By Ben Brody
Behind a green construction fence near the Williamsburg waterfront, crews are demolishing and gutting 28 buildings from the Domino Sugar Refinery complex, readying it for a $1.5 billion mixed-use development that the city approved in late April.
It’s a familiar occurrence in space-starved and development-hungry New York: Contractors demolish old buildings to make room for new ones. Yet few New Yorkers know about what’s going on around them — the lengthy and expensive process of clearing out hazardous materials before demolition, the salvaging of materials during destruction and the fact that even soil may be removed afterward.
For the refinery, parts of which date to 1884 and which was once the largest in the world, preparatory stages began last spring. Those stages consisted mostly of asbestos and lead abatement.
Usually, this is the longest and most expensive part of the process, although at Domino, the variety of buildings and their configuration mean that demolition will take about a year, whereas abatement took about three months. (Click photos above to see images of the complex.)
The first thing contractors do as part of a demolition is search for asbestos, said Michael R. Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association. The fire-resistant insulator was commonly used through much of the 20th century, until it was banned due to negative health effects, including the cancer known as mesothelioma.
“It’s behind walls; it’s in false ceilings,” said Taylor, who has worked in construction and demolition since the 1970s. “Asbestos was the miracle product of the age. Everyone used it, so you’ll find it in all kinds of places.”
Once contractors think they’ve located all the asbestos, they’ll send in crews to pull it out. The process requires “negative air pressure,” which contractors create with tents and air-filtration systems, to ensure that any asbestos dust can’t escape. Crews wear respirators and wet asbestos fibers to keep them from floating outside of the area.
At Domino, asbestos abatement finished in September, according to dominosugarconstruction.com, a website maintained by Two Trees Management, the firm developing the property. The costs for abatement can vary widely, but prices often begin at $25 per square foot in New York City. The Domino plant is around 90,000 square feet, so that could mean the bill started at $2 million. Two Trees would not comment on the price.
Asbestos isn’t the only concern in the initial stages, says Mark Shaurette, assistant professor in the Department of Building Construction Management at Purdue University. Contractors have to exterminate the buildings, so that critters don’t flee to neighboring homes and businesses when the building comes down, and also have to remove any animal waste so it doesn’t end up in the air or water.
In the case of the Domino factory, which had been shut down for nine years when demolition began, “resident raccoons” had largely kept other vermin at bay, according to Dave Lombino, director of special projects for Two Trees. The city received certification that the site was pest-free in August.
Once this preparatory process, including post-removal testing, is finished, demolition can begin. But that doesn’t mean TNT and big clouds of dust — implosions actually account for less than 1 percent of demolitions these days. They’re also illegal in New York City, and, according to Taylor, they’re especially difficult to do on sugar refineries because the plants were built to withstand explosions. (The small sugar particles in the air tended to ignite.)
Instead, Domino will undergo a “full mechanical demolition” that will require handheld tools, including jackhammers and chainsaws, “for wall and floor dismantling,” as well as large, diesel-powered equipment, including an 8,500-pound excavator and a crane with a 189-foot boom, according to documents filed with the city’s Department of Buildings.
Contractors will begin with the easiest buildings to demolish, and then move on to progressively harder demolitions, said Lombino. That meant taking down one building in the northeast of the site in the fall, then heading to the southernmost building, taking that down and working north. The contractor is currently taking down a packaging facility.
Once crews make it to the actual refinery in the center of the complex, which is landmarked and being preserved, they’ll head west to the waterfront and take down the powerhouse. That’ll likely be the most difficult building to demolish because it’s attached to the refinery, and they’ll essentially need to peel it away.
As a building comes down, contractors often try to sell scrap materials, especially steel, which can get them hundreds of dollars per ton, or copper wiring, which can go for 10 times that.
Contractors will drive unsalvageable materials to recycling or disposal sites that can be at nearby landfills or in faraway states that deal with particular hazardous materials, although in port cities like New York they sometimes ship waste.
The final stage will be a cleanup of the site, which could also include disposal of contaminated soil. That year-long process should be completed in the fall.
Taylor, of the NDA, said that’s not an unusual length of time for a business with a “time is money” mentality.
“You’ll be surprised how quickly the building will disappear,” he said.
Ben Brody is a reporter and photojournalist based in Riverdale, New York. You can find more of his work at ben-brody.com.