National News

From a Convention Center’s Roof, ‘Walk-Off Vegetables’

Posted June 24, 2018 3:26 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Alan Steel dreams of “walk-off vegetables” the way the beleaguered subspecies known as New York Mets fans dreams of walk-off homers. At this moment in another season of disappointment, Steel’s dream seems more likely, although patience is required, just as it is required with the Mets. The first crop won’t be planted until 2021.

Steel is planning a farm in the sky, on the roof of the extension being built at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the Far West Side of Manhattan, where he is not only the principal proselytizer for urban agriculture, but also the president and chief executive.

“It gives us a story,” he said, and not just a story that could lead to bookings downstairs, because these days, as he quickly pointed out, “a lot of conventions are about sustainability.”

The story of rooftop farms is one that says something meaningful can be done with the last batch of unused real estate in an increasingly crowded city. Something useful.

That could have important consequences for the cityscape, but seeing “farm” and “city” in the same sentence derailed thoughts of how local locally grown produce could be — in other words, how short the trip from farm-to-table could be, how much fresher the produce would be when it reached the kitchen, how much less energy would be consumed than when fruits and vegetables are trucked long distances and what other benefits there might be. What came to mind was, admittedly, totally silly: “Green Acres,” the 1960s sitcom that opened with Eddie Albert singing about “land spreadin’ out so far and wide.”

By Manhattan standards, the new farm will do just that. It will run along West 40th Street, at the northern end of the convention center complex, between 11th Avenue and 12th Avenue.

But green acres, plural, it will not be. At 43,000 square feet, the Javits Center farm will not quite cover a single acre, only nine-tenths of one — 0.9871441689623508, with all the decimal places possible in an online conversion program. It will be a tiny fraction of the size of the average farm in the United States, which in 2017 was 444 acres.

It will have something rural farms do not: stunning views that might have pleased the character played by Albert’s co-star, Eva Gabor. “I just adore a penthouse view,” she sang. “Dah-ling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue.” The rooftop farm will not be far from Park Avenue, with its prewar buildings, all brick and old-fashioned masonry. What she would see closest to the farm, however, are the tall, shiny and mostly linear towers that have remade the industrial barrens of the Far West Side.

The rooftop will be the largest farm in Manhattan, but that is not saying much — Manhattan has not been farm country for generations. And, as far as rankings go, the rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard will still be larger at 65,000 square feet. The one at the Javits Center will be about the same size as a rooftop farm in Long Island City, Queens (the borough that had the city’s last family-run farm, in Fresh Meadows, until it was sold to a real-estate developer in 2004).

But the Javits Center farm will have the city’s only rooftop orchard, with apples, pears, peaches and maybe cherries, some grown in a 3,200-square-foot greenhouse. And then there will be the vegetables — cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, carrots, arugula and mesclun greens.

The farmers will not wear suits and ties, and they will not have to worry about exploding tractors, as Albert did on “Green Acres.” “Mostly, we’re all people who ditched office jobs, so we hung up the suits and ties,” said Gwen Schantz, chief operating officer of Brooklyn Grange, the ambitious company that will do the harvesting — this will not be a you-pick-it operation, though Brooklyn Grange hopes for teachable moments when school groups visit. “It’s easy as New Yorkers not to think about where our food was before it appeared on the supermarket shelf,” Schantz said.

The crop will be bound for a close-by destination — extremely close by. Specifically, downstairs at the Javits Center. And that will drive the growing plans. Steel said the chef would forecast the menu and Brooklyn Grange would grow to order. “Any produce that we grow would be used locally, in the building, or nearby,” he said. Anastasia Cole Plakias, a founding partner and the vice president of Brooklyn Grange, said that was an ideal scenario. “It epitomizes the efficiencies in urban agriculture,” she said. Brooklyn Grange, which already grows over 50,000 pounds of produce a year on roofs around the city, has been selling produce to restaurants consumed within five miles of the other rooftop farms. The food from the Javits Center — which already harvests honey from beehives on the roof of its original section — could be consumed within 200 feet of where it was grown.

Steel said that when it came to planning the Javits Center expansion, a $1.2 billion item in the Cuomo administration’s $100 billion statewide infrastructure plan, he wanted the roof to be “something more productive, instead of just a place where people could stroll.”

“It’s relatively easy, if you’re building a new building, to build it strong enough to hold the weight.”

And so the Javits Center extension is being built to hold at least 1 million pounds of soil, in a bed 18 inches deep — deeper than those at the Navy Yard or the Queens building. The soil, specially mixed for rooftop farming, will retain more water than ordinary soil. There will also be a water recycling system that will recirculate the runoff.

“It will go into a ginormous cistern” in the basement before being pumped back up, Schantz said.

Steel, who has run the Javits Center since 2014, has learned about rooftop agriculture off the job. He said his weekend house has a flat roof.

“He has his own rooftop vegetables,” Schantz said, “so he’s a bit of a sucker.”