Monday, December 09, 2013

Is Whole Foods' Gowanus Store Really That Green?

Whole Foods Gowanus rendering
Before there was Whole Foods Gowanus, there was wetland.
Photo by Robert Guskind.
Whole Foods Gowanus site under water during Hurricane Sandy
photo credit: Urban Divers via Martin Bisi
Photos By M. Bisi
Photo by Martin Bisi
Photos By M. Bisi
Photo by Martin Bisi
Photos By M. Bisi
Photo by Martin Bisi

As everyone knows by now, Whole Food Market's Gowanus store at 214 3rd Street at 3rd Avenue is slated to open on December 17.
According to the company, the 56,000-square-foot store is the most sustainably-designed building ever constructed by the chain. Besides organic produce, the store will include the nation’s first commercial energy-efficient scale greenhouse farm operated by Greenpoint-based Gotham Greens. The roof will also house a pub that will serve locally brewed beer.   In addition,  a landscaped shoreline promenade will be installed along the edge of the Gowanus Canal.
Its parking lot has been paved with permeable pavers and outfitted with solar panels.
In other words, Whole Foods went to great length to appeal to a health-concious, environmentally aware clientele and was, according to the Observer "determined to fulfill every Brooklyn stereotype."

It all sounds pretty awesome, for sure, but is Whole Food's Gowanus store really all that green?
Yes, the company has remediated the former industrial site under New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Brownfield Clean-Up program.  However, the store is built on wetlands, prone to frequent flooding.  During Hurricane Sandy, the site was completely inundated.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, "only about 5 percent of the land area in the continental United States is composed of wetlands. But these transitional zones—neither completely dry nor entirely liquid—are enormously valuable, especially when it comes to controlling floods. Wetlands act like natural sponges on the landscape, absorbing and then gradually releasing storm waters and lessening flood damage."
The organization warns that filling and building on wetlands is never a good idea. As developers have been nibbling away at wetlands, they have created big problems, according to NWF.
"Wetlands are superb at purifying polluted water, replenishing aquifers and harboring wildlife. But they are almost always terrible places to build houses."
Further, "when wetlands are filled, the water that made them wet has to go somewhere. If it isn't seeping back into the basement of the house built on the former wetland, the water likely is leaking into formerly dry homes of downstream property owners."

Another point to consider is that Whole Foods Gowanus property sits squarely in a FEMA Flood Zone and that the building required extensive waterproofing. Above are a few photos of the new store at the Gowanus Canal's Fourth Street Basin taken by Gowanus resident Martin Bisi .
One can clearly see the high water mark and how close to the canal the building sits. If the last major storms have taught us anything, it is that we should be pulling away from waterfronts, instead of getting closer. Hopefully, WF's waterproofing is sufficient to keep the next flood at bay.

One last point. It must have become clear to many by now that this particular store is a 'destination' store. Otherwise, why would there be the need for such a huge parking lot. Whole Foods' own Traffic Impact Study indicated that the company expected 68% of the store's customers to arrive by car.
That's a lot of additional car traffic at a time when we should be encouraging people to walk and to leave their vehicle at home.

So, yes, Whole Foods may have bent over backwards to build a green store, but an argument can be made that placing their store at that location was not so green at all.


Anonymous said...

This is exactly the problem with our country right now. Someone or heavens forbid a for profit company tries to do some good and they get bashed for not doing good enough. Maybe next time they build something as energy inefficient as possible and try not to be so conscious to the community!

Katia said...

Shouldn't it be in Whole Foods own best interest to build energy efficient stores to maximize their profit margin? Do you really think they do it for you?

Anonymous said...

tryCalling the Gowanus wetlands is pretty funny. It is a manufacturing zone, though. Commercial buildings like Whole Foods have parking minimums. Many folks in our community have advocated for an end to parking minimums in the zoning code to little avail.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to eat any produce that comes out of that store, either.

Anonymous said...

What a joke! Acres of wetlands would have been created by dumping Gowanus Sludge in Red Hook but instead NIMBY residents convinced EPA to transport & dump on someone else.

The construction site got wet and weeds grew there after demolition but it was not a wetland for the past 100 years. The property was a contaminated waste handling business before Whole Foods.

This is the worst kind of reporting and a distraction to efforts towards community based planning.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely they are building it sufficiently green to justify the cost with energy efficiency. But you insinuate that in spite of all the green aspects of the building and site, the land should have been returned to wetlands, has too big of a parking lot and causes flooding to other nearby properties. It was a polluted brownfield site that they cleaned up. There is no economic benefit to that whatsoever. I am not a shill for Whole Foods, I probably wont shop there but to hint at criticism of them for what they did in building there is wrong.

Katia said...

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, these are precisely the kinds of discussions that we need to have as a community in order to be involved in the future of this community.
I am merely pointing out hat there are other considerations besides solar panels.
Hope you are all coming to tonight's meeting hosted by Councilman Brad Lander of the future of Gowanus.

Anonymous said...

well we can throw onto the pile that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, believes we're over reacting to Climate Change, and the case becomes clearer that they ar not "Green" by our usual meaning. Green must mean being proactive about the environment. That *former* wetlands should be revitalized is fairly current thinking, and our own Governor Cuomo supports doing so in many locations. The former Gowanus Creek, now Canal can be clearly be a candidate.
here's something on John Mackey's climate view:

Anonymous said...

Look, this canal hasn't been surrounded by wetlands since before it was expanded in the 1870s. It's purpose since the 1700s was INDUSTRIAL. I don't understand this inaccurate nostalgia that goes on with the canal. It has been used to support manufacturing for hundreds of years. At least Whole Foods is acting responsibly, fixing the bulkheads, trying to be environmentally responsible, etc. Lowe's and Pathmark are also right next to the canal with huge parking lots, and with none of the fuss. I am not looking forward to the added traffic, but I think it's better than a lot of other things that could have gone in that site. Going back to the 1600s and turning it back to a series of creeks & wetlands is terribly naive.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I refer to it as Toxic Foods. You only need to walk across the bridge, take a look and take a whiff, to question the "wholesomeness" of the site and the food that will sit there. I wouldn't buy a vegetable there if my life depended on it, and I can't help but laugh at the folks who will congratulate themselves for shopping for "fresh" food 10 feet from a Superfund site.

Anonymous said...

I intend doing all my shopping at Whole Foods. Each time I arrive I will celebrate the absence of the Red Hook Crushers who previously occupied much of the waterfront property. Anyone recall the long lines of trucks filled with demolition debris to be unloaded, crushed and airborne on the site. Anyone notice the concrete batching plants on Third and Fourth Streets that constantly pollute the streets and air. I would love the entire area along the canal to be converted to park land; in the absence of that, I celebrate the arrival of Whole Foods.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:48: Totally agree with you, that cement plant has been polluting the area for too long. Allegedly, they've been cited by the EPA for as much--dumping into the Gowanus and air particulants yet they continue to flagrantly violate the air.

Anonymous said...

I love the rooftop gardens but hate everything else. Especially the crowding out of that little old building. I won't shop there either. unless it is open past 10pm. And I'm having a pineapple emergency.
Dudes. It's the malling of America.

Anonymous said...

Katia, your blog is great, but the Whole Foods issue has been your undoing. Your coverage has been one sided and unrealistic. Would you be happy to see the WF store torn down and replaced with a garbage filled field of reeds? Lose all the jobs and the economic boost to the community and a much needed grocery store? Give it up Katia! You fought a losing battle and you need to put it behind you and accept that WF is here to stay, and will be a positive addition to the community. Go to the opening with fresh eyes and TRY to find something positive to say. I hope this is the last WF bashing article you run, or you will lose me, and many others as readers. Badly done!

Anonymous said...

The city of New York has been spending public money on all kinds of 'Green Infrastructure" for very small pieces of sidewalk to control storm water runoff.

And here we have Whole Foods building a concrete parking lot across the whole site. Stop by at the Third street bridge and see the new outlets they built to dump into the canal.

Whole Foods has not done right by this environment.

And commentators saying this hasn't been a wetlands for so long are just plain WRONG. This are will always be a wetlands--crippled as it is now. And as climate change impacts work their way out, it will only become a larger wetlands over time.

So lets focus on fixing the crippled wetlands because it isn't going away especially if everyone continues to drive their cars more.

dash said...

This is a very insightful post. Thank you for thinking a little harder than the average person is willing to do.

Anonymous said...

I think 100% of storm-water on the site will be treated prior to discharge to the Canal?

Reporters & bloggers should ask why the owners think this store is so green before slamming the development.

Katia said...

What a lovely comment, Molly. Hope you will be coming back to make your home in Brooklyn in the very near future.

Anonymous said...

Gowanus wetlands?? The Canal is a bulkheaded, working industrial waterway. In fact EPA plans to replace much of the bulkheads to allow deep dredging to proceed and they do not plan much in the way of restoration to the main channel. Anything to draw negative attention by the whole food hate mongerers..We aren't going back to the 18th century. The store is with us, it is a good thing for people to have choices, WF stores everywhere have brought fresh wholesome products to their neighborhoods and are well received ..WF has built a wonderful facility, let us move on..

Eymund said...

Hi Katia,

Just noticed you had a wetland photo credited to me which was actually taken by Robert Gusskind, from the Gowanus Lounge blog site. It is part of an archive of images of historical ponds, wetlands and streams that is kept by Proteus Gowanus for researchers.

The Fourth Street Basin next to Whole Foods is a prime candidate for constructed wetlands that could help filter some of the Fourth Avenue water flooding problems. The key for solving those problems would be the restoration of the connected 5th Street Basin to redirect Park Slope rain runoff from overflowing local sewers and flooded basements back to the Gowanus Canal.

Flood pictures are available here:

This is not a new problem, as noted by the Brooklyn Eagle in 1885:

"These houses are built on low ground, and the kindness of the contractor in making a public dump of the vacant lot in front of them has so arranged matters that the rain water from the lot in question and also from the property between
there and Third avenue flood into them. When it rains, they are flooded, and the surface drains become a nuisance instead of a help, the drains are so elevated that the ends of the perimeter are actually lower than the ends of the street. Connection with the canal which is only sixty or a hundred feet away, would remove all the trouble."

Some Objectionable Italian Tenements and Pestilential Dumping Grounds
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 May 1885

Katia said...

As always, I know I can count on you for great historical info, Eymund.
Love the old Eagle article. The more things change in Gowanus, the more they seem to stay the same.

Btw, I changed the attribution of the photo.
I remember Bob Guskind well.

Tom: a C.G. Family since before they built St. Agnes said...

We are no longer a self sufficient area - I think not since about 1880. People shop, work, play ALL over so lets not think it's 1875 and the 500 people who lived in the area will catch tad poles in the wetlands.

Is whole Foods better than having a Toxic Waste Processing Plant? Yes!
Is it better than having a Park? No. But who was going to build a park? And who was going to turn this waste dump into a Wetland? And who would have PROPERLY remediated the land even if they were willing to place a park or restore the wetland? Your donations? Your taxes?

However, if Whole Foods uses Gowanus Water for their veggies, I wouldn't buy them there. But PathMark does the same thing, doesn't it? When they sprinkle the water onto the produce every 30 minutes, isn't it Gowanus water?
So should I wait until Summer Sunday mornings and pay 3x's the amount of $$ at our "Local" farmers Market? I think not. Do you see how filthy those people are & their trucks? And do you think any single one of them is Local? If you mean they come from somewhere in upstate NY or N.J. - I guess that's local. But what are thier fields like? Do you really believe that Sam's Farm is organic? Do you think any single one of them hires people who live in C.G.? Do you think they spend any of their locally earned money in any of our locally owned businesses?

It's called life, people. And with life comes choices & risks. Today I'm more worried about getting stabbed or shot on Clinton & DeGraw (not worthy of this blog?) than growing a third eye because "car juice" will run-off into the Gowanus Canal. OR if the next Sandy will wash away this new Mega Store - or if it will even wash away my house.

The area is growing and we need more supermarkets. Will this supermarket be a "Destination" market? Sure, I guess so. But do you have any idea how many C.G.'ers DRIVE just to go to MET or just to Smith Street to do shopping? Do you know how many NON-C.G.'ers drive to eat at the local restaurants and shop at Stinky Cheese?
Do I walk to MET, yes. But that's beacuse I'd rather not loose my parking spot & they deliver. But do I drive to PathMark or Lowes, yes - especailly when I don't feel like being ripped off by the MET owners or Mazzone's Hardware.

Will I drive from 1st place to 3rd & 3rd for W.F., probably. I think I'd give it a try. If I can't get into the parking lot when it rains, I'll only go on sunny days.