‘Whole’ food fight! Dissent sprouts against grocery’s Gowanus plans

UPDATED: Whole Foods is coming!
Courtesy of Whole Foods

A coalition of manufacturers and artists launched an eleventh hour attack against a plan to open a massive Whole Foods in Gowanus, claiming the purveyors of all things organic would destroy a blossoming industrial neighborhood that’s fast becoming a hub for creativity.

Dozens of artsy types and factory owners urged an obscure-but-powerful city planning board to reject the upscale market’s bid for a White House-sized shop on Third Avenue and Third Street on Tuesday, saying the space is better suited for the manufacturing and creative industry.

“New York City has enough high-end retail,” said Cassandra Weston, who works at the Old American Can Factory, a shared art studio space. “This unique industrial neighborhood needs to be protected.”

The mammoth market needs special permission from the city to open a 58,000 square-foot shop in a space currently slated for just 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

But one month before Whole Foods faces its final logistical hurdle at the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, Gowanus locals went on the offensive, claiming the fancy retailer would flood the neighborhood with traffic and set off a development trend that could squash the community’s unique mix of businesses and spark a surge in real estate costs.

“Part of what makes [Gowanus] special is its economic diversity,” said Adam Kendall, a videographer from Park Slope who works in the neighborhood. “Small businesses and artists depend on it.”

Neighborhood researchers with the Gowanus Institute tout data indicating that spaces used for manufacturing attract three times more jobs than spaces used for retail.

“These manufacturing jobs help families stay above the poverty line,” said Anita Durst, who works for an art-positive non-profit.

But Whole Foods insists it takes care of its employees.

The company, which brags about ranking among Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past 14 years, expects to bring between 300 and 350 jobs to the neighborhood, with as many as 262 of them being full-time.

And some of those opportunities will go to artists, according to grocery store spokesman Michael Sinatra.

“The art community is near and dear to us — we employ in-house artists to do signage on our chalkboards,” said Sinatra. “We often use cafe spaces to showcase art.”

Coming to Brooklyn has been a long and troublesome journey for the grocery giant, which hopes to open its first outpost in the borough early next year.

The supermarket has had numerous setbacks including a lengthy delay spent cleaning its toxic lot alongside the fetid Gowanus Canal. Facing criticism from neighbors about its scale and impact on traffic, the store cut back its proposed size by 10,000 square feet and reduced its planned parking lot to accommodate 250 cars instead of 420. It also announced new plans for a rooftop greenhouse that ought to please locavores.

Approval for the supermarket now hangs on a rubber stamp from the Board of Standards and Appeals, which will vote on grocer’s request for a variance on Feb. 28.

Out of more than a dozen speakers, only one Gowanus resident spoke in favor of the grocery store during a public hearing in front of the board, claiming Whole Foods has a solid business model that will mesh well with the neighborhood.

“The community will embrace this shop,” said Paul Basile of The Gowanus Alliance. “This neighborhood has a little bit of everything.”

Reach reporter Natalie O'Neill at [email protected] or by calling her at (718) 260-4505.