By  on February 5, 2005

For those who get a chance to tear themselves away from the tents, the Garment District now offers a bit more to see than just trimmings suppliers and sewing machine repair shops.

Several Off-Broadway theater companies have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.

“One of the reasons it’s happening is the rents here are pretty competitive compared to the rest of Manhattan,” said Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “It also has to do with the real estate. The spaces lend themselves to art uses. There’s a lot of big, wide-open floor space.”

The neighborhood’s industrial feel appealed to the owners of the Zipper Theater, which opened in 2001 in a former zipper factory at 336 West 37 Street.

“Instead of demolishing everything, we maintained the integrity and built the theater around the factory setting,” said Andrew McTiernan, an owner of the theater.

The main theater features 249 old car seats that take the place of traditional theater chairs. At the back of the building, where the shipping department had been, the tables that were used for sorting and packing orders now accommodate patrons of the facility’s beer and wine bar.

A year after the Zipper began, a smaller theater opened next door under the same ownership, called the Belt Theater.

Throughout fashion week, the Zipper will be showing “Under the Bridge,” a musical by Kathie Lee Gifford. The Belt will be showing “This or That! America’s Favorite Burlesque Gameshow.”

The Barrow Group also was looking to take advantage of an industrial space when it moved into 312 West 36th Street in 2002. The site, said Porter Pickard, assistant to the theater’s managing director, had been an old Con Ed transformer building.

“Because of the electrical equipment that had been there, there were some big, huge columnless spaces that lent themselves to a 99-seat theater, which is what we have,” Pickard said.

During fashion week, Barrow Group also will feature an exhibition by abstract painter Kevin Bain.

The Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, a separate company at the same address, will be staging the play “Texas Homos” through fashion week.Later this year, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a dance company, is due to relocate into a new space on the western fringes of the Garment District, at 450 West 37 Street.

In addition to the theaters, the district is attracting a growing number of artists’ studios, Randall said. By and large, the artists are moving into industrial loft spaces that once held apparel manufacturers.

The John Davis Gallery, at 330 West 38th Street, will be showing sculpture by John Cross this week.

“It’s an overall shift in the tenancy,” Randall said. “With less fashion here, there’s more [space for] other uses.”

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