Thu, Apr 12, 2012
By Scott Eidler
In Brooklyn, the time is ripe for urban farming. Especially on rooftops.
Last month, Whole Foods Market gained approval to build a store in Gowanus, and when it opens next year, it will be home to the supermarket chain’s first rooftop farm. On April 5, BrightFarms, a company in Brooklyn that builds greenhouses, unveiled plans to build the world’s largest rooftop farm in Sunset Park.
“This partnership and zoning initiative set an example for the nation on how to embrace rooftop urban agriculture,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in a statement.
The rooftop greenhouse is an extension of the urban farming movement, spurred in the last few years by the development of community gardens, and a renewed interest in locally grown food. Brooklyn leads the city in development of community gardens according to the parks department, with 224 compared to 150 in Manhattan, 118 in the Bronx and only 35 in Queens. In many ways, Brooklyn has become an incubator for the industry.
Developers, such as Salmar Properties, the group behind the upcoming Sunset Park rooftop farm, have sought out Brooklyn, and for the most part have steered clear of Manhattan. The reason: the high-rise office buildings in the borough have smaller and lower rooftops than Manhattan. High altitudes make farming less suitable, say experts.
“Brooklyn has a building infrastructure that really allows people to put rooftop farms in place,” says Jonathan Russell-Anelli, a professor of agriculture at Cornell University. “Manhattan doesn’t generally have that type of building. Brooklyn happens to be an ideal location.”
The new Sunset Park rooftop will be built on top of Federal Building #2, which is being renovated and will be renamed Liberty View Industrial Plaza when it reopens next spring. The farm will span 100,000 square feet and produce 1 million pounds of local produce — such as tomatoes, lettuce and herbs — each year, says the company.
Ian Siegel, who oversees the building’s development for Salmar Properties, says the process presents an entirely new challenge for developers. “Normally, a roof on a building is not utilized for anything,” he said. So, the company has some new responsibilities, like making sure the proper roof membrane is in place.
In an agreement with the city, Salmar Properties promised that 85 percent of the building would be used for light industrial manufacturing, and 15 percent would be reserved for retail. The goal, says the company, is to add 1,300 jobs and comply with the mayor’s initiative to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in the city. BrightFarms projects that the greenhouse alone will add 25 positions.
Whole Foods says it has not yet selected a company to build its rooftop. But is not surprising that the company decided to open a store in Brooklyn, given the chain’s reputation for selling local produce. “It’s not necessarily about where we’re opening up our stores,” says Mike Sinatra, a spokesman for the company. “What makes most sense for this store is that this is a community that looks for local produce. It’s part of the Brooklyn food scene.”
The upcoming rooftop farms will feed into that scene. BrightFarms estimates that the farm will meet the vegetable consumption needs of about 5,000 New Yorkers and stop about 1.8 gallons of storm water from entering the city’s waterways. The new rooftop farm will surpass other large rooftops in the area, most prominently a 40,000 square foot one built by Brooklyn Grange in Queens.
But not to bested, Brooklyn Grange recently had an announcement of its own: to install a 45,000 square foot farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard this spring. But there is a key difference between the two companies: At Brooklyn Grange, there is no greenhouse, the farm is uncovered. The Sunset Park farm produced by BrightFarms will be enclosed.
Gwen Schantz, the chief operating officer for Brooklyn Grange, says the market is large enough for competing rooftop companies.
“It’s a really great thing for New York City that there’s so much demand for local food in New York,” said Schantz. “The competition doesn’t really concern us at this point, we think the more people growing food in New York City, the better.”