The story of the Whole Foods lot is one of the best examples of how New York City's recent real estate boom and subsequent collapse unfolded. Located at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, this empty lot is bordered on two sides by the Gowanus Canal. In 2006, it housed an active scrapyard, but this closed when ground was broken for a planned 68,000 square Whole Foods Market, which promised "Brooklyn residents a wide array of natural and organic foods" alongside a public esplanade and community center. The idea of building this market on the banks of a toxic industrial canal struck some local residents as a far-fetched idea, but this was representative of the ambitious yet ill-conceived development projects that were common during the past decade.
Soon after the groundbreaking ceremony, construction came to a halt. Leaking "550 gallon oil drums" were discovered underneath the planned construction site, remnants from the lot's "former life as a petroleum refinery," according to the NY Daily News, "demolishing the company's forecast for a store opening" in 2006. Today, after 4 years of delays, cleanup crews have finally moved in to fulfill Whole Foods' promise to detoxify the property, although the future of their store remains uncertain.
Superfund site. In 2007, Science Line reported that "more than a century of industrial misuse, indifferent government oversight, and public apathy have taken their toll. In addition to the garbage and chemical contamination, the canal is a dumping ground for raw sewage.... contaminants such as sulfur, cyanide, asbestos, PCBs, mercury and volatile organic compounds are in and along the canal." This report also revealed that the canal's water was infected with gonorrhea. Whole Foods was aware of the area's industrial history, and had planned from the beginning to work with the Department of Environmental Conservation to clean their brownfield.
The industrial history of this specific block can be traced back more then 125 years, to when it was the "five-acre factory complex" of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Only one building from the Coignet complex has survived over the decades - a "pioneering example of concrete construction in the United States" that stands at the corner of 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue. Commonly known as the Coignet Stone Building, this landmarked structure dates back to 1872. Today, it is the only building on the block. Though reportedly not owned by Whole Foods, its fortunes have been closely tied to the fate of their store.
By 2007, Whole Foods had begun to neglect their property and delay their opening date. Perhaps they had discovered, as the NY Sun wrote, that "cleanup costs are sky-high... much of Gowanus's ground is so contaminated it simply cannot be adequately cleaned up, at any cost." By November 2007, the fence around the lot had "been down for several weeks, angering neighbors" and leaving the site "wide open," according to the NY Daily News. Graffiti artists quickly moved in, turning empty walls into canvases for huge murals. Homeless squatters took over the remaining buildings, including the Coignet landmark, although a local businessman reported "evicting the bums and the rats living there" in 2007, according to The Brooklyn Rail.
In 2008, the NY Times declared that New York's real estate boom had come to an end. Enthusiasm for the delayed Whole Foods Market began to wane. The NY Sun pondered the wisdom of "opening a store on a toxic floodplain" while Gowanus Lounge grumbled "for the record, it’s been nearly two years since the official “groundbreaking” at the site. Never take those “groundbreakings” to the bank, friends." Brownstoner, meanwhile, reported that the Coignet landmark building was "crumbling" and that "between the barren Whole Foods site and the dilapidated landmark, the corner of 3rd and 3rd currently tells a sorry story about both the past and future of Gowanus." Like similar development projects throughout the city, the Brooklyn Whole Foods project appeared to have stalled.
By 2009, the lot had become completely feral - a wild and marshy wetlands populated by a large group of homeless men living inside the basement of the Coignet building. The only other building on the block, an abandoned warehouse containing a large squatter shack, was burnt to the ground and demolished. A boat washed up on shore, stripped down to the decks, and soon sank. Sculptors, painters, photographers and filmmakers turned the lot into a place the Gowanus Lounge once called "Brooklyn’s biggest toxic playground."
NY Daily News reported that Whole Foods "company officials concede they have no clue if they'll ever build a store along the polluted waterway... the company is vowing to clean up the mess, but may never build a store." Today, the lot is busy with trailers, backhoes and new fences. Members of a cleanup crew say that work began last week and estimate they will be finished with the lot in about 6 weeks time, by mid-April. "There is not much to clean up here," said one member of the cleanup crew. Just "piles of dirt" and a "few old gas tanks." When they are finished, a portion of the empty lot will be transformed. And it will remain empty.
The Whole Foods project now appears to be just another of the many unrealized schemes of the Bloomberg era. Around the Gowanus, those unfinished projects also include the Gowanus Village, the Toll Brothers development and the Public Place project. As the NY Times wrote in 2009, "the Bloomberg administration, sensing a chance for revitalization, rushed to rezone 25 blocks of the Gowanus area for nonindustrial uses, identifying more than 60 development sites with a potential to generate at least $500 million in tax revenue.... All of these projects were proposed at the height of New York’s real estate boom, and nowadays, regardless of the outcome of the Superfund controversy, some of them look very much like the products of mania."