Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BSA Delays Decision On Gowanus Whole Foods Market Till February


If the lawyers and representatives of Whole Foods Market's thought that the NYC Board of Standards And Appeals was going to reach a decision on their request for a use variance (§72-21) to permit a food store (UG6) in Gowanus, contrary to use regulations in an M2-1 zoning district, they were sorely disappointed. The second hearing which took place in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, ended with members of the Board  voting unanimously to delay a final vote till February 28th.
At today's hearing, as on the first hearing on December 14, 2011, WFM argued that full compliance with current zoning regulations is not possible in order to realize a reasonable economic return on their property. WFM has listed the following hardships associated with developing the site:*Unsuitable soil conditions on the property require extensive pile foundations.
*Special drilled piles are also needed near the landmarked Coignet building on the site.
*the property is in a Flood Zone A and has a high water table. Extensive waterproofing and additional measures to resist hydrostatic pressure will be required.
* The property is adjacent to two bridges
*Has varying street elevations and a grade change of 12 feet.
*And is subject to the Brownfields Cleanup Program which entails environmental remediation costs.
The focus today was on the additional estimated $1.1 million it will take to excavate and grade the site. The lawyer for Whole Foods also mentioned the cost of building a retaining wall along the waterfront.
During the public comment period, roughly 20 to 25 Gowanus community residents, business owners and artists spoke against the project, urging BSA to reject the variance. They called the project out-of-scale, refuted Whole Foods Market's hardship claims, argued that the variance will open the way for more such variances and will ultimately lead to more big-box development. They spoke passionately about the need for and the protection of manufacturing zones for small businesses, which are vital to the city and will help create lasting jobs. In contrast, it was pointed out, "Whole Foods offers no potential for job growth, no potential for higher wages." One business owner told the Board that the area was already home to businesses more unique than Whole Foods.Another asked members of the Board: "Is it so difficult to imagine an Apple computer company growing in Gowanus?"
A Representative for Councilwoman Diana Reyna, whose district includes Williamsburg and Bushwick and serves as Chair of New York City Council's Committee on Small Business, read a statement from the Councilwoman asking the Board to maintaining industrial and manufacturing space crucial to New York City’s economic rebound.
Nathan Elbogen of Gowanus Institute pointed out that the proposed development would consume a large manufacturing site that could be developed genuinely "as-of-right" with up to 370,000 SF for small to medium-scale manufacturing and could yield up to three times as many jobs with considerably higher pay than the proposed retail use. In the opinion of Robert La Valva, owner of New Amsterdam Market , a public food market in Manhattan that highlights small vendors, the project "is backwards thinking and not appropriate to New York City's ongoing evolution as a progressive city that generates meaningful jobs while reducing its environmental footprint."
At the end, Chairwoman Meenakchi Srinivasan and the rest of the Board voted to delay a final decision until a separate ruling related to the landmark structure on the site is reached by the Landmark Preservation Commission.

Below please find portion of John Shapiro's compelling testimony, which was read at the hearing yesterday. Shapiro is a professional city planner of nearly forty years, past president of the local chapter of the American Planning Association, and current Chair of the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute.
"I urge that the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) deny the variance request made by the Whole Foods Market Group in the Gowanus industrial district, Brooklyn. 
New York State law says that the BSA may grant a use variance if five findings are identified, one of which is the unique qualities of the site. The significant site qualities claimed by Whole Foods are not unique to the site; they are pervasive to the area. Much of the Gowanus is comprised of brownfields and at risk of re-pollution due to substrata conditions; most of the Gowanus is comprised of fill requiring extra infrastructure and foundation costs; and all of Gowanus is subject to increasing storm-related flooding and rising sea levels induced by climate change. Other "unique features" are hardly significant: namely, proximity to two bridges both of which touch down at the edge of the site, and the fact that there is a small landmark on the corner – as plenty of other Gowanus sites are astride bridges and have historic structures on or adjacent to them. 
None of these features fall into the category of undisclosed conditions. Whole Foods was surely not so uninformed or naive about site conditions. The only unique feature of the development is the audacity of thinking that a below-grade supermarket was a viable option on a landfill brownfield site next to a highly polluted canal in a low-lying frequently flooded area. Hence this is a self-made hardship, in my opinion. 
With regard to comparable development scenarios for purposes of analysis: Whole Foods bought the site for a purpose and plan that essentially did not involve Floor Area Ratio (FAR), taking advantage of a well-known loophole in the New York City Zoning Resolution. The best comparable development scenarios involve industry and offices, consistent with zoning use regulations. This might include intense use of the site for outdoor storage in whole or in part (such as a lumberyard), single-story warehousing or industry, recreation (as per Brooklyn Boulders), etc., in addition to more ambitious multi-story industrial / commercial development. In that last category, there are precedents for market-rate industrial development within 500 feet of the Whole Foods site: (1) the new industrial building along Fourth Avenue between 1st and 3rd Streets, and (2) the TGI building at the corner of Bond Street and 3rd Street. The American Can Factory directly across the street from the Whole Foods site is kept in an excellent state of repair with a mix of such uses. Other industrial buildings – particularly a complex on 7th Street between Second and Third Avenues – have also been renovated for such uses. These examples attest to the fact that values are more than sufficient to attract both build-to-suit and speculative development without use variances. According to recent surveys, the Gowanus industrial area exhibits unusually low vacancy rates and unusually high rental rates in comparison to other industrial areas in New York City.
The granting of variances from manufacturing to large-format retail will be detrimental to the neighborhood character of Gowanus. Part of the issue relates to traffic – not so much in terms of traffic counts, but the complications for truck deliveries for local industry due to increased congestion on the limited number of bridges, all of which are either narrow, involve bottlenecks, or are complicated by one-way street patterns. The better part of the issue relates to land use: in granting the Whole Foods variance, the BSA would be creating a precedent for other properties to apply for the same or other use variances, thus creating a big box district or even housing district over time. In effect, the BSA could be creating a land use dynamic and policy for the Gowanus, which is in itself a risky precedent. 
Surely, the impact of the project on the Gowanus warrants a Socioeconomic Assessment consistent with the City Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQRA). Gowanus employs thousands of workers at present. While the Whole Foods would represent a major new employer, it would promote additional non-industrial development by virtue of being an anchor for additional retail uses, an amenity hence inducement for residential development, and a nuisance to local industry as a result of the traffic impacts previously discussed.
Granting the variance would itself have land use consequences and policy implications for the Gowanus industrial district. As noted, it would establish the principle that theoretical economic hardship supersedes the common sense that there is evident market support for industry, except for the self-made hardship posed by purchase of property in the hope of variances and rezoning. Meanwhile, the site is in an industrially zoned area that is also an Industrial Business Zone. The Bloomberg Administration has renewed emphasis on industrial job retention and creation, with a new office dedicated to this purpose. The NYC Department of City Planning has kept the site in the industrial district following an exhaustive consideration of “where to draw the line” with regard to shrinking the Gowanus industrial district. The site is not within a “food desert” where DCP is testing whether supermarkets are a suitable use for an industrial district; indeed, a large-scale Pathmark Supermarket is located in the Gowanus industrial district, only seven blocks to the southwest. Most important, given the commonality of the site’s so-called unique features, the variance itself would bolster the speculative value and turnover of property in the Gowanus, to the detriment of investment in industrial buildings and equipment."


svanes said...

i'm trying to understand the issues here, as my gut feeling is that WHOLE FOODS would ultimately be an attribute to the neighborhood, and therefore we should make room for them.

i lived in venice, california, a few years ago, when WHOLE FOODS came to town and set up shop in an industrial lot on rose avenue and lincoln boulevard - it was on the fringes of a residential area and the lot was certainly an eyesore before their arrival.

construction was finished a few months before we moved to carroll gardens, and by that time, the traffic in the whole foods parking lot was already a bit of a joke, yet it could not be denied that a lot of residents shopped there, and, subsequently, other businesses popped up nearby to take advantage of that.

businesses that were already there also benefited. for example, both groundworks café and the wine bar down the street received more foot traffic and consequently more business.

in an ideal world, i'd like to see WHOLE FOODS get permission to set up shop, but only under certain conditions.

i'd like to see the environmental concerns taken seriously (perhaps the land needs to be graded or buttressed in a way so that it is less flood-prone); i'd like to see whole foods put some of the land aside for public use (a small patch of green would be much welcomed, as a place for people to gather); i'd like to see the landmarked coignet stone company building on the corner of 3rd avenue and 3rd street put into better shape with help from whole foods; and then i'd be more than happy for them to set up shop.

as it stands, the area is in a sad state of neglect and, therefore, i don't see how keeping it in that condition benefits anyone.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I care if Whole Foods gets flooded, so long as they have their own flood insurance and promise never to ask FEMA to bail them out. But there are concerns that the design of project will create more flooding in the surrounding community. Whole Foods should not be allowed to build unless they accept full responsibility for problems that arise because of altered drainage in the area.

Anonymous said...

Umm. Venice, CA is not "Industrial". Perhaps it was simply an empty lot. Go back to CA. You dont know of what you speak!

John Shapiro is brilliant. Thank you for spelling it out. Perhaps the Venice, CA transplant should read your notes again.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know more about the potential construction exposing / un-earthing (if that's a word) toxins that have been covered up for decades, and what the health risks of that would be. I live 3 blocks away but I'd take a walk to Associated on 5th Ave any day over being potentially poisoned by unearthed toxins.

Jack P. said...

John Shapiro's testimony is excellent! Thanks for posting it.
I think svanes is well-meaning, but totally off the mark. Lot of naive opinions about Whole Foods that do not take into account everything John Shapiro puts across so clearly and straightforwardly.
No to Whole Foods!

Anonymous said...

That part of Gowanus is a wasteland and has been that way for decades. A pleasant mix of small industrial shops is not going to pay for the remediation and grading of the site. It does need to be levelled. It does need a retaining wall along the canal. Those things are expensive to do.

Putting an organic market there will surely be a boon to the people who already live in the adjacent converted condos, and will see their property values rise. It will bring a lot of new attention and people to the area, and that will mean more customers for other businesses there, including the artist galleries.

And complaining about the traffic it would generate is a strange thing to say when 3rd Ave. is already a truck corridor. That kind of traffic is already the loudest and slowest you can get. If anything, it may encourage more of the truckers to opt for the BQE if they're only cutting through instead of making stops in the area.

The city does need to make provision for the artist community there. And it would be great for Whole Foods to create some green space on the site, because there is none around there. But if they can strike a reasonable balance with those concerns, it would be awesome for everyone to have a Whole Foods there.

svanes said...

regarding the "venice is not industrial" comment. oh come on, anonymous. clearly, you don't know venice, the home of factories and warehouses, including the eames office, which is very close to where the whole foods came up.

it's fine if you want to antagonize people by shouting "go back to california..." but calling into question my knowledge of venice only highlights your own ignorance...

the point i was making is: a whole foods was constructed in a part of town that was underserved with revenue-generating retail businesses, and despite fears that its appearance would further degrade the neighborhood, as well as take away revenue from smaller independent businesses, it turned out that those concerns were not realized. whole foods in venice did not become the nightmare that some envisioned...

with that in mind, i think the same experience could apply here.

Gourmands said...

iTo the person who alluded to Whole Foods in Venice being a big plus - FOGGEDABOUTIT! We DO NOT want nor need gentrification a la Whole Foods in Gowanus. Check out some Whole Foods stories in http://la.curbed.com/tags/whole-foods
Gowanus is not underserved as far as access to food. Give me a break! I My family eats extremely well - and NEVER set foot in Trader Joe's, Union Market - and we will NEVER set foot in Whole Paycheck - but never mind - it a int gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

That orange Southwest Brooklyn IBZ sign is illegal and should be taken down - the NYC Public Design Commission needs to approve such signage.

The Gowanus neighborhood is not industrial - it's mostly used for storage and parking. It seems some people prefer truck parking over car parking...

FrenchloveroftheUSA said...

I am surprised that in the USA some American people do not respect other property rights guaranteed by your constitution. Anybody can found an association and self proclaim to be an urban planner and decide for all other people and steal the valuable property rights of the owner of the land or of the building by imposing the uses and limits of the land or building. Who can accept such proclaimed dictatorships? Urban planners usually create urban disasters. You will make the decision by purchasing or not in this new store. If most of people don't purchase there this Whole Foods market will go to bankrupcy and that will be the end of the story. But if a vats group of people purchase ther it would mean that there was an approval by the people> DON'T LET PUNDITS DECIDE FOR YOU!