By and  on October 16, 2006

Gary Barnett is out to change New York's Diamond District, but it's not clear the Diamond District wants to change.

The former diamond dealer and now chief executive officer of Extell Development, a national real estate firm, has gained attention in recent years by challenging Forest City Ratner's plans for an arena and mixed-use development in the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.

Now Barnett is at the center of a debate at the 47th Street Diamond District, where almost half the diamonds sold in the world are said to be traded. Barnett has bought several buildings on the south side of 47th Street and the north side of 46th Street and is demolishing them to build the New York Diamond Tower, a skyscraper with 725,000 square feet devoted to an upscale, modern, global diamond exchange. Details about the project were not available, and Barnett declined to comment.

With Barnett's proposal tower, the Diamond District is at a possible crossroads. Although New York is considered the jewelry capital of the world, the district has been dominated primarily by the more than two thousand mom-and-pop businesses crammed onto the one-block stretch of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The street announces itself with pairs of stanchions capped by diamond-shaped lights at either end. Its tradition-bound ways, honed for generations, are often cloaked in secrecy and resistant to change. Most transactions are written on paper receipts, and many of the buildings are dilapidated.

The district, which attracts consumers looking for bargains as well as gem traders, has had a poor public image for years. Peddlers offer to buy and sell gold on the street, and there is a proliferation of knockoffs of designer jewelry like David Yurman's and Judith Ripka's. In May, federal marshals confiscated more than 100 allegedly counterfeit Judith Ripka jewelry pieces from four companies during a raid.

In fact, some jewelers set up shop away from 47th Street, on West 46th or 48th Streets, to disassociate their companies from the block. The district is also criticized for its lack of innovation and archaic communications.

Still, 47th Street remains the historic home for many third- and fourth-generation businesses.

"The family-owned businesses are the backbone of the street," said Doreen Greenidge, executive director of the 47th Street Business Improvement District. "The blessing of the street is the generations of labor and the tradition. It's the people on the street that are important, not the bricks and mortar."

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