NEW YORK — "One of the great things about my job is sometimes I get to play in the dirt. I like to play in the dirt, because I know that afterwards, something great is going to be built."

Those were Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields’ words Thursday at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where a gaggle of industry notables and New York officials donned hard hats and picked up shovels to mark the groundbreaking of the school’s first major construction project since 1975.

"We are very short of space, and what this will allow us to do is to satisfy some of that need," said FIT president Joyce Brown, who noted that according to State University of New York standards, FIT needs an additional 258,000 square feet of classroom and facility space for its 11,000 students.

FIT is constructing two new buildings on the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and West 27th and 28th Streets. The $19 million project will add 300,000 square feet of new space.

One of the buildings, the East Courtyard Conference Center, is to include a great hall, rooftop garden and industry training center. The other, the West Courtyard Food Pavilion, will include a 550-seat cafeteria and a bookstore. The new dining hall will free up space on the fifth and sixth floors of the David Dubinsky Student Center, which will be renovated into classrooms and laboratories.

The buildings will occupy open space between the Fred P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center and the Dubinsky center. About 400,000 square feet of existing space will be renovated. The work is to be completed by December 2003.

A second phase of the university’s expansion plan calls for the addition of a six-story building on West 28th Street.

Leslie Fay Co. chairman John Pomerantz, who also serves as chairman of FIT’s Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries, showed up sporting a professorial cardigan and blazer. He said he was pleased to see the university, of which his father, Fred, was an early benefactor, expanding.

"There’s a lot of great things this school does for New York," he said.

State Sen. Tom Duane, a Democrat who represents Manhattan neighborhoods around FIT, said the school plays a key role in developing one of New York’s major industries.Duane said: "I hope we are able not only to maintain the garment industry here in New York City, but also to expand it because it is one of the wonderful pieces of New York."

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