By  on July 18, 2007

NEW YORK — A coalition of industry businesses is trying to stall gentrification of the Garment District here, and is launching an initiative today to draw attention to its efforts.

Unhappy because hundreds of small apparel businesses have been priced out of the neighborhood or have not had their leases renewed, the group, Concerned Business Owners, will be collecting signatures for a petition it plans to send to Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding. The group wants him to reconsider loosening the area's zoning laws. The organization's founder, Samantha Cortes, said that would make it easier for non-fashion-related companies to relocate to the Garment District.

Under existing zoning laws, 50 percent of the occupants of Garment District side streets must be manufacturing-related. The district's boundaries stretch from Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue and from 35th Street to 41st Street, according to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District.

City officials have proposed freeing up six square feet of space for every square foot that is earmarked for apparel production, according to an industry source involved with negotiations. Doctoroff's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The fashion industry's occupancy rate of 50 percent in the Garment District is disproportionate to its employment rate of less than 30 percent. 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's employment accounting for 24,594. At its height in 1950, Manhattan's fashion industry employed 369,616 people. As more companies have moved overseas for manufacturing, that figure has dropped.

Volunteers from the coalition, which prefers to go by the name, will be collecting signatures on West 38th Street at Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The group aims to have 3,000 signatures by the end of the day, and also will distribute pins.

Cortes is hopeful that the signed petition will encourage city officials "to sit down with fashion business owners so that they will be heard."

UNITE HERE, the largest apparel union, will be providing about a dozen volunteers today, but the event is largely a business-driven one, said union vice president May Chen. "We know a lot of companies that are on really short leases, or month-to-month ones. Some are being pushed out when their leases end. When some call landlords, they are being told the buildings are not being rented to apparel companies. Or the renewal rent is so high, it is totally out of reach."Manufacturing occupants take up 800,000 square feet of the district's seven million square feet on its side streets, according to an April survey, said Barbara Randall, executive director of the FCBID. She said production remains an important part of the Garment District's ecosystem and needs to be preserved even though "everyone agrees that apparel manufacturing is not going to return to New York and become a big growth industry."

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