bonnie Campbell at One South First, a mixed-use tower designed by Cook Fox architects. Bonnie and Dave shared the history of the project and the ongoing plan for the development of the Williamsburg waterfront. 




Bonnie Campbell, Principal at Two Trees, Presenting the Vision to Club Members



In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, Two Trees acquired the 11-acre Domino site and embarked on a rezoning, emphasizing a mix of uses alongside well-designed parks and open space. A key strategy was Two Trees’ decision to begin by opening the stunning Domino Park, a five-acre public park designed by James Corner Field Operations. The park introduced the community to the potential of Williamsburg’s waterfront and has already welcomed 3.5 million visitors who reflect the vibrant diversity of New York City. The park has also established Two Trees as a trusted community partner. However, the park's creation was not just strategy, as Dave reflected that it is his proudest achievement after years of hard work on the project.


With a focus on a few projects at a time, Two Trees has shaped the future of the Williamsburg Waterfront. Bonnie introduced us to their next project: River Ring, a highly resilient development designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and James Corner Field Operations. With their proven success and community goodwill, Two Trees is embarking on another rezoning. River Ring will provide another waterfront park that filters the East River and provides protection from future storm surges. Two Trees’ proven track record with the community will likely ensure the project is a success. 


After our overview, we ascended to the roof deck of One South First, where we witnessed the neighborhood building at Domino firsthand. The building tour provided a glimpse into Two Trees’ commitment to architectural excellence and diversity in their mixed-use communities. We were also treated to a breathtaking view of the New York City skyline and able to reflect on the potential of our own careers in real estate. 




View from One South First Roof Deck, Photo by Brendan Willis



We ended the morning with an insider's tour of The Refinery at Domino. The recently completed commercial office building is an exemplary instance of adaptive reuse, in which the landmarked envelope of the former Domino Sugar Refinery was preserved with the insertion of Class A office space. The volume of the office is held back from the masonry exterior, providing a beautiful contrast between the old and the new that embraces the site's history while looking forward. The provision of commercial office space in order to provide a genuinely mixed-use community was the intention of Two Trees’ rezoning of the site. Although a difficult market is now testing it, we have learned in our studies and conversations with industry leaders that there are tenants who are looking for the best of the best, and it doesn’t get any better than this. We left inspired and confident that the Refinery at Domino will be a valuable addition to the community for years to come. 




Dave Lombino, Managing Director at Two Trees, with Club Members at the Refinery at Domino



 

Alloy Development: Equitable, Sustainable, Beautiful

In the afternoon, we gathered in Dumbo to meet with Alloy, a firm that stands at the intersection of architecture and real estate development. President AJ Pires welcomed us and shared the company's vision of making Brooklyn more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable. Alloy has developed a business strategy in which they are committed to working within the fabric of a place. Their firm embraces a collaborative ethos: unifying architecture, urban design, real estate finance, and construction innovation. 


The Alloy model is challenging the norms of architecture and real estate. With financial exposure and social connectivity, Alloy operates as more than a developer and architect – it's also a brokerage firm and a management company. Alloy’s projects demonstrate a keen ability to combine creative deal structuring, market insight, and architectural innovation. AJ walked us through the firm’s strategy of concentrating on a limited number of projects simultaneously. Alloy chooses to work on place-based projects that allow the opportunity to provide extensive benefits to the community. 


AJ further provided us with an insightful overview of their work on Alloy Block. The project features two mixed-use towers, the tower currently under construction being the first all-electric tower in New York City. The Alloy Block also preserves and repurposes historic buildings, creating two public schools within the heart of the development. Alloy leveraged their expertise to convince the School Construction Authority to authorize the first Passive House public school in New York City. This will surely provide a model for the construction of future public buildings. Alloy utilized partnerships and their design and financial intelligence to provide $230 million in public benefit, resulting from an extensive community engagement process that will provide a valuable addition to the Brooklyn skyline. 


Our walking tour of Dumbo allowed us to see how the proximity of Alloy’s office to its projects enables them to cultivate a durable partnership with the community. Alloy’s projects represent a long-term investment in and engagement with the urban and social fabric of the community, a reflection of their commitment to social responsibility and sustainable practices. AJ gave us background on projects such as 192 Water Street, where innovative deal structures, marketing, and architecture contributed to project success, 55 Pearl Street, in which the company was able to use their architectural ingenuity to provide five impeccably detailed townhouses, and 1 John Street, an anchor of Brooklyn Bridge Park that proves the community impact of good design. Our group ended the day with a photo opportunity at 1 John Street, with the sun setting in the background of the Manhattan Bridge and a better understanding of how community trust and sound design make the most successful projects.




55 Pearl Street Interior Space, Photo by Pinyang Paul Chen




One John Street by Brooklyn Bridge, Photo by Pinyang Paul Chen




AJ Pires, President at Alloy, with Club Members at One John Street



 

Key Takeaways

Here are some lessons from the Brooklyn Trek in operating a committed design and real estate practice. 

  1. Values First: Always start with values as the foundation for any project.

  2. Location, Opportunity, Improvement: In selecting projects, understand the triad of place, opportunity, and the potential to enhance the city as essential considerations to set you up for project success.

  3. Execution vs. Strategy: Navigate the balance between the strategic orientation of a project and the day-to-day fundamentals of project execution.

  4. Rest and Timing: Recognize the importance of and the ability to rest, employing strategic timing in initiating projects.

  5. Developing Community Trust: Realize the importance of committing oneself to a place and building trust within that community.


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