The crux of the argument is whether the zoning changes will force out industrial tenants, who already feel squeezed by rents. The debate is a continuation of one from 2009, when the Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration considered removing the regulations, an effort that was eventually thwarted by a grass-roots movement.
On one hand, the government argues that the zoning regulations have had no effect on talent retainment in the garment district. That side points to data provided by the Census Bureau, which says the number of jobs in the district has been on decline for decades. Most recent data show a drop from 13,607 in 2000 to 5,123 in 2015.
“From the 1950s, we have had a steady decrease in apparel jobs in New York,” said Barbara A. Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance. “When the special overlay was put into place in 1987, it did not even put a blip into job retention.”
But union leaders, designers, manufacturers and business owners say the drop has partly been caused by a lack of government oversight, which has led to more than five million square feet of noncompliant office uses in the district.
“One of the reasons the job decline is continuing its slide is that the zoning is not properly enforced,” said Samanta Cortes, the founder of Save the Garment Center, a grass-roots organization that published a public letter last weekend proposing a plan to develop the garment center with the addition of a commercial arcade, a designer co-working space, a center for skills development and more.
Also contributing to the migration of business out of the garment center and to the other boroughs, and to New Jersey, have been rising rents and short leases.
“My landlord will not give me a lease, so I’m basically month to month,” said George Kalajian, the president of Tom’s Sons International Pleating, which has worked with designers like Dennis Basso, Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad. “My future is dwindling in another man’s hands.”
Since 2010, office space in the area that includes the garment district has gone from an average of $36.10 a square foot to $57.34, according to Colliers International, a real estate company in New York. Within Midtown South, which Colliers considers to cover everything between Canal and 40th Streets, the area has the lowest average asking rates. There is still plenty of room for prices to rise.
The proposal from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Planning Commission is a response to these rising costs. Within the next three years, the government plans to offer five- to 10-year leases on 700,000 square feet of space in Sunset Park at $16 to $25 a square foot. The development agency estimates that there is an additional 2.4 million square feet of space available from private firms in the area.
“The city is committing millions to build great space where garment manufacturers can enjoy the kinds of affordable, long-term leases they’ve said they need and can’t get,” said Stephanie Baez, a spokeswoman for the development corporation. “This is about safeguarding a job-intensive sector for future generations by taking action today.”
Those invested in maintaining the Manhattan location praise the accessibility and wealth of options that the garment center offers. Many also have a special regard and nostalgia for the garment center as a place that was a thriving hub for New York’s fashion industry at a time when hundreds of thousands of people worked in the city’s apparel manufacturing industry. This emotional investment was apparent during the symposium, when some of the participants spoke over each other or snapped in anger, and audience members shouted passionately from their seats.
“If Bette Midler rips the train of her dress because the understudy chorus boy steps on it, the wardrobe supervisor can head to the garment center, buy the fabric, get it back to the theater, get that train recut and stitched before the show even begins,” said Steven Epstein, a costume designer.
They are concerned that trying to move the cluster to another place nearly an hour away by subway and stripping the garment center of special zoning regulations will destroy an ecosystem that has been built up over decades.
“The reason we have a cluster is because we have protection,” said Yeohlee Teng, a designer who has been fighting to keep the zoning laws in place since at least 2009.
Joe Ferrara, the president of the New York Garment Center Supplier Association called the move “a deportation to Brooklyn.” He and other opponents of the plan say that it will force out workers for whom the commute is not viable. In response, the development agency points to census data showing that more than half of the city’s garment manufacturing workers live in Brooklyn and Queens.
Lilly Lampe and her husband, the founders of Blluemade, a clothing company, recently moved their operation to New York from Atlanta. “Everything was easier,” she said. “Getting tags, buttons, zippers. Our manufacturing has gotten cheaper. The entry barrier isn’t high. People are open and ready for the work.”
Ms. Lampe said that before moving, she and her husband tried to create a network of support similar to the one in New York in Atlanta but found it impossible. “It’s easier to sustain something than to create it from scratch,” she said.
For now, the plan is stalled, but the development corporation is hoping to begin the seven-month approval process for the plan in May.
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