By  on October 25, 2010

There’s no question the Garment Center zoning is headed for change, but how quickly that will happen and to what degree still remains a matter of debate.

Suggestions and complaints about the neighborhood have been bantered about for years, and Friday morning, a five-person panel publicly aired ideas, as part of The Municipal Art Society of New York’s Summit for New York City. Marketing a Made in Manhattan label and municipal-backed incentives are not imminent, but a more far-flung factor — China’s escalating production costs — could soon accelerate a return to domestic manufacturing, according to one participant, Theory’s Andrew Rosen.

“I manufacture clothes in China and in New York. Labor prices are going through the roof in China. Soon, the costs will be as expensive as they are here, when you add all the duties and freight,” he said. “The other issue is retailers want to be able to buy less and reorder more. They want to be able to chase bestsellers quickly.”

Rosen talked shop with Yeohlee Teng, New York City’s Economic Development Corp.’s vice president Madelyn Wils, the Garment Center Supplier Association’s Joe Ferrara and the Design Trust for Public Space’s Jerome Chou at the Penn Pavilion. There are roughly 40 manufacturers housed within each block of the Garment Center, said Chou, who was instrumental in executing the Made in Midtown survey completed by his group earlier this year. In addition, 3,500 manufacturing and supplier companies are based between 23rd and 59th Streets, which enables designers to oversee their production. Such accessibility, as well as the abundance of sample making in the city, has helped to make New York “hands-down the fashion start-up capital of the world,” he said.

But the way things stand, only 40 percent of the city’s fashion designers use the garment center, said Wils. Of the 9 million square feet currently zoned for apparel manufacturing, only 1 to 1.6 million square feet (depending on the panelist) is being used for that purpose. In addition, apparel manufacturing has been declining by about 8 percent annually, Wils noted.

“Unfortunately, it is an industry that has dispersed,” Wils said. “The Garment Center is an important part of New York, but the fashion industry is an even more important part of New York in terms of jobs.”

There are about 175,000 fashion-related jobs in the city today.

“The answer is not only zoning, but figuring out ways the industry will grow and excel,” Wils said.

Getting more companies to manufacture some of their goods in the Garment Center — not all of them — is essential, said Rosen, who produces “a large percentage” of each of his five companies locally. To be more competitive with overseas factories, local ones need to offer all-in-one facilities with production and front-end administration. “I think it’s doable. If we build it, they will come. We have all the creativity here,” Rosen said.

It typically takes 10 years to learn a trade, and the city’s artisan workforce has companies that, on average, have been here for 27 years, Ferrara said.

Loosening up the zoning to allow for synergistic creative companies to move in could be advantageous, but panelists warned it must be done cautiously so as not to jeopardize the Garment Center. The takeaway could be beneficial to many beyond the city limits.

“New York could be a case study for other aging industrial cities,” Teng said.

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