By Anthony Deen
Whole Foods is coming, but not without a fight.
The fierce resistance to what every other community in New York City that has one considers a resource caught me by surprise. Unless one owns a supermarket or a natural foods store in the area, what could be bad about filling a vacant, brownfield site with a proven business that is willing to clean it, develop it, and will employ hundreds of people selling healthy food and locally grown vegetables?
I can easily imagine that the owners of Back to the Land, Slope Natural Foods, Ivy Garden, Park Natural and Union Market are concerned about the natural food juggernaut coming to Gowanus. I can also imagine big players like Fairway and Trader Joes, not to mention Pathmark, Associated and Met Foods actively working against Whole Foods in any and every political arena available. But why did the Gowanus Institute side against Whole Foods? And on what alternative for the vacant site did they base their opposition?
To give merit to – in my opinion – an empty argument, the Institute created a fantasy project, the Gowanus Industrial Park. This was a proposal with no funding and no chance of every existing, but this was their ammunition to publicly advocate against Whole Foods coming in and developing the site.
The reality is that the only other businesses of the size and financial muscle to develop a site of this magnitude that have moved into the area are big box storage facilities. If the site is left undeveloped, is this an acceptable future – another large, faceless building employing two or three people and providing almost nothing to the culture or vitality of the community?
The Gowanus Institute is an offshoot of Pratt Center for Community Development, made up primarily of academics from the tri-state area. I have to ask, is this the role that Pratt Institute should be playing in our community? People, most of whom neither live nor work in our neighborhood, rallying political and financial resources against the development of a site that has been vacant and polluted for years?
The Institute wasn’t the only group opposed to Whole Foods. FROGG opposed development of the site ostensibly because Whole Foods had not detailed how it would renovate and utilize the historic building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street. The building is one of the nation’s first concrete structures and a historic landmark. While this is a valid concern, and I can’t criticize the buildings importance to architectural history, I wonder if that history – and that specific location – is worth holding hostage the revitalization of the entire site?
There was also discussion about the wisdom of placing a large asphalt parking lot on a site that suffers negative effects from storm water run-off. A valid concern that seems to have been lost in the noise of the other arguments.
For some, opposition to Whole Foods broke down to one additional line of thinking – that a Whole Foods will lead to the further gentrification, and encourage additional residential development in the Gowanus area. This is a concern for artists and musicians who depend upon under utilized and therefore extremely affordable warehouse square footage for studio and practice space as well as grey-market housing. It’s also an issue for those who prefer an industrial rather than residential future for the Gowanus.
Unfortunately a historical review of urban development in New York makes gentrification appear inevitable. That ship has set sail - launched by the artists and musicians who now fear it. The model for the area is what happened to SoHo after Chester Rapkin created the zoning proposal that allowed artists to remain in the industrial district back in 1962. What artists back then didn’t recognize was that in SoHo, and years later in Chelsea, artists were in fact the first wave of gentrification. Artists and musicians are themselves agents of change and ultimately - gentrification.
Artists inhabit the vacant space left behind when industry abandons an area. Why does industry leave? The reasons are myriad and not the subject of this article, but the point is that what was left behind in SoHo and what has been left behind in Gowanus now is not a sustainable manufacturing community. It is a skeleton of industry, waiting for it’s inevitable evolution into something else, something new.
The arrival of artists and musicians was the second step in that transformation. After them came their support system - bars, restaurants, and other food service businesses. This in turn invited grey-market residential conversion. As much as the area has benefited both from the presence of artists and of creative business incubators, neither has developed the kind of critical mass that can compete with any substantial form of development. Therefore the evolution continues.
The Gowanus industrial zone is also an interstitial space, being pressed by two expanding residential communities - Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. They will continue to grow and inevitably the industrial zone in between them will be compressed out of existence. It will be replaced by new types of commercial activity and certainly additional residential development.
The development of in-fill housing west of Fifth Avenue and the rezoning of Fourth Avenue foreshadow the encroaching gentrification of the east side of the canal. Borough President Marty Markowitz’s Brooklyn Boulevard plans will further hasten gentrification by ultimately assimilating Fourth Avenue into Park Slope. Condominium development on Third Street and the west side of Bond Street along with the planned development of the Public Place site do likewise on the west side of the canal.
Rather than fighting developments that offer something positive to the area as Whole Foods does, progressive forces should work to have the City Planning Department create zoning enclaves that promote cultural institutions, creative workspaces and new business incubators. This would certainly be a better alternative than storage facilities and vacant lots.
The likely alternative for development in the Gowanus - desolate big box storage facilities.