Gowanus: The Whole Foods Lot

The Whole Foods Lot (2008)
February 24, 2010 -

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.

Active Scrap Yard (2006)

Empty Lot, Pre-Graffiti (2007)

The discovery of pollutants wasn't much of a surprise. The Gowanus area is a well known toxic brownfield, and may soon be declared a national 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.

Toxic Brownfield (2009)

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.

Coignet Stone and Filmmaker (2009)

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.

Post Graffiti (2009)

Nova (2009)

Violence (2009)

Sleepy Time (2009)

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."

Squatter's Shack (2009)

Sculpture (2009)

Abandoned Boat (2009)

In January 2010, the 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."

Clairvoyance (2009)

Squatter's Abandoned Bunker (February, 2010)

Cleanup Crew (February, 2010)

Read (February, 2010)


  1. great summary.

    One thing though, I don't agree 'public apathy' is to blame for that depressing strip that is 3rd ave.

    Look at how quickly the city rezoned 4th ave despite the protests from the people living in the area. Its clear to me, no matter how much the people care, write or shout, unless they're up for self-immolation the city is going to make the big decisions re. the community based on whats makes the most $.

  2. EXCELLENT recap, full of interesting, juicy tidbits. I can't believe how thoroughly you covered this story. Yeah, the idea of Whole Foods building here was pretty gross. That they would even consider it. What you did not tell was that they wanted to submerge much of their store into the wetlands to get more square footage out of it. They were going to protect this submerged part with some membrane. Pretty crazy. And I agree with Smiths - public apathy is not to blame. We in Gowanus and environs have become a pretty passionate lot. I think our efforts to get the canal Superfunded prove that point.

  3. Hi. Thanks for the excellent summary. I was down there before Christmas and wondered about the story behind that lot and the lone Coignet building.

    Fascinating too if, as Gowanee wrote, the Whole Foods actually wanted to sink their store into the wetlands. My!

    I noticed a houseboat or two moored on the side of the canal. Do people actually live on the water? CAN they live on the water if it's that polluted?


  4. Sure they can live on the canal. There was a home / venue there for years, called Empty Vessel, which may be waht you are referring to.

  5. Nice story. I think it goes back a bit further than you sway, however... I moved into a studio nearby in 2005, and at that time the main lot was already being prepared for Whole Foods. I think the purchase was in 05 or even 04.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I appreciate hearing your detailed thoughts about the Gowanus Canal. Here are some responses to specific comments...

    Smiths and Gowanee - the "public apathy" statement was part of a larger quote from an article by Science Line which talked about the past 100 years of history in the Gowanus area. I didn't write that statement, I quoted it - but I do believe that sometime in the last 100 years, there has been some public apathy about the condition of the Gowanus Canal area.

    However, I agree with both of you - in the last few years, the Gowanus community has certainly not been apathetic about the neighborhood! I live in the area, and have observed this firsthand while participating in volunteer cleanups, canoeing, Superfund debates, film screenings, and while contributing to the original Gowanus Lounge website. There are certainly many individuals and groups that are concerned about the condition of the Gowanus Canal today.

    City of Strangers - Yes, people do sometimes live on boats in the Gowanus Canal. I've been on board some of the boats in the past... I'm not sure its healthy, but it happens!

    Anonymous - You are correct, the story of this lot does go back further then 2006. As I wrote, it goes back to over 125 years ago - 2006 was just the groundbreaking for the Whole Foods Market. Planning and preparation for the market definitely took place before the groundbreaking, as referenced in many of the newspaper articles I linked to.

  7. Nate, I always enjoy your photography.

    Check out this link to a 1924 aerial photo map of the site. The Gowanus canal extended to 4th Avenue back then. You can see how indistrial the area actually was. It will be interesting to see what they find when they start digging. It's scary to think about what has been burried on the site over the years.

  8. I wondered about the origin of the wall with READ on it? I arrived in Brooklyn in july and spent some time walking down 3rd to Carroll Gardens. As my surname is Read you can imagine I have a few photos of this particular one. The first shot I took, the wall was pristine white on black, now somewhat graffiti'd. So, any info gratefully accepted.


  9. Yes the story does go back a bit, at least with Whole Food's involvement. The Groundbreaking was premature. They hadn't secured building permits yet and this is what prevented any building from going forward. The brownfield cleanup was mostly completed in Dec 2005 and the brownfield conditions were not the cause of the project not going forward. The problem was their zoning--the plans just didn't comply with zoning law. Whole Foods set out to build "as-of-right" and had no special zoning permit. The existing manufacturing zoning allows for a 10,000 square foot commercial space on the site and the original plans were for a 78,000 square foot store.
    Whole Foods can't build such a large store as-of-right on the site; they will need to get a special zoning permit or file for a spot rezoning--guess that is why they need a development partner, someone who knows how to work the system.

  10. TC, "READ" or "Read more books" is one of the many phrases painted by this guy. Also responsible for "Open your eyes! No more corporate bullshit" across the street on the roofline of the Bat Cave.

  11. The Coignet house is going to continue to deteriorate. Why can't someone step in, at least to stabilize and protect against the elements and general decay? It's a landmark, yet no one is taking responsibility. The owner says he can't do it without the Whole Foods site dealt with, and Whole Foods claims no responsibility. (http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/brooklyn/2008/07/15/2008-07-15_gowanus_landmark_building_caught_in_repa.html). But if it continues to deteriorate, it will take even more money to restore it later on, assuming that'll even be viable.

    Anyone else?

  12. The tone of your post suggests to me that somehow Whole Foods is bad or villianesque for planning a grocery store on a brownfield. Honestly, I think we should be thanking Whole Foods for paying money and pledging to clean up a toxic site, returning it to a use far more valuable to the community. It's not as though they were going to try to sneak a grocery store onto a bad site. They are doing us a service -- and hoping to make big money off of it. I wish more progressive companies that offer something people can use day-to-day, like a largely organic grocery store, wanted to buy brownfields and clean them up.

  13. Damn nate.. Awesome post. As familiar as I am with the site, you gave me a bunch of new facts to enjoy

  14. A very interesting topic. That shows what politicians do. They are full of promises but all those promises are broken. I wish someday someone will going to do the right thing to do.

  15. The houseboat is now a sunken wreck underwater and can been seen from the Whole Foods parking lot.