After approximately a decade of anticipation, Whole Foods Market has opened its first store in Brooklyn at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street on the Gowanus Canal. It has everything a Brooklynite could want: a rooftop bar with a dozen local microbrews on tap, hydroponic greenhouses, a bicycle repair shop, a knife sharpener, displays made from wood reclaimed from the Sandy-damaged Coney Island Boardwalk. At 56,000 square feet, it seems to want to be more than a supermarket; it seems to want to be a community center.
This store is the product of the more than 350 stores in the U.S. that preceded it. Whole Foods has a system down, which includes a host of green features. This particular project is on track for a LEED Platinum rating. Robust materials selected for low maintenance and longevity fill out the cavernous space: polished concrete floors, exposed structural framing, reclaimed wood, reclaimed brick, high efficacy lighting, permeable pavement in the parking lot. The parking lot has solar carports and wind turbines; one of the most visible installations of renewable energy in the city. While the store could benefit from more daylighting, it is cleverly laid out in such a way that at any point in the store windows are visible.
The crowning glory of the space is the view from the rooftop restaurant, which looks out over the Gowanus Canal and Carroll Gardens to the skyline of lower Manhattan. The Whole Foods corporate system is not completely immune to opportunity.
The 350 prior stores leave their mark on this store as well. As solidly and thoughtfully as it is built, it is hard to really call it architecture. It could be a store in Birmingham, Alabama, or Portland, Maine. It is purposely familiar and takes no spatial or material risks. To call this store urban design is even more difficult. It is essentially a single story suburban box store placed into an urban industrial superfund site context, with greenhouses and a restaurant and bar perched on top. The store location is nominally at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue, but the actual entry to the store is down 3rd Street, in through a gate, up a ramp that essentially takes the shopper to the parking lot, which is the privileged entry. 3rd Avenue is given over to the loading docks. The Gowanus waterfront is made accessible by a waterfront walk, which is the most visible concession to urbanity.
The 3rd and 3rd intersection is occupied by the 1873 Coignet Building, a vaguely Italianate structure with a very interesting history. It was landmarked in 2006 as part of the site purchase. Not incorporating the Coignet Building into the overall store seems like a real failure of imagination. The still dilapidated state of the Coignet Building also indicates a failure to honor a commitment made by Whole Foods to restore it, and is a lightning rod for community discontent with their new neighbor, which has resulted in a fine from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
All told, this is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. It is well used (including by this reporter). In fact, it is hopping! The wide suburban aisles are actually quite welcome on Saturday afternoons. Yet there is still a lingering doubt as to whether the local “character” is a cynical corporate marketing ploy, or a genuine attempt to foster and further a unique, homegrown culture. Let’s hope for the latter.