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The Future Is Uncertain: Garment District Woes Stir Debate Over Zoning

Could it be bye-bye, Fashion Avenue?

The hub of the garment center today features a bronze statue of an old man hunched over a sewing machine and an oversized button at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street.

The hub of the garment center today features a bronze statue of an old man hunched over a sewing machine and an oversized button at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street.

Kyle Ericksen

NEW YORK — Could it be bye-bye, Fashion Avenue?

As designers scurry to present their spring collections around town over the next week, they face the prospect that all the sample makers, short-run manufacturers, button stores, fabric shops and even their own pattern makers could disappear from their doorsteps within the next few years. With the continued decline of New York’s fashion manufacturing employment, there is a raging debate among interested parties over the future of the Garment District.

And if some have their way, designers could be heading out to Long Island City or Maspeth, Queens; the South Bronx, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get their samples made, rather than Seventh Avenue.

For the past year, representatives of the New York City Department of City Planning have been meeting with the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, the union UNITE HERE, fashion firms, community boards and elected officials to discuss the future of the district, which encompasses West 35th Street to West 40th Street between Sixth and Ninth Avenues. Under existing zoning laws, 50 percent of the occupants of Garment District side streets must be manufacturing related; office and showroom uses are permitted in buildings along the avenues.

Depending upon whom you ask, the talks are “stalled,” “ongoing” or “on hiatus,” and the goals of each of the constituencies at times are at cross-purposes.

But, in the eyes of the area’s landlords, the zoning restrictions are the roadblock.

“The city doesn’t recognize the reality of what’s happened in the Garment District — that the amount of manufacturing has decreased compared to what it was and the zoning is antiquated and should be lifted,” said Steven Kaufman, president of the Kaufman Organization, which owns the properties at 132 and 242 West 36th Street. “Commercial buildings in the district should be the same as commercial buildings in other districts. We want to be able to rent to offices. If you have an old manufacturing tenant that was paying rent in the range of $15 a square foot, you can more than double that when they leave.”

If landlords have visions of high rents dancing in their heads, they may be premature. “The foot traffic on Seventh Avenue and Broadway is excellent,” said Joanne Podell, a retail broker at Cushman & Wakefield. “Because of the flow from Times Square, it’s got a solid opportunity. But it’s commuters. It’s a transient customer, so you’re not going to see the rents moving up as in other markets. At the moment, it isn’t destination-driven retail.”

As for office rents, Stephen Stephanou, a retail broker at Madison HGCD, said: “I’ve heard people talking about how the incredible demand for office space has changed the area. The market has been so tight and so expensive.”

Robert K. Futterman, founder of the company that bears his name, pointed to the renovation of Pennsylvania Station and its move to the Farley Post Office, redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Hotel by Vornado and, farther in the future, the residential development of the Penn Railyards as catalysts for potential gentrification of the Garment District.

“The Garment District plays a vital role in the economy of New York City, and the city is working to keep the Garment Center as a fashion district,” said Patrick M. Murphy, head of the fashion/retail desk at the NYC Economic Development Corp. “Although domestic manufacturing has declined in recent years, it is necessary to protect vital apparel production in the Garment District.”

There are 800,000 to 1.1 million square feet of manufacturing space in the Garment District, a fraction of the overall 10 million square feet of space. Yet the debate over its future is growing louder. Members of Savethegarmentcenter.com, a band of industry businesses trying to stall the neighborhood’s gentrification, were protesting outside the Bryant Park tents during the BCBG Max Azria show on Wednesday, and will be out in force handing out buttons throughout fashion week, a representative said.

Barbara Randall, executive director of the FCBID, said that after a year of meeting regularly with various city agencies, “nothing is happening right now. My understanding is the union has gone to the city with some sort of counterproposal.” That said, “it’s not in our interest to get into a big fight with the union. We just want to try to retain manufacturing,” she said, adding that preserving 500,000 square feet would be acceptable.

A source in city government said that talk of preserving 800,000 square feet of manufacturing space is problematic because “we don’t believe there will be 800,000 square feet of manufacturing in a few years. The industry in the last five years has lost half of its production jobs. There’s been a very radical acceleration of loss of jobs, mostly due to China and, to some extent, due to the change in quotas and tariffs and the domestic industry. It’s not just a New York issue, it’s a national issue. The domestic industry is in free fall and there’s no indication that’s going to change.”

For the first quarter of last year, the most recent figures available, the Garment District’s total employment was 93,445, with the fashion industry comprising 24,594. The number of apparel manufacturing jobs in all of Manhattan has dropped from 29,000 in 2000 to 15,000 last year, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Savethegarmentcenter.com estimates 9,000 production jobs are in the district today. It’s also a big moneymaker for the city — New York Fashion Week’s two annual installments drum up an estimated $177 million for the city.

“The city recognizes that New York is the center of the design and wholesaling and marketing of fashion,” said the city source. “But that 800,000 square feet [zoned for manufacturing] is not filled with people making clothes. Some of them are sample makers. The principal use in the Garment District is fashion-related businesses. The concern we have is that there’s this whole thing about how we have to preserve manufacturing, but it’s a secondary part of the industry.

“We don’t really have a deadline,” the source continued. “We know we have a problem, we have an issue. We’re not going to do something that doesn’t work. Our issue is we want to try to retain as much as we can of the production. There’s going to be a need for some production and we want to maintain the fashion industry, which is here.”

After meeting with city officials a few months ago, UNITE HERE officials expect to sit down again with them in the next week or so. Representatives from the zoning and planning commissions, as well as the city’s economic development corporation, are expected to attend.

UNITE HERE’s objective is to retain a certain amount of square footage earmarked for the apparel industry and to establish a municipal or nonprofit organization that protects space for the Garment District, said May Chen, the union’s vice president.

“We’re not into attacking the city. This is a complicated process,” she said. “Private landlords are involved and they don’t want to be disadvantaged.”

Chen said the city initially proposed preserving 200,000 to 300,000 square feet for manufacturing, but union officials rejected the idea. “Such a big reduction would result in quite a lot of displacement,” Chen said. “We felt that would accelerate the total demise of the district.”

Other than a private meeting with city officials, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has been noticeably absent from discussions with the union and other agencies. To try to be more proactive, the CFDA has formed a steering committee “to be in the loop,” said Yeohlee Teng, one of the designers involved with that effort. “Nothing stays still, as it is. Change is inevitable. We need people to recognize that fashion is the identity of the city. If you want to be at a certain level of design, you need the infrastructure.”

Many CFDA members rely on local sample makers and other ancillary resources.

The city has been looking into maintaining some manufacturing in the Garment District and moving some to other parts of the city where it already exists. And not all designers are against the idea of moving out of the center of Manhattan.

Dennis Basso, who three months ago relocated his factory from West 30th Street to Long Island City — and tripled the space to 30,000 square feet — wasn’t mourning his move from the Garment District. “A lot of factories are moving to Long Island City or over the bridge to New Jersey. As people’s leases come up, they will have to reevaluate this situation and the rents that are being proposed,” he said. “What’s leaving are the businesses on the side streets — shipping and additional offices. Those could be anywhere.”

There are others who say a shift is inevitable. Bud Konheim, president and chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said he recently renewed his Seventh Avenue 10-year lease, at $55 a square foot, two and a half years ahead of time and he still faced a 30 percent increase. “We may have to shift production, because we cannot pass the additional costs on to the customers, because the customers do not care about our square-foot cost,” Konheim said.

The manufacturing companies aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected by overseas production and all the other factors that have contributed to the industry’s downsizing. Businesses that traditionally traded with manufacturers such as stores selling fabrics, buttons and zippers, have disappeared.

FCBID’s Randall took another perspective: “Everyone always talks about the demise of production. If it’s so important to have manufacturing here, and I agree it is, designers have to do more production here.”