An armful of brown Whole Foods bags can seem to some a token of green living, and to others an upscale sign of conspicuous consumption. But since construction of a massive, environmentally conscious store in Gowanus, Whole Foods seems to be aspiring toward their core value of practicing environmental stewardship. At our tour of the new store, I gave a close look to see if reality matched corporate goals.
The building has an impressive solar array, which provides about 20% of site electricity use. The uniquely sloped panels also capture rainwater for onsite irrigation—a nice touch. I’m told NYC unions gained great experience installing these renewable features, as well. Forty percent of the overall site—including the building footprint—is permeable. It may have helped that of over 400 stores, this is the only one for which Whole Foods owns the land as well as the building.
I was particularly intrigued to see my first CO2 refrigeration system in person. Since it runs on much higher pressure than most maintenance workers are commonly familiar with, special training was needed for system mechanics. There is also a half-acre rooftop greenhouse, operated by Gotham Greens, which claims to produce the equivalent of 10 soil-based acres of greens and herbs. The microfarm focuses on leafy greens and herbs—high-value items that often travel the farthest to get to NYC, but spoil quickly. Very smart.
So is everything just peachy in the Whole Foods fruit aisle? I did notice a few oddities here and there. While some wood paneling inside the store is made from reclaimed planks from the Coney Island boardwalk, some of the wall paneling is actually made from simulated reclaimed Coney Island boardwalk wood. Hmmm. The site also includes wind turbines that are eye-catching but produce very little electricity. These choices seem to have been made with an eye towards image rather than substance.
Overall, the building’s flaws were small compared to the realities of what’s been built. In my opinion, though, the biggest success was the rooftop beer garden, with a generous happy hour, wide draft selection, and a great view of industrial Gowanus. While hoisting a pint with the green building experts who joined the tour, I felt recommitted to carbon savings (and got a great preview of our upcoming event on biophilia). That’s a core value I can always support!